February 28, 2013


Edited by Herbert van Thal
264 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

The sixties. Goodness me. If you’re the type of person who enjoyed spinning around in circles as a child just so you could feel dizzy, then take a look at the Wikipedia entry for 1964.

The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Malcolm X quitting the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali becoming heavyweight champion of the world… burnt draft cards over a little conflict brewing in Vietnam, the Great Train Robbery, Daleks on the television, Goldfinger on the cinema screens and Moors Murderers on the streets… the Catholic church condemning the Pill, Nelson Mandela sent to Robben Island, Dr King winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Harold Wilson ending 13 years of Tory rule and the first acknowledgement by the US government that smoking might actually be bad for you.

Everywhere, there are tectonic plates shifting, violent tremors. Civil rights marches, protests, sit-ins, riots, dissent – not just in the US, but all over the world. And that meant robust responses: intimidation, declarations of martial law and equality campaigners turning up dead.

But one of the most affecting 1964 Wiki entries was one of the smaller, more personal ones: the murder in New York of Kitty Genovese. She was stabbed to death in the street, with some reports claiming that as many as 38 people heard her screams, but did nothing about it. That incident’s lasting legacy was a psychological study which coined the phrase, “bystander apathy”.

That’s the type of horror that you can expect from the Pan Book of Horror Stories, which published its fifth volume in 1964.

Your Yucky Cover: We’re three years away from the summer of love, but this one has a bad trip atmosphere. We’ve got a model shot of a pretty girl in a very sixties bob, but she’s got a grinning skull superimposed on one side of her face. Torn across the top of her head is a banner bearing the word “horror”, in case you weren’t sure.

Herbert Van Thal’s fresh batch of menaces begins with William Sansom’s “The Man With The Moon In Him”. This follows a weird, screwed-up young man as he journeys on the Tube in London. His thoughts and feelings are alarming, and we can surmise that he is an individual who wants to do a woman – any woman - some serious harm. I fully expected this portent to be realised in blood, but there’s a strange anti-climax in store. It’s a brave tale to open the collection with.

 “I’ll Love You – Always” is Adobe James’ follow-up to the memorable “Ohio Love Sculpture” in the previous volume. This one is a little more sordid, following a rich man-about-town as he moves into a shunned old plantation house in the US, whose previous owners have fled owing to the presence of a ghost. This apparition has earthly pleasures on its mind, being the spirit of the plantation owner’s wife, who seems to have been similarly free with her affections in life before murder intervened. The narrator takes full advantage of the ghost’s offers, long before he realises that she’s not of flesh and blood. I was about to say “This never happened in Ghostbusters”, but then there’s that dodgy scene with Dan Aykroyd’s unbuckling belt which I didn’t quite get when I was a kid… 

Anyway, this had a “twist” ending which is an anachronism now, and the story seems more of a taxi driver’s dirty joke than a horror story.

CA Cooper’s “Command Performance” strikes a familiar beat, being a reincarnation story which puts the narrator at the very heart of a ghastly double murder carried out in the 18th century. Pan stalwart MS Waddell’s “The Treat” comes next, which had a glorious set-up, following an unremarkable little man who hides a grim secret. The ending was a bit of a washout, although re-examining that 1964 Wiki entry might help to give the story more of a context; this was the year of the last death penalty ever carried out in Britain.

Seabury Quinn’s Gallic Holmes-a-like Jules de Grandin reappears now, in “Clair de Lune”. Here, Quinn and his amanuensis Trowbridge solve a strange case where an Elizabeth Bathory style actress seeks to suck the vitality from a star-struck young girl’s soul. This was an entertaining enough romp, but the plot was a giveaway and I wanted to knock Trowbridge’s head against something hard, bricky and wallish. The editor’s introduction to the story – as well as his lamentation over the demise of the original Weird Tales – is the most noteworthy thing about it.

Christianna Brand serves up “The Sins of the Fathers” next, a resounding tale looking at the strange practise of sin-eating in olden day Wales – where a shaman-type figure would be paid to eat a feast off the chest of a dead man, with the food serving as a substitute for the dead man’s earthly sins, allowing him to enter paradise unblemished. Not a bad deal if you happen to be poor and starving to death…

Christine Campbell Thomson’s “Message for Margie” looked at the world of spiritual fraudsters, with a girl joining the ranks of believers who hang on the words of a medium who cynically reads and exploits their weaknesses. It seems that the newcomer may have a genuine gift – but to what ends? I was happier with this one when the supernatural was left out of it, examining the chintzy evil of charlatans and cranks and the girl’s disingenuous unravelling of the fraudster.

 “The Other Passenger” by John Keir Cross is the odd man out of the volume, a weird, disjointed ramble as an artist is haunted by a doppelganger who he assumes he must kill. It’s never clear if this is a phantom of the mind or a true apparition – HORROR CLICHÉ ALERT - and there are various family background stories which instil a sense of doubt in us about our narrator. A worthy addition, all the same, thanks to its strange, freewheeling execution and style.

Basil Copper next, with “The Spider”. I’ve got a wee soft spot for eight-legged beasties, the wonderful things that they make, and the ingenious way they go about snaring their prey. That said, if one of them should land on my face at night, I would carry out a swift and deadly reassessment. The travelling salesman in this story is less sanguine about spiders. In fact, he is terrified of them, which is a shame, because one night, just as he’s settling down to sleep in a country inn…

 “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White is a bit of a classic. It follows the story of a jungle adventurer who chances upon another white explorer in darkest Africa, apparently delirious and suffering from a strange set of boils. It soon becomes apparent that these carbuncles aren’t your typical skin complaint. A spot of E45 isn’t going to do the trick, here.

