Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Fourth Pan Book of Horror Stories (1963)










                       



Whomsoever was responsible for changing the covers in 1967 really requires to be held down and slapped.  The marvellous illustration of the dead rising to do dirty things with Phrynne in Ringing The Changes was replaced by an armless doll being terrorised by a harmless spider.  

~



VARIOUS TEMPTATIONS
By William Sansom

Ronald Raikes is wanted for questioning by the police in connection with a series of murders.  Scouting for victim number five, he enters the house of Clara a rather plain and equally lonely young woman.  Encountering the girl in her bed, rather than adding her to his tally he, for reasons he himself cannot quite fathom, chooses to ply her with a sanitised version of his life story.  Clara, yearning for any sort of excitement in her drab life, falls for the yarn and agrees to offer Raikes shelter.

Fast forward two weeks and the couple are, rather improbably, planning their wedding.  It is also Raikes' birthday, so Clara dolls herself up for the occasion.  But the sight of the prettified Clara seems to reboot Raikes’ brain back into full throttle mode.

William Sansom’s writing appeared in a number of the early PBoHS collections, but I recall my teenage self not caring for them much.  Too wordy, with too little action, I felt at the time.  Re-reading them now, I can appreciate Sansom’s fine eye for detail and his occasionally evocative descriptive prose.  But still....  

Clara really is an odd individual.  Early in the story, her profession is given as an “invisible seamstress”; Sansom, I think, commenting upon her apparent social anonymity with this neat play on words.  She later ponders that the serial killer at least felt deeply enough for his victims to be compelled to act in the way he did.  This presumably in contrast to the utter indifference she generally engendered in males. 

Even after accepting his marriage proposal, she still harbours suspicions that Raikes may be the murderer, but buries them lest they turn out to be true.  All of which leads to the nagging impression that the dismal outcome to the proceedings was what she had subconsciously desired all along.


THE PALE BOY
By M.S. Waddell

Paul is a rather unpopular little boy at the orphanage.  The other children claim he bites them, although he appears to have charmed Mrs Burnell who would love to adopt him.  Mr Burnell is less keen however, but such an obstacle may easily be overcome by someone as resourceful and hungry as Paul.

Pan4 saw Bertie taking the first steps towards integrating a number of newer authors in amongst the classic long-established ones.  One such was Martin Waddell (whose entries in Pan4-6 were listed as being by M.S. Waddell).

Many of these more contemporary authors moved away from what was previously regarded as a horror and into nastier territory, where two dimensional characters existed for no other reason than to do nasty things, or have nasty things done to them. 

Waddell’s contributions were generally laced with a touch of humour which, I suppose, sort of raised them slightly above the majority of Pan stories written by these New Kids on the Block.  In Pale Boy, it is clear early on where we are going with this one; the child is variously described as “undernourished”, as having a “hungry, betrayed look”, and most wittily “starved of affection”.  Thus does the dénouement come as little surprise, but it is the journey rather than the destination with this entry which entertains.  


THE EMISSARY
By Ray Bradbury

Martin is unwell, and has been bed-bound for much of the previous year.  Fortunately his dog Torry loves being out and about, each day returning covered with the smells and detritus from his wanderings.  Through this, and perhaps a vague telepathic link, Martin is able to experience the outside word to some degree.

Via an invitation written on his collar, Torry also brings visitors and well-wishers to Martin’s bedside.  When one of the aforementioned, the young and pretty Miss Haight is killed in a road accident, Torry is not the sort of dog to let that sort of thing get in the way of his mission.

No-one did autumn quite like Ray Bradbury.  In The Emissary when it was published in his 1955 short story collection The Autumn Country, Bradbury lavished the story with his marvellously evocative prose, delighting in the descriptions of the season. 

Unfortunately Bertie, one assumes inadvertently, managed to include in Pan4 the original version of the story, as published in 1947 by a Bradbury still finding his literary feet as it were.

Compare the following pairs of passages:

“In every black curl of his dog hair he carried autumn”

with

“In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoal shaken from a blaze of maple trees.”

OR

“The autumn continued”

with

“Autumn burnt the trees bare”

OR

“...he and Torry had once run together across the town, across the sleeping graveyard”

with

“… when he’d spanned the town with Dog ahead, behind, around about, tracking the green-plush ravine, lapping slumberous streams gone milky with the fullness of the moon, leaping cemetery tombstones while whispering the marble names”

The first of each pair are (I hope you can tell) from The Emissary as originally published, with the second from the author’s decidedly more Bradbury-esque subsequent revision.  (In case it is not clear, the dog is called Torry in the original text, but just Dog in the later.)

