December 6, 2020


Edited by Herbert van Thal
236 pages, Pan Books
Review by Pat Black
(Crypt door creaks open)
Like any movie nasty, we’re back when you least expect it, with more Pan Horror
Scary dots, I love these. The sinister ellipses… And then the italics!
Your yucky cover: After the previous effort’s bizarre Halloween disco/ goofy mummy/ “Grandad’s had an accident!” number, we’re back to something slightly more serious.
It looks like a clay sculpture of a bald bloke, perhaps a study of a Roman emperor, minus laurels. He has been decorated with a variety of invertebrates – a few earthworms, a centipede, a wasp and what could be a locust. The figure doesn’t look too bothered about his forest friends. As far as it goes, this one isn’t very disturbing.
This book first appeared in 1969, the year future historians will probably refer to as the high watermark of American scientific, cultural, economic and military power. The year of the first moon landing, of Tricky Dicky being in the Oval Office with no apparent signs of trouble, and the zenith of flower power. This latter phenomenon might have been linked to the counterculture and a revolt against power that crossed international boundaries, but it was unmistakably American. Soft power crystallizes into hard power, over time.
This was before Woodstock turned into Altamont. When we still had Jim, Jimi, Janis and all the rest, and as far anyone knew, The Beatles were still together and making records.
It couldn’t last, though. The peak came and went. The counterculture was about to experience a comedown, and it would be brutal. This was the point, according to Hunter S Thompson, when the surging wave broke and rolled back. Welcome to the 1970s.
Free love might have been in the air in 1969, but openness, permissiveness and tolerance isn’t much in evidence in this collection. Most of the stories concern infidelity, jealousy, and bitter, nasty revenges taken as a result. If sexual liberation is one side of the coin, then this is the other: teeth clenched, eyes bulging, quivering with impotent, psychotic rage.
It’s a step away from more outlandish and dated gothic concerns, and there is something to be applauded in that. Grim and grubby as it is, much of this book concerns earthly horrors, and on occasion, it strays into the territory of Things That Might Really Happen. But I can get a belly full of that. Sometimes I’m OK with good old ghosties and monsters.
The opener is “The Acid Test”, by Chris Murray. It features a dastardly plot after a young woman makes a successful play for a rival’s date on a night out. The spurned party, Paula - who we are told has “Sicilian blood” - enlists the services of some goons to capture Marie and make her suffer for her impertinence.
The punishment is a quick dip in a bath of acid. Paula is stripped, dangled from the ceiling and leered over by the heavies who kidnap her. The story has a sleazy atmosphere without explicitly detailing Marie’s body – the kind of eroticism a teenager might dream up.
How the story works out is a little cheesy, even down to the unexpectedly positive ending. But it’s a pacy opener, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book: some cheating, some flesh, and some torture.
AGJ Rough, a series regular, returns with “Something In The Cellar”. That something is a cheating wife, who is chained up down there by her husband after he catches her in bed with another man. She is walled up for good measure, left with an oxygen supply and just enough food and water to survive his long business trip abroad. That’ll teach her, he thinks.
However, the husband has a serious car accident, and ends up in a coma. One year later, he returns to his house to see what’s happening down in the cellar…
No cheating spouses in John Christopher’s “Ringing Tone”, but there is a sleazy bloke. To the outside world, he’s a retired military man, unmarried and referred to as a “bachelor” without any connotations attached. Someone well-liked in his community, a familiar face often to be seen with a half-pint at the pub near his house.
However, he has a secret hobby - looking up the names of women in phone books, and then making obscene calls.
“Phone books? Huh?”
He gets all kinds of responses. Some of the women hang up, some are stunned, some are furious, some are fascinated, and some are totally into it. There’s one victim, however, who gives him pause – a desperate-sounding young woman who implores him not to hang up.
This is a disturbing story, but it could have been published anywhere – it’s a tragedy as much as an outright horror tale, and one that leaves you wondering about the fate of the people on either end of the line once the connection is cut. I will remember this one.
Dulcie Gray, now, a familiar name from the early Pans alongside MS Waddell. “The Necklace” puts us in nasty, uncomfortable territory, showing us a young man with learning difficulties who is sent away to a special school, relieving a terrible, shameful pressure on his parents. When he comes back from his residential term, he has a surprise for mummy and daddy. This one was all wrong, and probably wouldn’t be written today. Turn the page at your own risk…
Walter Winward’s “Self-Employed” places us back in the realm of cheats given their come-uppance. It sees another middle-of-the-road bloke who marries poorly. He’s in denial about his wife’s infidelity, until he catches her in the act. There is a lot of this in the Pans, but this volume seems particularly riddled with it.
