August 14, 2013


Edited by Herbert van Thal
222 pages, Pan

Review by Pat Black

Heh. You know how I usually preface these Pan reviews with references to events that took place the year the volume was first published? With it being the early-to-mid 1960s and all, I usually reference the Beatles.

Well this time, one of the Beatles is actually in the book.

One of the dead Beatles.

So it’s 1965, the decade is in full swing, Bob Dylan’s gone electric, blah de blah, and here we are with the sixth edition of Herbert van Thal’s pocket-sized nasties.

Your Yucky Cover: It’s a grinning rat, astride a clean white skull lying in the grass. This is one of the less gruesome ones, discounting the rodent’s horrid segmented tail. Someone has coloured in the rat’s front teeth in my copy with a Biro… Could it be the same phantom who penned two names on the inside cover, before trying to score them out later? This book once belonged to “David Footman + Janet Stevens”, apparently… Were they lovers? Friends? School reading group partners? Hey, wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, my humblest thanks. I sincerely hope you didn’t put a curse on it.

A curious feature of the early Pans is how many stories reference the Nazis. Obviously the war had only finished 20 years before this book came out, and, well, the Holocaust is the most evil thing in history, so it stands to reason.

The idea that so many death camp guards were still out there, many of them still under 50, informs Romain Gary’s opening tale, “The Oldest Story Ever Told”.  This looks at a Holocaust survivor, Shoenenbaum, a tailor who has set up shop thousands of miles away from Europe, in La Paz, Bolivia. And who should he meet there but someone he knows from the ghetto, Gluckman? Gluckman is terrified, still in a state of shock and ignorance owing to his experiences – he doesn’t even realise that the state of Israel exists. But there’s another horror from the past lurking in La Paz, and with it, an examination of abusive relationships the world over.

Good old MS Waddell sticks his head round the door next for “Man Skin”, a perfunctory shocker about a man – or is it a demon? – with a particular need to collect the material in the title. This would have seemed more shocking at the time, though modern horror watchers will well be versed in these themes from the work of Clive Barker, The Silence of the Lambs, the Texas Chain-Saw Massacre and other dark descendants of Ed Gein.

Basil Copper’s “Camera Obscura” is a horror anthology standard. Like Stanley Ellin’s “The Speciality of the House” and Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily”, if you enjoy picking your way through these dusty old horror collections, then you will run across them several times. It looks at Mr Sharsted the moneylender’s remorseless journey through the city to Mr Gingold’s strange, bric-a-brac-laden flat and its fantastic camera obscura, offering a unique perspective on the world outside. Although the ultimate revelation, as Sharsted stumbles through the shadow city, could take place in the world of EC Comics, its tone is pitch-perfect throughout – perfectly English, perfectly malevolent.

There’s something about the conventions of childhood - those little rites and initiations we undergo which prepare us to be obedient little social drones - that lend themselves well to horror. When you’re young, you don’t fit into the grooves as easily, and you’re ready to be awkward, unusual and evil. Ray Bradbury and Stephen King harvested rich crops from these fields.

John Burke’s story, “Party Games”, looks at the awkwardness of being sent to a birthday party, and you don’t really know the other boys and girls. The mother of the house does her best with Simon, who is a bit of a loner and an outcast, knowing full well what children can be like. But nothing can prepare her for the belting shock at the end.

Septimus Dale’s “The Unforgiven” begins with this image: “The maggot flopped lazily from her dry brown lips and lay on her withered cheek.” This is a depressing look at misogyny, which permeates the horror genre. In this instance it’s a rather knowing example, and examines a religious maniac of a preacher whose daughter is becoming a woman before his horrified eyes. The girl is terrified of her father, who takes to calling her a whore, and she is forced into a desperate act which brings her to the state at the top.

You can’t totally dismiss this as schlock because, in the world, today, in many locations, this is a normal state of affairs; women are brought to heel, subjugated, have fears and anxieties projected upon them, and meet violence at the hands of men who are simply terrified of female sexuality. Whether you want to add religion to the equation is moot, as far as I’m concerned – that’s just a means of formalising all of the above, giving it rules for people to adhere to, the better to abdicate responsibility. This makes “The Unforgiven” as important as “The Oldest Story In The World”.

Adobe James is a name I look out for in these early Pans. His stories are very much of their time, but like a badly-dated slasher movie from the early 80s they can still leave a mark on you. His first effort here, “The Puppetmaster”, takes us away from the baggy suits and travelling salesmen of his earlier stories in the Pans, and instead looks at a puppetmaster, Decarlo, whose wooden creations come to life – and aren’t too keen on being controlled, either. Following on from James’ previous shockers, I found this story trite, and the biblical reference at the end was lazy.

