June 4, 2012


Edited by Herbert Van Thal
271 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

The sun’s splitting the sky, the neighbours are getting drunk in their gardens and a sense of wellbeing has descended over the land along with the lazy heat. What better way to celebrate the arrival of summer than with a book of horror stories in the clammy darkness? 

Yes, it’s volume four of the Pan Book of HorrorStories.

Your Yucky Cover: They’ve gone for sinister and muted this time around… It’s a photo of a somewhat panicked looking children’s dolly in a dress. Why’s the dolly looking so stressed? It could be something to do with the gigantic spider crawling over her, the tip of one of its hairy legs poised right in front of her face!

And we’re into 1963 now. The year President Kennedy had an appointment with a magic bullet or two in Dallas. A sci-fi show called Doctor Who was first broadcast on British television screens. Elsewhere, Sylvia Plath baked her last cake, South Carolina saw its first black student enrol at university, the Beatles and Bob Dylan released important records and the Moors Murderers began making children disappear. Christine Keeler became a household name for f*cking with the stars, while Valentina Tereshkova shot to fame by reaching for them. At the movies you had Cleopatra comin’ atcha, as well as The Great Escape making its first appearance, the ghost of Bank Holiday movies yet to be. Hitchcock released The Birds, Jason and the Argonauts fought Ray Harryhausen’s astonishing stop-motion skeletons and Robert Wise gave people the willies with The Haunting. That’s quite a busy wee postbag, all told.

This Pan sees some more contemporaneous themes beginning to creep in, with less of a reliance on star turns and reprints from anthologies dating as far back as the 1930s. There’s a strong American presence, too, with work from anthology stalwarts and all-round short story heroes Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury. With a much more eclectic feel, as well as a couple of real crackers – I’d go as far to say outright classics – this volume is the strongest in the series so far by a good distance.

Starting with something of a misfire gives us a false sense of security. First off is William Sansom’s “Various Temptations”, strange and all off-kilter in its prose rhythms. We follow a creepy guy with a compulsion to murderalise young girls. He’s just about to climb through a shy lass’s window and get his freak on when, it seems, cupid’s arrow strikes the pair of them. One jarring cut later, they are engaged to be married. It seems the girl’s plainness has been what saved her – so probably the last thing she needed to do is have a make-over...

Next up, MS Waddell’s “The Pale Boy”. This is one of those stories where hapless folks get in way over their heads, realising long after anyone else that they are in a great deal of trouble. We follow a clucky housewife whose husband doesn’t want to go in for all that children business. So when she meets Paul, the pale boy in the title, with his strange, tragic history, she’s just desperate to take him off the orphanage’s hands. Sheesh.

A real zinger now, Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary”. A big influence on Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, this follows a poor lad laid low by a nasty illness, who relies on his faithful old dog as contact with the outside world. He sends the dog out with an invitation in its collar, in the hope that someone, anyone, will follow the dog back to the house for him to meet. To the boy’s delight, visitors begin to appear. One young woman in particular is a bit of an angel to him…Then she dies. And then, the dog disappears. What can that silly old woofer be up to?

This one encapsulates what’s wonderful about Ray Bradbury. He paints a believable picture of people we can feel sorry for and care about, and situations that clutch at our heart – sick child; lost dog. And then it floors us with an unnerving, horrific finale. Uncle Ray is surely the greatest short story writer of the 20th century.

Robert Bloch might have something to say about that. “Lucy Come To Stay” is a typical psycho-drama from the American shock n’ schlock master. Psycho had been and gone at the movies by the time this volume appeared, so the punch of this story by the creator of Norman Bates may have been somewhat diminished. It’s still a terrifying tale, with bloody business on its mind, as a supposedly hysterical woman consigned to an asylum prepares for a visit by her pushy friend, Lucy.

Richard Davis puts us back on British soil with “Guy Fawkes Night”, a look at the consequences of bad parenting, and what wicked fathers can look forward to once their less than cherished sons put their minds to foul deeds. This one was all about class and restraint, with family animosity bubbling away in the background before igniting in an awesome atrocity.