She’s punished, but not in the way you imagine. You won’t guess the twist, but it isn’t particularly clever, and the “revenge” moment was less psychotic but somehow more distasteful than the guy who left his wife in the cellar earlier on.
Rosemary Timperley is one of the Pans’ most respected authors – a Rolls-Royce in a sea of Austin Princesses. But guess what? She writes here about infidelity, and revenge.
“Supper With Martha” concerns a married man happily cheating on his wife. His mistress is fun, exciting and dangerous, while Martha is dull, dowdy and conventional. But - unfortunately for him, and especially for his mistress - Martha isn’t daft.
You’ll see the twist coming – if you didn’t clock on with regards to the title immediately - once Martha offers to cook supper for her husband, but it’s still a cracking read. Great writers can do that, no matter what kind of tale they want to tell, no matter what kind of anthology.
No infidelity in “Punishment By Proxy”, by James Connelly, but there are some infidels, and lots of sexual propriety. This is a kind of story which crops up in the genre now and again – Roald Dahl’s story about the guy whose car breaks down on a desert road is one of them – in which white men are invited into the house of a rich Arab, and are granted sexual favours with women under his roof. Part of his harem, one supposes. Until relatively recently, this wouldn’t have seemed that racist. But there is a streak of unpleasantness in it, as the white adventurers find a sense of honour and grandeur once the stakes are raised, with only an oblique reference to their hypocrisy. This is dodgy territory.
Two oil executives are sent to tie up a deal with a sheikh from a fictional country. On a tour of his opulent house, they are shown a line-up of naked women, and asked to choose which one they would like to sleep with. After they’ve made their choice, the sheikh asks them which part of the woman’s body they liked best. After the reasons for this become clear, our two trusty heroes become, eh, heroic. There’s a fight and a desperate flight for freedom. But they have a big problem: the younger sister of one of the men, who has come along for what she thinks is an exotic shopping trip, didn’t get the flight home.
A perfectly readable story, but nasty in ways that it probably didn’t intend. It trades on the fear of the other – painting him as a savage, despite his riches; a man of barbarous customs, at odds with the de facto decency of white western culture. Some regimes do qualify on this score for barbarity, of course, but stereotypy helps no-one, and this sense of the corrupt, decadent alien underpins just about every tuppence ha’penny piece of anti-Arab racism you’ve ever heard. And if you think the western business community are strangers to degeneracy, then I could tell you one or two horror stories.
Frances Stephens’ “The End of the Line” was a welcome change of gear. A troubled young woman is drawn towards a boarded-up old railway tunnel. Something terrible happened there – something to do with a baby, maybe hers, maybe someone else’s. It’s a disturbing look into a disordered mind and toxic thought processes. The kind of story I would have thought was a throwaway if I’d read it as a teenager, but I now know this is uncomfortably close to true horror.
And now we’re at the obligatory MS Waddell, with his or her usual foray into grubby, ironic territory. “The Fat Thing” sees a strange creature feasting on people who are overweight. It’s slimy, leaving a viscous, filmy trail wherever it goes. Despite this it can mimic humans, getting close enough to gain their trust before snaffling them. There’s a nursery rhyme theme which has barely been thought through, and isn’t worth examining. The narrator – who is, gasps, revealed to be The Fat Thing – stalks prey based on verse such as Little Jack Horner and Old Mother Hubbard. The author all but admits he is winging it, at one point. What a scream it all is. Imagine, me sitting here writing this story with no idea how to go on! I think I’ll write that down. It’s ironic, you see? You see?
Imagine getting paid for that.
I get that the editor might have wanted to shift the tone and introduce some comic relief, but it seems forced. This story is tone deaf, inexplicably pleased with itself, betrays a nasty sense of disgust about overweight people, and is an acquired taste at best.
Two good ‘uns in a row, now. First, “The Flatmate”, by B Lynn Barber. I did wonder if the B was redundant, and whether this was the famous interviewer Lynn Barber. The story takes the form of a series of diary entries by a young girl after she moves into a flat, a couple of weeks after the previous occupant killed himself. It shows us the tragedy of a lonely, fanciful person as she makes what she thinks is a spiritual connection with the dead man – and then tries to right some wrongs on his behalf. It’s a nasty tale with a bloody conclusion, but skilfully done. You never lose sympathy for the dead man or the delusional girl.