So: the moral of this story is: if you do wish to read this magical tale, root out the revised text.


LUCY COMES TO STAY
By Robert Bloch

Recovering alcoholic Vi has just spent time in a sanatorium to “take the cure”.  She is presently attempting to stay dry at home, with the help of husband George and a live-in nurse.  Oh, she also has the company of her ever-present friend Lucy.

Bloch is best known for his 1959 novel Psycho although, having read the thing, I would suggest a deal of the success of Hitchcock’s subsequent film adaptation was due to Joe Stefano’s fine screenplay.  Although Lucy Comes to Stay predates Psycho by seven years, it treads not dissimilar ground, and anyone remotely familiar with the latter would have guessed where “Lucy” was heading long before the end. 

Even so, it is an entertaining enough read.  


GUY FAWKES NIGHT
By Richard Davis

When accosted in the street to cough up “a penny for the guy”, Jerry Williams is reminded of a Guy Fawkes Night forty years earlier, when as a boy he had attended a bonfire at the home of a friend.  A night on which the friend’s bully of a father had mysteriously and permanently disappeared, and his shrewish mother suffered a mental breakdown from which she never recovered.

This one is a story which believes itself to be hiding a dark and hideous secret, which it refuses to give up until the last revealing line.  But in reality, it is anything but.  Ignoring, if one can the clue in the title, even the most casual of PBoHS readers will have sussed out what is going down less than a quarter of the way through the tale.

And even then, for the narrative to work at all, and hence the truth to have remained hidden for all those years, the reader is asked to make three large leaps of faith: 

  • That a wood-burning fire could generate enough heat to incinerate a human body, bones and all.
  • That five children could transport the guy from a chair onto a wheelbarrow, and thence to the top of a bonfire without one of them noticing it appeared just a touch too lifelike.
  • That the one person who grasped what was happening, would be rendered permanently insane by the revelation.

Despite the above, I actually really enjoyed the story, reminding me as it did of L.P. Hartley’s classic novel "The Go-Between" – in both stories an adult re-views his childhood memories through an adult lens, as it were, gaining insight into what truly occurred.  The yarn stands up to repeated readings, with prior knowledge of the “secret” not detracting from the author’s storytelling.

I am not sure I like Davis describing his main protagonist as an “old gentleman” though, given he can be no more than fifty-one years of age, if my arithmetic is any good.


THE TWO OLD WOMEN
By Vivian Meik

The pretty young neighbour of the narrator is having trouble with the two old women who live on the floor below.  Through a combination of hypnotism and blackmail, they have already coerced the girl into supplying them with “half-a-pint” of blood.  And when the narrator deduces voodoo is being used to weaken the girl further, he resolves to visit the tubby old crones and give them a piece of his mind.

It is inevitable that some of the stories in the PBoHS collections will have aged better than others.  But I would hazard that even back in 1963, the year of the first publication of Pan4; “Women” would have seemed incredibly dated.  Much of the problem is Meik’s frightfully, frightfully polite writing style, and his drawing of the narrator whom he (perhaps tellingly) names Meik. 

For the narrator comes across as a Bertie Wooster down-on-his-luck, with his irritating burbling on about “having no place in Dame fortune’s good books” and being “unable to raise a single grumble at having to do all my own scrubbing”.

As he encounters the nastiness in the cellar, one almost expects him to shout out “Take that, you bounder!”


MOONLIGHT SONATA
By Alexander Woollcott

A young English physician staying overnight at the country pile of an old friend, awakes in the night to witness the ghostly apparition of a hunched figure apparently in the action of sewing or darning.  He, perhaps understandably, flees the room whereupon he, along with his host, discover the headless corpse of the live-in cook.  So what had that “ghost” really been up to?

Although this short (less than three pages), succinct tale offers little in the way of horror for the seasoned PHoHS reader, it is certainly one of my favorites in Pan4.  For what it does offer is the merest taste of the wonderfully florid writing style of critic, actor and all round raconteur Alexander Woollcott.  I give you:

“Ellery Cazalet – who spent most of his days on the links and most of his nights wondering how he would ever pay the death duties on the collapsing manor-house to which he had indignantly faller heir”

Or, if you prefer

“This house was a shabby little cousin to Compton Wynyates, with…a hoarse bell which, from the clock tower, had been contemptuously scattering the hours like coins ever since Henry VIII was a rosy stripling”

And, as to what “The lewd topiarian extravagance of the hedges” refers to, I should love to know.

