Edited by Herbert van Thal
252 pages, Pan Books
Review by Pat Black
Argh… 1968… White Album… uh… George Best, Wembley, Man United… eh, Vietnam… (clicks fingers), umm, Dr King and Bobby Kennedy, of course!
This is hard without Google and Wikipedia. Christ, what did we do before we had those? We take access to facts for granted these days. We’re now nearly 20 years since AOL and that primary wave of mass internet connectivity. Remember? The first appallingly high phone bill as a result of using your 56k dial-up... Your knuckle-gnawing horror when someone told you what “cookies” were…
Children born at the same time as Yahoo and Google are leaving school and going onto a life of professional indenture and never-ending debt with university, or at least thinking about it. That’s a whole generation used to being able to find out exactly what they want, whenever they want to. It’s…
(Get on with it!)
Your yucky cover: “From the sublime to the ridiculous”. That’s the sort of cliché we might have used in the pre-internet era, to mask a lack of knowledge. It fits the shift in front cover aesthetics between Pan Eight and Pan Nine perfectly.
Pan Eight – ginger bloke’s head in a hat box. Grim, but amusing, looks like my friend, no blood. Disturbing, yet sardonic. Best cover in the series.
Pan Nine, however, features a mugshot of what looks like a doddering mummy after he’s had a “re-wrap” with some fresh white dressings after a spa hotel held a “monsters only” morning. He might have asked for, and got, a Swedish massage and some blackheads squeezed while they were at it – and going by his glazed expression, possibly a couple of digestifs beforehand, sipped while he waited for the girl, clad in his dressing gown, listening to Pan Pipes Mellow Moods. He’s lit from below in lurid green, but it is the glow of a mobile disco’s spot-rigging, not the ghastly witch-light of an uncanny tomb.
He’s not remotely threatening; even loveable, in his way. He could easily be illustrating a children’s anthology. Furthermore, he could probably appear at a children’s Hallowe’en party without ringing too many alarm bells. In fact that’s probably where this photo was taken – right after he’s been blasted with the bubble machine. While they’re playing Monster Mash, and the kids are running all around him, shrieking with laughter, doing the actions, having the time of their lives.
This mummy is in the moment. He is mindful. For the first time in 3,000 years, he is happy.
He does not hint at the nastiness to come in Pan Nine, from 1968.
I’d read that the Pans dropped off in quality as they crept closer to the seventies – ironically, when you could write whatever you wanted. And so uncle Bertie commissioned stories that were heavy on bloodshed but not so good on atmosphere. Apparently there is some dreadful schlock to come, among the Stephen King stories everyone’s already read in Night Shift.
That’s the theory, but this isn’t borne out by Pan Nine. For the first time, all of its stories are originals. They seem fresher. And because of that, it might be the best of the lot so far.
Okay. Twenty-three stories, I’d best keep it brief.
“Man-Hunt” by Raymond Williams has a man on the run arriving at a remote farmhouse, where his fate is inevitable. He’s managed to choose for a hideout the house of some relatives of the person he killed. Wes Craven explored similar avenues with Last House on the Left several years later, but that movie’s reversal didn’t seem as much of an unbelievable coincidence as the one we’re supposed to believe here.
I remember Raymond Williams from before; ditto Dulcie Gray, who follows up with “The Fly”. This one doesn’t have much to do with a fly, but it does feature a Pan staple – a husband and wife who hate each other. One attempts a murder, the tables get turned, and none of it’s a huge surprise - although the story’s final “splat” is memorable.
Dorothy K Haynes’ fine work looks at superstition and folklore turning murderous in the Scotland of two or three hundred years ago. “Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch…” might be the best of her Pan stories. It deals with supposed second sight, superstitious villagers, and finger-lickin’ good barbecue, all carried out for the sake of jealousy and romantic rivalry. This was not only a perfectly horrible story, but also perfectly believable.
Lindsay Stewart’s “Strictly For The Birds” was disgusting, featuring a chap who likes to feed some feathered friends in a public park with some strange green goo.
Come to think of it… the dude in this story… is it the chap on the front cover? If so, that puts a different complexion on our cover star.
Pan stalwart Martin Waddell must be due a testimonial by now, and he weighs in with “Bloodthirsty”, a typical tongue-in-cheek body-swap vampire story which just about gets by on good nature. Hey, I’ve had some chocolate, I’m feeling generous.
Adobe James penned some wonderful stories for Bertie, and “An Apparition At Noon” is a beauty. It dabbles with alien invasion, but still has time to be seedy, as a man finds out some stuff he’d probably rather not have known about his beloved wife, thanks to some other-worldly trickery.