Vivian Meik’s “The Two Old Women” places bad juju and voodoo into an English guest-house, with a great “vault of horror” reveal at the end as a heroic new tenant investigates the two ladies in the title. The author even has time to squeak in a love story, too, although the ending was far too neat and tidy for one of the Pan entries. 

“Moonlight Sonata” by Alexander Woollcott is a two-page knockout. It’s a country house; a bloke is staying in a creepy room. During the night, he sees what he takes to be a phantom seamstress in the gloom. Who is this figure, and what are they really doing in the dark? What I loved about this one was the fact that all the elements of the story are in place right from the start, with a plausible denouement, all built around one single night-terror image that’s creepy enough even before its secret is revealed. A job very well done – that’s how you master a short story, folks.

The same is true for Septimus Dale’s “The Little Girl Eater”. One of the best-remembered stories in the series, this places a man in a very sticky predicament indeed, trapped underneath a rickety old pier at the seaside as the tide slowly comes in. But help is at hand – in the shape of a fanciful little girl, sent off to play on the beach while her mother and her mother’s lover get it on back in the car. This one had a nasty surprise in the end - bleak as a wet Wednesday at Helensburgh, and well deserving of its notoriety.

Rosemary Timperley’s “Harry” comes next, and here the book really starts to spoil us. This is another “weird orphan” story, as a stepmother tries to get to the bottom of the imaginary friend of the little girl she’s looking after – the “Harry” of the title. The key to what it all means lies with the youngster’s biological family, and is realised in a chilling finale.

Best title in the book next – “Sardonicus”, by Ray Russell. This is the tart of the fourth volume, a glorious gothic melodrama which sees a famous Harley Street surgeon invited into a spooky castle by an old female friend of his. The real reason for the invite is to help cure her husband, the Sardonicus in the title, who suffers from a hideous though actually quite amusing affliction whereby he can’t close his lips over his teeth – mimicking the effects of lockjaw. Sardonicus lives up to his name, with a creepy backstory which he is candid enough to reveal to the doctor, before he sets a proposition: if he can fix up Sardonicus’s face, then he can have a night with his wife. When the doctor – bluff and Victorian as you like – refuses, Sardonicus threatens to defile her instead unless he plays ball. This one had a few kinks in the wiring, as the idea of rogering Sardonicus’ wife takes on ever more meaty substance in the title character’s mangled mouth and mind. The tale has a strangely psychoanalytical bent for a story written to mimic Victorian pulp potboilers and gothic novels. It’s way over the top, with a strong whiff of cheese, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Just when you thought this book couldn’t sustain the pace, ol’ Sardie is followed by Robert Aickman’s “Ringing the Changes”, a real masterpiece of British macabre fiction. Here, a young woman and her much older husband head to the seaside for their honeymoon, an out-of-the-way place which doesn’t seem to have many people out in the streets. Despite this, the town’s church bells seem to be ringing non-stop, a constant clamour as the couple get set up for their first night. 

The landlord and landlady of their guesthouse seem to be a pair of chaotic drunks, and the only other resident is a Colonel Mustard-type retired military man. The old soldier has himself a good perve of the young bride, with his whiskers spinning, before imploring the couple to get out of town - while they still can.

They don’t listen, of course, instead choosing to stay in their room while the bells clang on and on. Until, all of a sudden, they stop, and something very strange happens. Things get more and more weird, but hey – they’re locked in their room. Nothing could get in, could it?

Again, this was rather a psychological affair once the grisly central premise is negotiated - we might wonder how long this marriage will last, should the couple survive their trip to the seaside.

Hugh Reid’s “Dulcie” is the collection’s second story concerning a London-based prostitute killer. This time, the villain’s angle is that he operates during the Blitz, with the capital completely blacked out at night. What better cover could a mass murderer hope for than a blanket of darkness, death and destruction? Spooky idea – and one that might in fact be linked to the exploits of a real-life killer who operated at this time, the Blackout Ripper.