Forget the silly story, and just luxuriate in the prose.


THE LITTLE GIRL EATER
By Septimus Dale

Little Miranda has been sent down onto the beach to play, to allow Mummy and her “friend"Johnny some privacy to indulge in a bit of back-seat rumpy-pumpy.  Under a disused pier Miranda comes across a man trapped beneath a fallen girder - trapped with the tide coming in fast.  Running back to inform the adults, she is warned by Johnny (who flatly disbelieves her) that what she has met is a Little Girl Eater.  

Miranda, far from being frightened now knows what she must do.

This is one of the Pan stories which falls into the category of Once Read, Never Forgotten.  Partly due to the slight ambiguity of the ending which truly shocks, but mainly a consequence of Dale’s fine writing which has us inside the heads of both Miranda and the trapped man (Mason) – seeing the situation from contrasting viewpoints.  Quite how Mason got himself into the predicament is never quite made clear, but somehow that does not seem to matter.

It is Mason’s final plea which haunts us: was he still hanging onto the hope that Miranda may fetch help, or was he asking an even greater favour from her?

The PBoHS collections abounded with pseudonyms, and the strong suspicion is that the frankly preposterous sounding name of Septimus Dale was another fiction perpetrated by Martin Waddell.  If so this would take Waddell’s Pantheon contributions up to sixteen, equalling the redoubtable Norman Kaufman.  Unless, of course, Martin has more pseudonyms lurking within the collections. 


HARRY
By Rosemary Timperley

Inventing an imaginary companion is apparently not unusual for a child without siblings or friends.  But five year-old Christine’s imaginary friend Harry does appear to be exerting rather too much influence over her life for the comfort of her (adoptive) mother.  A bit of digging into the background of Christine’s birth family begins to reveal some startling facts – but the digger really should have kept a close eye on the time.  

Rosemary Timperley was one of the stalwart PBoHS authors, contributing a total of thirteen stories to the series.  This was her first, and she was still being included when the curtain came down with Pan30, over a quarter of a century later.

Harry is a disturbing tale of a brother whose devotion to his sister extends beyond the grave.  Two elements raise this one above the routine – first there is the sense of growing helplessness the girl’s mother feels as she learns more and more about Harry.  From her early almost irrational unease to the full blown panic when she realises Christine has been taken, the mounting fear is palpable in Timperley's prose.

Second is the fact we are not totally sure of Harry’s motives.  He may be benevolent, acting out of an overriding yet misplaced desire to watch over his sister, or he may have come (as is hinted in the tale) to forcibly compel his sister to join him in death.

A creepy, creepy tale and a foretaste of the many delights Ms. Timperley would serve up.


SARDONICUS
By Ray Russell

Physician Sir Robert Cargrave accepts an invitation to visit old flame Maude Randall, now married to a Mr. Sardonicus “one of the richest men in Central Europe”.  But the invite turns out not to be purely social, for Sardonicus has a terrible facial affliction, which he hopes Cargrave may be able to cure.  

When traditional treatments fail, through a combination of threats and blackmail the host persuades Cargrave to employ less conventional methods which, initially at least, show signs of success.  But there is a nasty shock in store for the patient.    

Not being a regular reader of Playboy back in the early Sixties, my first encounter with Sardonicus was with William Castle’s movie version.  Castle, ever the opportunist, exploited the twist in the tale by adding a punishment poll to proceedings - in which the audience could, in theory anyway, influence the outcome of the film.  In reality, it was naught but a clever gimmick.  But ultimately the film relied upon the shock value of the titular character’s grin.  And once that was revealed, the movie dribbled to a close.

Ray Russell’s original tale offers rather more entertainment, but perhaps not much more.  Much of the problem is down to Russell’s decision to pen the novella as if written in the late 19th Century (when proceedings are set).  So, although there is a strong sexual undercurrent throughout the story, we have to endure such flannel as:

“Spare me your further questions, sir, I implore you; for to describe it would plunge me into an abyss of humiliation and shame!”