After that, snowbound frolics with “The Ski-Lift”, by Diana Buttenshaw. A European skiing setting gives it the crisp, clear sense of a fairy tale. All that’s missing is the wolves.
It’s about two lifelong friends on a skiing holiday who find themselves at odds over a girl. When they find out that the object of their desires is actually staying at the same Alpine resort, with a man who might be her cousin, but probably isn’t, Werner and Klaus both decide they will catch up with her to check if the story is true. But it’s getting late, and the ski lift is about to close for the night.
One of them decides to make a very large bet against evolution by climbing a pylon and jumping on one of the last of the chairs before they disappear over the mountain. The other follows, and they both make it. But the ski-lift suddenly stops in mid-air for the night, the slopes are deserted, it’s extremely cold, and, yes, you know where this one is going.
What fascinates me is that it’s quite a short story, told economically. You get all the backstory and details over with quite quickly, and the author is not afraid to tell, rather than show. It never goes off-piste. No detail is spared in the grim conclusion, though. A nasty treat.
A sign of the times, now – CA Cooper’s “Magical Mystery Trip” has the Beatles on its mind – it even quotes I Am The Walrus. The band stomp as they play inside your cortex, distorting it with sound waves which roll and break in red and purple crystal shards on an amethyst sea while tiny green spiders with ruby eyes surf towards shore, giggling –
You get the idea. This sees a young man on an LSD trip, plagued with waking dreams of nightmarish things. The acid hallucinations are quite convincing. Toes become fire engines. People’s faces go on fire. Giant crabs fill the sky. This would be bad enough if he’d chosen this experience for himself, but he has no idea how it happened. It seems he has been spiked by his friend.
The trip doesn’t end. Day after day after day, more and more and more nightmares, while life goes on as usual outside his perception bubble.
Much like the peculiar sexual morality we see elsewhere in the book, this story sees the Pans saddling up a high horse. The warning about psychedelic drugs – and this was 1969, remember – couldn’t be clearer.  Whatever you might think about this finger being wagged in your face, the main character’s predicament is an absolute nightmare.
Frances Stephens’ second entry with “Pussy Cat Pussy Cat” next, a depressing but well-constructed tale of baby-meets-cat domestic horror. The main character is alone in the house with a newborn baby and her older son. The latter wants to keep a stray cat that keeps showing up. The mother’s every instinct tells her to chase this creature – correctly.
Like the same author’s “The End Of The Line” above, this story was plausible, and much more affecting when read as an adult than it would have been had I discovered it as a teenager. I found the closing lines difficult to stomach. “That’s why they call it ‘Horror Stories’, Pat.”
David Lewis’ “Long Silence, Old Man” sees a grown man visiting his elderly father. The story would seem to be set in Mexico, going by the characters’ names, but I could be guilty of an appalling assumption. Manolo is bringing his new wife to visit his dad at his remote desert shack. It is crudely implied that Manolo has some psychological problems which affect him in the bedroom with his bride. This has its roots in some awful behaviour from the old man, cruel punishments meted out to Manolo when he was just a boy. Manolo decides to pay his father back, plus interest. It’s not quite therapy, but it is therapeutic.
This was a grim, but also very sad story. A reminder that an unkind family home is a nursery for monsters. 
Now a curious one, William Sinclair’s “The Terror of Two Hundred Below”. The title suggests a monster mash, with some deadly creature haunting an ice cavern or the depths of the ocean. Instead, it’s a science-hates-you tale, with the title referring to temperature.
This is a bad story with a decent idea at its centre. It starts with the main character fleeing down dark streets (this is in Glasgow – it’s not the last story in the book to be set there). She meets a man, and begs him for help. The baddies are chasing her. The good knight takes her home to his flat, makes her a cup of tea, and then listens to her story.
She is a scientist, part of a group that won a huge research grant prize, snatching it from under the nose of the man who was widely expected to win. It’s fair to say he is upset about this.
After a series of totally implausible and deadly episodes, she ends up working for the guy who took second prize. You’d think this lassie’s every instinct would be telling her to keep this man as far away as possible, but no. Perhaps she doesn’t realise she’s in a horror story.