Another oddball follows with Alex Hamilton’s “The Words of the Dumb”. It takes us a while to bed into the story of an actor who is practising his own particular skill for a radio script – the calls and responses of the animal world. The guy’s married but, again, it seems that there’s something wrong with the guy. He’s a little unhinged – not dangerously so – and has problems communicating with humans. I wouldn’t really class this as a horror story. Indeed, putting it in this volume plants a certain expectation in the mind, which robs it of its curious power.  I’d have been more intrigued had I read it in a general anthology, but it’s fascinating taken on its own account.

Adobe James bags a brace, his second entry of the collection being “The Revenge”. I thought I had a handle on James’ stuff – slightly smutty, a sort of Ian Flemingian male-centric view of sexuality, spiced with a fear of female desire (see the earlier story, whose central threat comes from a randy female ghost). This story takes elements of the above, but it’s a far nastier, more exploitative proposition. And I hesitate to say it – but it’s all the more effective for it.

Our young narrator starts by detailing a girl he falls for. But she in turn falls for his best friend; he’s the loser in the suit. One can pretend to be as gentlemanly as one likes in this scenario, but let’s face it – that’s going to hurt. So already we have a sense of emasculation.

The friend and the girl get married and head off to the seaside for their honeymoon. But something dreadful happens just after they get there – while the husband goes for a swim, his bride is raped by a stranger. Surmising that the culprit can’t have gotten far, after finding out that there were no cars nearby and the resort is off-season, the husband decides to go looking for the man rather than calling the police. The narrator drives out to help them.

There is an outrageous piece of luck for the avengers when the traumatised girl spots the man who attacked her in a car in the lane opposite them at a set of traffic lights. They accost the man, beat him to a pulp, and then… Well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where this is going.

What was properly nasty about this story is the follow-up shock, which, again, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have seen coming. It doesn’t lessen its impact. I want to criticise this story on feminist grounds, but the truth is that it carries out the mission statement of a horror story to the letter. There is something feral going on in this tale, an instinctive, savage undercurrent. It has the atmosphere of a 1970s grindhouse movie; the grainy, hair-flecked stock, the muted reds, the jarring cuts. It’s the younger, scuzzier, transatlantic cousin of Roald Dahl’s tales of the unexpected. And that makes it ahead of its time.

Similar themes are at work in John D Keefauver’s “Kali”, in which a fish out of water Briton encounters a strange girl in India as he views goats being sacrificed to the god referenced in the title. The fact that the girl shares her name with Kali – the Hindu goddess of both motherhood and destruction – should be a tip-off for how this one is going to go. But again, there’s a strange coda to this story, a little bit of subtlety in the knifeplay. The narrator also makes a ringing statement which has uncomfortable echoes for any reader and writer of horror stories: “Terrible things give me happiness.”

Prior to this is a classic from the vaults – EF Benson’s “The Confession of Charles Linkworth”. Another possible coincidence owing to the fact that 1964 marked the final state execution (under the mandate of a judge and jury, anyway) carried out in Britain, this is a more straightforward ghost story in which a spectre with a rope around its neck has something it wants to tell a prison doctor – if only it could raise its voice above a whisper. This has not been as widely anthologised as “The Room in the Tower”, which makes Benson’s inclusion a welcome surprise. Herbert van Thal takes the unusual step of registering his admiration for Benson’s tales of terror in a small foreword.

Gerald Kersh’s “Men Without Bones” takes us into sci-fi territory – a contemporaneous reflection of the space race, or the popularity of B-movies and creature features? At any rate, this is a jungle exploration saga with a twist as a deranged man passes on the story of a frightening encounter in the rainforest with the creatures in the title. It’s got a belting Twilight Zone-style last line, too.

So too does another sci-fi story, William F Nolan’s “The Small World of Lewis Stillman”. This follows an I Am Legend style scenario, with the last man in Los Angeles trying to survive on his own following an alien cull of humanity. Living in storm channels by day and scavenging the ruined city for tinned food and books by night, he has to look lively – strange, small creatures live above ground, and although Lewis has a few guns at his disposal, there’d be far too many of them to take down if he was surrounded.

Rene Morris’ “The Living Shadow” was next, and it was a fairly pat “murder-revenge from beyond the grave” story. No harm in the execution; its violence is quite graphic, which must have been shocking in its time. But we’ve seen these kind of EC Comics come-uppances so many times before.

CA Cooper’s second story, “Bonfire”, looks at the ravings of a bitter, deluded school headmaster who decides to take out his frustrations in life on a younger, more talented teacher who is clearly going to clamber over the top of him on the career ladder. Is the delusion on offer in this story actually what goes through the minds of petty, vindictive people, storing up their grievances and spewing them out onto people on a strictly ad hoc basis? It’s not far away, I suspect.

Beware the bitter ones.

MS Waddell’s second story of the collection, “Hand in Hand”, rounds it off. This is little more than a 2,000-word pun which once more has hints of the gory pleasures the Pan Horrors would soon serve up for bloodthirsty wee buggers like me taking them out in school libraries the length and breadth of the land. 

When and where will the review of the sixth volume strike? Who knows – perhaps the reader will be YOU.

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