July 6, 2014


Edited by Herbert van Thal
240 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

Nineteen sixty-six; now there’s a year. 

Swinging London… mini-skirts… Twiggy… Pet Sounds… the Beatles and Stones in excelsis… LSD is made illegal… America boosts its presence in North Vietnam to 250,000 personnel… the Space Race heats up… Star Trek beams itself into American homes for the first time… Bob Dylan breaks his neck… Charles Whitman breaks records as America’s first mass shooter… and England lift the World Cup at Wembley.

And of course, the Pan Book of Horror Stories continued its gruesome journey, with editor Herbert van Thal at the helm once more for its seventh volume.

Your Yucky Cover: The original 1966 edition sported a bloated, hairy bat with a face like Nick Nolte’s mugshot. But the copy I have is an early 1970s reprint, and its cover is a beauty: a silhouette of one of the walking dead, black against a blood-red sky. 

There’s no gore here - in fact, not much detail at all - but it is the stuff of nightmares. There’s something about the ragged clothing, the shadowplay of the wrist bones, the weird tilt of the fleshless jaw; a suggestion of shambling, inexorable strides… perhaps taken in the direction of your house, while you sleep. I wouldn’t have liked looking at this before lights out, as a boy. The Yucky Covers have now entered their imperial phase.

In the past couple of Pans I’d noticed a dip in general quality. The series isn’t renowned for subtlety, but far too many of the tales concerned the murder of women, sometimes within a domestic scenario. You could argue that the same is true of real life – most murders happen within the home, committed by someone the victim knows. Prowlers, serial killers and multi-purpose weirdos get the headlines, but the majority of homicides have a depressingly prosaic setting. The problem the Pans had in translating this to the page is that a growing proportion of the stories were simple cheap n’ nasties, designed to shock and disgust. 

“Well, Pat, it is The Pan Book of Horror Stories,” you say. “You want The Pan Book of Dainty Shudders? Review that instead.”

Fair enough, but these stories became samey, rather than sinister – some crime scenes were revisited a little too often for my liking.

So I’m pleased to report that number Seven is a return to form, with a little bit more to its game than Grand Guignol shocks. Anyone with a penchant for women being stabbed to death may rest assured – there is some of that in this volume, but the narratives are made to work harder for their gruel.

Charles J Benfleet kicks us off with “The Man Who Hated Flies”. It’s a spiritual inquiry, following a narrator who converses with a colleague who believes in reincarnation. This belief is put to the test in a brutally ironic fashion.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes is a very familiar name to readers of British anthologies. He’s probably been around for most of your reading life, editing horror anthologies for children as well as adults. Dear Ronald left the building in 2001, and his effort, “The Thing”, must count as one of his earliest tales. There is some of his trademark humour, but it’s more subtle than much of his later output. It follows a barfly who encounters a strange apparition which appears to be attaching itself to other pub-goers. Only he can see it, and he wonders if it’s the DTs. It isn’t quite clear what this creature wants, but its effect is plain to see.

GM Glaiskin’s “The Return” looked at what appears to be a little girl, playing out in the sunshine and ruminating on her bucolic life with her father and sisters. The pay-off here was a little bit Loony-In-The-Attic, but again, it’s not a hysterical piece of work, and I enjoyed it the better for that.

David Grant’s “The Bats” looked at a weird kid with weird pets. It’s pretty obvious where this one is going, but it’s a giggle to imagine teenagers reading this story by torchlight, cackling at the murderous conclusion. Was that teenager you, Julian? Jessica sent you her love on the flyleaf of this book, with three kisses, dated 1973. Is there any greater love than being sent the Pans for your Christmas or birthday?

Dulcie Gray, a Pan stalwart, bags a brace of stories, next. “The Fur Brooch” sees a girl in the first glorious bloom of womanhood agreeing to meet up with a young man whose marriage suit she has turned down.  The young man gives her a brooch in the shape of some odd, furry, toothed creature. It turns out that the brooch has other skills aside from looking cute on evening attire; chief among them, getting a lot bigger and chasing people down pitch-dark roads.

The girl in the story is doomed - it’s never in doubt. This idea of a young and beautiful woman being punished in fiction for choosing who she wants to be with is nothing new. From Penelope onwards, women are constantly depicted as something to covet, to seize and to possess. It’s the centrepoint of so much romantic literature; Shakespeare’s line about faint hearts and fair hands resounds through the centuries. When this desire to possess, to win, is thwarted, violent passions can be triggered, even in meek men. In this story, we have a young woman destroyed for being true to herself. It could be The Virgin Spring, except for one troubling aspect: Gray does not intend the girl to engage our sympathies.

You might disregard “The Fur Brooch” as a monster-of-the-week tale, not really worthy of close analysis. But it has applications for our own times. It’s worth pointing out that although most of us have felt the alienation and hurt of rejection in love at some point, hardly any of us carry out horrific acts as a result. But the themes in “The Fur Brooch” endure. We may not commit murder after being rejected, but some people do.