Anyway, “Dulcie” sees an awful modus operandi exposed as a creepy little guy with a fancy bag picks on ladies of the night. This one was very bloody, probably the goriest yet seen in the Pans. It’s an example of a “modern horror”, the type of motiveless killings that George Orwell wrote about in “The Decline of the English Murder”, and a type that would soon become a staple of the Pans – focusing on delusion, nihilism and sadism, plucked of the gaudy plumage of the great gothic horror stories, and minus the chill of Edwardian gaslight creepers which might have kept Bertie Wooster awake of an evening.

MS Waddell’s second story follows, “The Importance of Remaining Ernest”. This unsettling tale sees a chancer in the “Cuckoo’s Nest” scenario of getting himself put away in an asylum as a means of avoiding jail time. He does his best to keep his head down among the lunatics, but a couple of sadistic warders and a corrupt system have some other ideas.

Pulp thrills now with Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Slime”. I was delighted to see this one, as I’d read it once before nearly 25 years ago in an anthology called Monsters Monsters Monsters, and never quite forgotten it. This is effectively a B-movie in short story form, and if it didn’t directly influence the classic creature feature The Blob – or vice versa - then, er, I’m sure any similarities were completely coincidental. 

The slime is a folding black mantle of ooze which is happy to engulf everything it can on the sea bed until an underwater explosion hurls it into a swamp, adjoining a small American seaside town. From there the slime glistens along a well-worn B-movie path, scoffing some animals before moving onto the town drunk, then a surly redneck with a shotgun, then a couple more folk before the sheriff takes an interest. It’s not hard to see why this one actually made it into a children’s book as well as the Pans, but it’s worth a look.

Another American story now, with “The Ohio Love Sculpture” by Adobe James. This one would have found a fine home in Playboy or similar, as a couple of erotica collectors in happenin’ Beatnik New York vie to take possession of the sculpture in the title – three young girls locked in a scandalous embrace – which has been created by a farmer out in the sticks. The bumpkin is none too pleased with all these fancy city folk poking around his barn. For reasons which later become obvious.

Davis Grubb’s “The Horsehair Trunk” was another highly serviceable shocker, one you might never have heard of but which is all the more pleasurable for that. Here, a mardy newspaper editor discovers a strange ability to send his spirit out of his body while he’s on the edge of sleep. Not unlike Sam in Ghost, our man learns to manipulate objects with his unincorporated hands - a good trick if you’re planning to stab your long-suffering wife as she prepares to run away with another man.

All aboard “The Attic Express”, by Alex Hamilton. This one might have been penned by Roald Dahl, as a bullying father attempts to suck all the joy out of the hobby of model rail for his son by taking it all too seriously. But then, without even attempting to justify the occurrence or explain it in any way, the father finds himself shrunk, and placed inside one of the toy train carriages, while his son gleefully mucks around with the carefully-scheduled toy train timetable by racing the engines as fast as possible.

I’ve made the story sound much more exciting than it is, because to be honest it outstays its welcome and you’re mainly just waiting for the inevitable conclusion. There are some uncanny chills when the father describes the model people he encounters on his adventure, much more haphazardly-painted and grotesque in close-up than you might suppose from a distance. This was my least-favourite story, though.

Elliott O’Donnell’s “The Haunted Telephone” is a jaunty number featuring a country doctor apparently called to administer a death certificate at another house. The lady of the house rouses some suspicion, though, and it seems foul deeds are afoot.

Last, then, is the oddity – the only true story in the history of the Pan Horrors, Sir Frederick Treves’s “The Elephant Man”. The story of John Merrick is well-known to us thanks to David Lynch’s film of the same name, but it’s well worth reading. I had a vivid flashback reading this to when I watched John Hurt’s moving performance as a young lad – reliving my fury over Merrick’s mistreatment, my pity for his predicament and the gladdening of my heart over the kindness shown by Treves and Victorian high society. Herbert van Thal felt it necessary to explain why this tale was included in a brief foreword, and I’ll sign off with his fine words:

“That it does contain horror – overwhelming horror – is the justification for its inclusion. But ‘The Elephant Man’ is also a story of hope and happiness after degradation, above all an inspiration in its portrayal of the inherent sympathy of decent men for fellow being in distress.”

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