Rene Morris’ “The Baby Machine” could be seen in the context of 2017 as a prescient look at automation, and the clear suspicion we should have for our machine masters, especially if we do something as silly as allowing them to look after our children.
“The Best Teacher” by Colin Graham sees a man describing his own murder on tape – although don’t suppose that should spare you any details. A tight, tidy little shocker.
Walter Winward’s “Stick With Me Kid, And You’ll Wear Diamonds” was very British and brimming with hate, as a sad little man in a sad little job makes a predictable end to his sad little wife. It isn’t quite as trite in the execution as I’m making it sound.
Dulcie Gray’s “The Happy Return” looks at a woman who is impregnated and dumped, and the ghastly revenge she takes on her ex, the child she bore him… the planet, the wider universe, and any sense of decency whatsoever. It was another lithe, lethal tale.
“Father Forgive Me” by Raymond Harvey was quite, quite dreadful. And that’s why he got the gig.
It sees a decent, conscientious parish priest first of all propositioned by the town imbecile, a malevolent man who seems to know a bit or two about the form when it comes to indecent parish priests. That obstacle being removed, the priest is then seduced by a lively young girl. This fresh obstacle being not so much removed as obliterated, the parish priest finds himself back where he started, with a proposition to consider.
This story was awful. I loved it.
John Burke’s “A Comedy of Terrors” is not what it says it is. We are shown a man who works in horror films who is genuinely deranged – bumping off actresses for fun, in imitation of the lurid kill scenes he dreams up for his cheap n’ nasty features. The tables get turned, of course.
Tim Stout’s “The Boy Who Neglected His Grass Snake” appears to signpost where it’s headed from its very title, but slithers into darker territory before the end. Unsettling.
“Jolly Uncle” is nothing of the sort. In fact he’s a total prick who wants to get his hands on some inherited cash – with the obstacle of his nephew in the way of it. After he’s devised the means by which to scare the poor laddie to death, enter a supernatural element. Lindsay Stewart’s story is a four-pager, but packs in an awful lot of sheer meanness.
WH Carr’s “Mrs Anstey’s Scarecrow” was a study in lifelong jealousy stemming from childhood, and that one guy who breaks through from brooding resentment and hatred to actually doing something about it. It turns into a creepshow, as the killer appears to be haunted by a scarecrow which might be the body of the dead man come to exact revenge. There’s a fudge before the end, but the creep factor was very high.
“Not Enough Poison” by Alex Hamilton reminds me of that “everything is fine” meme with the dog sitting at a table while the world burns around his ears. Substitute the dog for a lazy colonial lady in Africa, and swap the fire for ants.
Martin Waddell’s “Old Feet” was completely vile, surreal, but also enjoyable, blending tea leaves with decomposing feet to bring about a very familiar taste – green tea.
Peter Richey’ “Don’t Avoid The Rush Hour” sees a young man trapped in the Tube overnight after he’s gotten out of his depth with drink. And he’s not alone. Can he survive? This is an old-fashioned chiller, with a couple of twists and turns before the service terminates.
Eddy C Bertin’s “The Whispering Horror” was downright creepy, looking at childhood horror as two boys playing in the woods break into an old ruin and find something which wasn’t meant to be disturbed.
Raymond Williams returns with “Smile Please”, an eyeful of an almost-over-the-hill stripper tempted by a huge amount of money to give a private show in a remote old house. It’s never a good idea, is it? This one evoked the grimy atmosphere of a seedy old “cabaret” club very well, and even manages great sympathy for its luckless subject and the tired old stagers who work at the club with her, as she sees an opportunity to escape the never-ending sleaze.
AGJ Rough’s “Compulsion” looks at the shifting modus operandi of a thrill killer, and… gasp… he’s still out there…
Mary R Sullivan’s “Crocodile Way” was horrifying in a matter-of-fact way, as three blokes in a boat negotiate a dark river swarming with pissed-off dinosaur throwbacks out in the colonial tropics. As you’d expect, the links in the food chain tighten. Oddly enough, there’s a fate at the end of this story which is almost as bad as ending up as a reptile’s dinner, all the better for being unexpected.
Jamie McArdwell’s “The Green Umbilical Cord” sought a fresh approach to the plants-hate-you genre, which by this point in the Pans feels as limp and tired as a neglected geranium.
A fine anthology is then closed out by Tanith Lee, not then as well-known as she would become, with an eight-line piece of silliness, “Eustace”. She must have laughed like a drain when the cheque came through from Bertie. I didn’t.
In sum, this was an excellent Pan, much improved by having 100% fresh stories, even if many of them are double-shots from series regulars. This bucked my expectations. Can Pan Ten match it?
We shall see… cackle… we shall see…
(Puts on Monster Mash)
(Children shriek with delight)
(World seems a bit better)