What I’m trying to say is, there’s sometimes a sense of glee about destroying women in some of the tales. It’s part of the experience of horror, and horror story anthologies. But I just don’t like it. As a theme, I find it repellent.

Gray returns with “The Dream House”, a story about a grasping wife and a mild-mannered husband, intermingled with some first-rate DIY and home renovation skills. Again, the story is uxoricidal, and perhaps, just perhaps, you are meant to applaud the villain’s handiwork as a job well done.

The meat is much more to my liking in Harry Harrison’s “The Streets of Ashkelton”. A classic of horror as well as sci-fi, this sees a human trader on an alien planet living in harmony with its intelligent, but naïve half-monkey, half-amphibian inhabitants. One day he is joined on Wesker’s World by another human - a man with a dog collar. When the Christian missionary begins to introduce scripture into the lives of the literal-minded Weskers, trouble ensues. Trader Garth sees it coming just a bit too late.

The pay-off to this story is undeniably horrific. When I first read it at the age of 13 in the Dark Voices* compilation, Ashkelton’s rigid anti-theism struck a very deep chord. However, its message blurs when you consider Trader Garth. This man is exploiting Wesker’s World, no matter how much he provides the godless Weskers with logical guidance, empirical evidence and scholarship. Proselytising clerics and religious dogma are easy to criticise, but the narrative is soft on the forces of capitalism, industrialisation and technical intervention. Trader Garth isn’t a nice person. His initial welcome to Father Mark is delivered with the back of his hand. I wonder if Harrison intended us to see the irony inherent in secular Garth’s exploitative role on Wesker’s World, or if it bypassed him completely? After all, this story was written before the Kennedy assassination, a time when people had strong memories of the Second World War and a firm concept of America’s status as the Leader of the Free World.  

Another big name, next: Ripley creator Patricia Highsmith, with “The Snail Watcher”. Entranced by the oddly sensuous mating ritual of the creatures in the title, the story’s main character goes about filling his house with the blighters, until he finds himself in a very slippery situation.

This one was gruesome, but there’s an interesting footnote: Highsmith was keen on snails, herself. You’d have thought the story was written by a molluscophobic, but apparently not.

So, we’ve had a couple of big hitters. But for me, this next tale is in the all-time bracket: WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”. It’s a masterpiece of dread and suspense, and if you’ve stuck with our review this far then it’s likely you have read it. Just in case you haven’t, I shall not spoil it; but I do envy you. This story proves beyond doubt that the menace we can’t see is the scariest.

John D Keefauver, another familiar name from the early Pans, brings us two stories next. The first, “The Last Experiment”, harkens back to the golden age of morally dubious psychological tests; the era of the Milgram or Stanford experiments. In this story, a soldier is locked in a dark, silent room, to allow psychologists to examine how he gets on with near-total sensory deprivation. Not too well, as it turns out.

Keefauver’s second tale, “Mareta”, features another horrid wife and another gory finish, although this one attains pass marks for a lovely piece of misdirection when the narrator stumbles upon “bottles in the cupboard”.

“I’ll Never Leave You – Ever” doesn’t sound too good. It’s all down to the Sinister Dash. “This could be a serious issue – very serious indeed.” It puts me in mind of the Patronising Comma, usually inserted before and after your name. “You know, Pat, we need to have a talk about the length of these reviews. Because I can assure you, Pat, that people will be asleep by now.”

Rene Morris’ story about a highland lassie who is in love with another man while her husband wastes away with a terminal illness would seem to turn the “let’s get rid of annoying wifie” paradigm on its head, but the girl is soundly punished for love. She consults a witch, who offers the girl a voodoo route out of her predicament. As ever, things don’t quite work out as planned.

Pan serial appearer William Sansom next, with the most unfortunate title in the book: “A Smell of Fear”. Maybe some specifics might have worked better? “A Smell of Cabbage”; or “A Smell of Ralgex”… But fear?

All joking aside, it addresses some of the series’ more troublesome themes. We follow a neurotic single girl – is there any other type of single girl in fiction from this time? – as she appears to be stalked around London by a curious man with a limp, a black leather bag and mauve-stained hands, “like a birthmark all over”. The girl is “an arty type”, and while she’s quite good-looking, she is sneered at by her work colleagues and tweed-wearing neighbours. She is not allowed to be herself, but more annoyingly, she doesn’t allow herself to be herself, either. She’s paranoid about the men who surround her, a feeling crystallised in the form of her curious stalker. He may as well have been masked. I was reminded of the Phantom of the Opera, or William Friedkin’s kinky-ass video for Laura Brannigan’s “Self Control”. Does this man represent the uglier outer edge of male sexuality, the mindless desire to possess at all costs?