At the naughty scientist’s Highland research laboratory, she discovers the Awful Truth about his Unethical Experiments. Her grim fate is laid out for her. But she escapes. And then, oh dear…
There’s a lot of things to pick at here. The dialogue is terrible – the story is told by the main character as direct quoted speech, but it doesn’t resemble anything that would come out of the mouth of a real person, outside of an Ealing comedy. Some of the events are truly horrible – she’s raped, and while there is no explicit detail, the way it’s described as an afterthought is dreadful, whether this story is read in 1970 or 2020. The central fate laid out for the main character is admittedly (yep, I went there) chilling. It’s not a very good story, though.
Next up, an all-but-forgotten writer whose work fascinates me. Dorothy K Haynes’ previous two stories for the Pans were brilliant – historical tales set in Scotland, concerning witchcraft, the second sight, and diabolical coincidence. “The Bean-nighe” and “Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch” were so good they had me searching for other work by this forgotten writer. She’s been out of print for a good while. “The Cure” reaffirms my belief that this is a mistake.
We’re back in a Scottish village, not in the present day, which sees a young man with unspecified issues and his mother being offered up to the judgement of the town. The father was hanged, and his body is still swaying in the wind, after a sentencing which many thought was harsh. According to old superstitions, the touch of a hanged man can cure a person of their ailments. The fact that the person requiring the cure is the dead man’s son adds a bit more flavour to a pungent recipe.
Haynes is very, very good. She touches on many themes familiar from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – the corrosive quality of back stoop gossip, and its close relationship with irrationality.
Alex Hamilton’s “Image of the Damned” sees a genius waxwork artist creating his masterpiece, in the form of a notorious rake, shagger and gambler who is about to be executed. The condemned man hatches an outrageous plot to escape the gallows, which no-one in their right minds would fall for. This story is silly but it is very well told indeed, with a tone befitting its chief character.
Norman P Kaufman’s “A Sharp Loss of Weight” sees a man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit released from jail, and on the lookout for the man who framed him. There’s a bit of a twist involving revenge already being taken on someone else’s behalf, but this story is an odd ‘un. I want to say that “it goes to show that events usually end up paying horrible people back”, but I know that this is wishful thinking.
Desmond Stewart’s “An Experiment In Choice” sees a man waking up at the top of a huge chimney. He is informed that he has a choice to make, as part of a psychological experiment: jump to the ground on the outside of the chimney, or make the leap into the darkness inside. So, it’s certain death, or uncertain, but probable death. In case he thinks he can just stay where he is and pray for rescue, a steel blade begins to rise beneath him. Think fast. What would you do?
Robert Duncan’s “The Evil One” takes us back to Glasgow, and sees a woman at a party having sex with a man she is irresistibly drawn to. She’s betrothed to someone else, but that hardly seems significant. After the deed is done, she takes a look at the sleeping man under the sheets, and complete and utter madness follows.
This story has the framing of horror, but it’s about something else altogether. It’s got nothing to do with madness or diabolism, but is all to do with a woman having good sex with someone she isn’t meant to. Freud noted how closely horror stories are linked to sexuality – almost a continuum – and with many of the stories here in mind, it’s difficult to disagree. It also fits in with the distinctly Calvinist tone of this volume.
Joan Aiken’s “Marmalade Wine” sees a chap taking a walk in the woods, and happening upon the arboreal bolthole of a famous surgeon. They get talking, and the surgeon offers him a drop of the stuff in the title. It’s awfully good, but wasn’t the surgeon in the news for something a little while ago? Oh, mate.
Finally, it’s “Monkey Business” by John Arthur. A British guide in Singapore takes an obnoxious American tourist out to see the sights. There are two thick strands of racism here – we’re back to the type of stuff we saw in the Arabian harem above, with strange, warped customs, set at odds with the supposed decency of white people. Well… when I say “white people”, I mean “English people”, because the second piece of racism is at the expense of Americans - portrayed as brash, fat, greedy and uncultured. This is a lazy stereotype alongside the mean Arab or the treacherous Oriental, and we shouldn’t tolerate it either.
That said, the story is an utter shocker, truly horrifying. It would have been very easy to hint at the loud American’s fate, and leave him to it – but John Arthur goes there, and then some.
It reminds me of something George A Romero said about Night Of The Living Dead, which also appeared in 1969. He was used to horror films that showed you the shadow of the knife rising and falling, then a cut, and then a body on the floor, and maybe a drop or two of blood. But George wanted to show you the knife going in, and the blood pouring out. That’s similar to the stunning final paragraphs of this story.
It was a fitting capper to one of the best of the Pans. I have far too many books to read, and also one or two to write, so who knows when the Pans will be back here? But never fear… they’ll be back!
(crypt door slams shut)

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