Now we come to “No Flies On Frank”, by John Lennon. Not a pen name. Culled from the Beatle’s collection of nonsense jottings, In His Own Write, this is a two-page waste of time. There is some wordplay and punning, but if it wasn’t for the famous name it wouldn’t be in this book. I first came across this (and “Camera Obscura”, for that matter) in a collected edition of The Best of the Pan Book of Horror Stories. To this day, the idea that this story made it into a “Best of” still irritates people on internet message boards, and rightly so. The author should have become a musician or something.

Ron Holmes’ “A Heart For a Heart” is just… yeah. A mad doctor, his lover, his angry wife, blood death, three pages. Filler.

William Sansom, another Pan stalwart, weighs in with “A Real Need”, but it’s another tired first-person examination of an obsessive maniac looking to do someone in, to introduce a bit of red into his dull, monochrome existence. Spoilers: he ends up in a loony bin. There’s no “real need” to read this one.

This anthology is officially off the rails. “Green Thoughts”, by John Collier, gets us back on track with a plants-hate-you story rooted in very English manners. Mr Mannering and his perfidious nephew don’t get on; but that’s not the chief problem. That comes in the shape of a strange orchid which completely absorbs people’s bodies into its fleshy folds – but leaves their consciousness intact. The light tone was a relief after several dull, overly serious psychodramas, though the finale was a brutal surprise. Normally, “There’s something nasty in the basement” has a predictable finish in store with regards to antagonists, but this story snakes its way around a different path.

John D Keefauver’s “Give Me Your Cold Dead Hand” is something straight out of the noir school, with a supernatural twist. Take away the setting and the dialogue – fast-talking 50s/60s rat pack jive, fast cars, twisted dames, cocktails and bullets – and you’ve got a Gothic horror story, but this one had staying power.

“My Little Man” by Abraham Ridley looks again at the female psyche as a harbour for madness, and has a fairly pat ending amid all the psychodrama. Another wayward effort.

Strike a light guvnor, we’re off to old London town next for HA Manhood’s “Crack o Whips”. We follow Squaler Adams, the magnificently-named owner of a troupe of performing poodles, charging around London, intimidating and annoying everyone in sight as he goes about his business like the Dickensian villain he is so obviously meant to be. What I liked about this story is that Squaler’s fate doesn’t follow any kind of plotting formula, predestination or set pattern; it just kind of happens. It’s to the mysterious HA Manhood’s credit that we feel just a tiny bit of sympathy for Squaler when the whip comes down.

Richard Davis’ “The Inmate” is an “animals-hate-you” story that ignores established science, as we look at a strange girl’s odd obsession with a gorilla her husband keeps in a cage in his cellar. Yep, they go there, so to speak.

Walter Windward’s “Return To Devil’s Tongues” looks at time and place being in flux, as a soldier hears the story of an affair, a murder and retribution, then experiences it in a dreamscape. This is one of those odd circumstances where the narrative makes perfect sense, even though it’s desperately out of sync with logic. But wouldn’t he..? Then wouldn’t that..? Ah, never mind.

Septimus Dale rejoins us for “Putz Dies”, another Nazi war criminal story. This one looks at the odd situation of two guards having to look after a man who might have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, with inevitably messy consequences.

Adobe James also takes another crack with “The Road To Mictlantecutli”, with a driver on a Central American mountain route being warned by a mysterious priestly figure to stay away from bad girls. He ignores said warning and picks up a foxy female hitchhiker who is happy for him to fumble around with her in the back seat. This puts us on a more assured Adobe James footing, but the key to the story, which comes from the odd word in the title, was another disappointment, on a road far-too-often travelled.

Vivian Meik’s “The Doll of Death” is a voodoo fetish story which is again more interesting for the scenes of a relationship breaking down which occur, rather than the uncanny revenge carried out – again, far too common a theme in these tales.

MS Waddell’s “Love Me Love Me Love Me” was gentler than his usual work, and all the better for it. It looks at uncanny love between a man and a ghostly girl and its inevitable, not to say chilly, disappointment.

“The Shed” by Richard Stapley closes the book, a rather strange military story related by someone apparently stuck in an asylum – again, yawn…. These are old, old forms, enough with these already – although it does sign off with an unusual, sci-fi themed ending.

So there we go, a mixed bag, certainly the most disappointing of the six Pans so far. I had hoped that an absence of “classics” might give the book a solid, contemporary feel without resorting to Victorian melodrama, but it seems that without the old potboilers, the quality suffers.

It’s not a bad anthology, all the same – “Party Games” and “Green Thoughts” are the standouts. But where shall the Pans odyssey take us next, as the sixties continue, and things get weirder?

Stay tuned… always, stay tuned…

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