It all seems to be heading in one obvious direction, but this beautifully-written story’s final shock – its ultimate tragedy, really – was totally unexpected, as grim as it is ironic. Out of Sansom’s output for the Pans so far, this is his best.

I’d like to think there was a snickering sense of humour behind the title of Sansom’s second story, “The Little Room”. The sort of place where one might smell fear? 

It details the last hours of a nun, walled up in a room and left to suffocate. There’s a suggestion of some scientific design behind this atrocity; this is no medieval horror, but one in which the nun can watch her oxygen slowly eaten up on a manometer set into the wall. This one was more of a curiosity, a tad over-written without the plot dynamics seen in “A Smell of Fear” to sustain the interest. But there is horror, as it slowly dawns on our meek protagonist that she is not long for this life – although her heart still beats, blood pumps through her veins and her mind is clear.

Perhaps the blackest aspect of this story for some readers may be its godlessness. As in “The Streets of Ashkelton”, one might expect a god, or thoughts of a god, to intrude upon the narrative’s grim conclusion. But none arrives.

Rosemary Timperley’s “Street of the Blind Donkey” examined a woman escaping from peril, rather than in peril. Having left her controlling husband behind, she’s taking a holiday in Bruges, a place where she enjoyed happy times as a girl. But it seems that her husband’s stout shadow falls over many things – not only the uncertain future, but, more horrifyingly, the untrammelled past.

Martin Waddell brings us back into familiar Pan territory with “Cannibals”, a sardonic look at a pathetic cuckold’s route to the status in the title, via the society bride he has impregnated, her toothsome lover and some blustering blue-blooded in-laws.      

Waddell returns with “The Old Adam” next. It’s a sci-fi story, with lots of sci-fi irritants; awkward code names and acronyms (223367/Qlt/MZ-2 before they decide to give someone or something a name… in this case, Adam) and tooth-grindingly awkward terms for future tech (“he turned on his vocordiemordimer and vapbanged his wumqwaz”… I made those up, but you get the idea). It looks at the sad life of a synthetic human, grown in a bottle in a Soviet research lab. It’s not clear what Adam’s purpose is, but he suffers from the same plague of loneliness as the rest of us. Hope rises in the form of a strange creature with hundreds of mandibles in the jar next to Adam. It looks like it wants to hug him; if only they could be together…

 “The Island of Regrets” by Elizabeth Walter caught me at the wrong time, I guess. It was too long, took too many tangents and took too much time to get going. It tells the story of an engaged couple who visit the island in the title off Brittany. It’s got a bad reputation, though. Lots of stories of ill luck, early death and madness abound, and the villagers, hoteliers and café owners are palsied with dread when the couple suggest they want to visit. The man is superstitious, but the woman is spirited, and bullies him into going to the island. Apparently setting foot on the island grants you your first wish – but you always come to regret it.

This one devolved into the story of panic, anxiety and delusion, as the girl falls sick, and the man grows frantic in his attempts to put matters right, believing himself to be responsible. The supernatural may be responsible for the events that transpire, but maybe not. Were we to step outside the horror genre, this would be a fascinating, well-written story about an odd place, unusual people and unhappy coincidences befalling a mis-matched couple. But it just exhausted me. I was in a rush to finish it before lights-out, eyes closing over mid-flow more than once. A shame, as it’s one of the few stories written by a woman (unless it’s a pseudonym; the Pans are crawling with these). As such, it’s interesting to have a woman depict an unsatisfactory relationship and disillusioned lovers, but… I regretted reading it. It was dull. I needed a bit more punch.

Careful what you wish for, as they say. Alex White brings proceedings to a close with “Never Talk To Strangers”. It puts us squarely in the zone the rest of the book had tried hard to avoid. We’ve got a naïve young girl in London, with a ripper on the loose. She arrives in Paddington, hoping to meet her friend, but the friend doesn’t arrive. Soon, unsavoury people take notice of the girl on her own, and they approach… If only there was a gentleman around, someone to pay for dinner and provide her with shelter?

Like “The Island of Regrets”, this one couldn’t have been more obviously signposted. The impact comes in the final few pars, when an atrocity is described. The best thing about this – and many of the other “London murderer” Pan stories – is the image of the old London it conjures up. This is a London of guest houses, dripping taps, grubby linen, dilapidated houses and bombsites, a world away from the chrome and glass city-state it has become, gentrified and burdened with colossal house prices, with the less salubrious places and the poorer people clinging to the outskirts.

As for the murder and horror… I was a bit tired, and fed up with it. I’ve read a few horror books in the past few months, maybe too many. I think I’ll take a wee break.

But when I come back… it’ll be Pan Eight. And Pan fans will know what that means.
Head. In. Hat. Box. 

*The Best of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, printed to coincide with the title’s 30th anniversary in 1990. In the context of the original series it’s worthy, but inaccurate. The editors chose to play it safe, whereas the books gloried in doing the opposite.

No comments:

Post a Comment