“…though I knew not the urgings of the flesh, she could not with honesty say the same of herself”

“…sacrifice the beautiful and blameless Maude Randall on an alter of the grossest depravity”

Did people ever speak like that?  Indeed, I did wonder when rereading the thing recently, if the whole business was a naught but a subtle parody of the gothic horror novel genre.

I did like the author’s chapter headings however: such schlock as “Entertainment for a Monster” and “An Abyss of Humiliation and Shame”.  I am guessing, when the tale was first published in Playboy magazine, these were necessary to attempt to maintain the reader’s interest in the face of other, shall we say, less cerebral distractions within the pages of the publication.


RINGING THE CHANGES
By Robert Aikman

Middle-aged and rather dull Gerald and his attractive young wife Phrynne have chosen for their honeymoon an isolated village on the East Anglian coast.  It swiftly becomes apparent they have not made a wise choice.  The locals are either surly or drunk, the beach is foul-smelling with all views of the sea obscured by mist, and worse of all, the bell ringing practice session from hell has just started up.

Late in the evening the bells finally cease pealing, but then a voice is heard from afar proclaiming “The Dead are awake!

I really cannot be cool about this story, for it is by some way I feel my favourite from within all the PBoHS volumes.  Re-reading it always brings forth subtle aspects of the individuals' characters which I had earlier missed   For, although on the surface “Ringing” works well as a scary zombie tale, there are all manner of psycho-sexual sub-themes being explored.  

Clearly the dancers, both dead and living, who come and whisk Phrynne away foreshadow the inevitable time when death, or perhaps divorce, will permanently separate Gerald from his much younger wife.  The changes of the title refer both to Phrynne's awakening sexuality following her nocturnal revelry, and the subsequent irrevocable effect upon the couple's relationship.

And, of course, Aikman leaves us with the deliciously burning questions: Did Phrynne have sex with the dancers?”  Indeed, did Phrynne have sex with the risen dead?     

The state of déshabille in which she is discovered after the events of the night suggests so, as does the Commander’s cryptic answer to Gerard’s question “What did you do?”.  But most telling perhaps is the fact Gerald notices she is visibly turned on by the sight of the gravediggers toiling in the cemetery, as the couple are leaving the town.

This, folks, is how to pen a short story.


DULCIE
By Hugh Reid

Dulcie is a “night girl”, who “comes alive when the lights go down”.  Which is a bit unfortunate for her, as wartime London after dark is not the safest place to be.  Especially given there is a serial killer on the go.

A loner killing women in the big city is hardly a novel notion within the PBoHS collections.  Indeed this is one of two such in Pan4 alone.  The necrophiliac touch offered by the final sentence may have shocked back in 1963, but hardened readers would have taken it in their stride a few years later.

The novel aspect of this tale I suppose, is we are in London during the Blitz with all the additional opportunities that offers an enterprising whacko.  But this tale’s evil-doer is such a sloppy operator – leaving trails of blood dripping from his work-bag – we wonder how he managed to amass the number of victims he did without getting caught.

I did like the inference in the narrative that Dulcie, and indeed perhaps all the other decapitated heads, had retained some vestigial awareness of their surroundings, making the mantelpiece business even more creepy.

But Reid disappointingly, failed to develop the idea.


THE IMPORTANCE OF REMAINING ERNEST
By M.S. Waddell

Ernest Tracey has committed a crime (we are not told what) which carries the potential for the death penalty.  However he has succeeded in convincing the authorities he is unfit to plead due to insanity.  So all he has to do now to secure his freedom is bide his time in the asylum, before convincing the doctors he is cured.

But unfortunately he encounters a male nurse who seems to “enjoy his work too much”.

Re-reading the story recently I was immediately put in mind of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The timing is suspiciously apt (“Nest” was published in 1962, Pan4 in 1963) for it to seem likely Waddell was at least in part influenced by Kesey’s novel.

Clearly ”Ernest” running to only just over seven pages could only touch on the issues raised in “Nest” , but Waddell does manage to cram enough convincing characterisation into his allotted lines that we find ourselves (as with Randall P.) evincing a deal of sympathy for poor Ernest, in spite of his unknown crime.  


SLIME
By Joseph Payne Brennan

A primordial glob of goo emerges from beneath the sea to wreak havoc in the Florida everglades (or somewhere similar), before meeting a sticky end at the hands of the military. 

Pure pulp this one, but it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless, due mainly to Brennan’s decision to give the reader brief insights into the, admittedly primitive, thought processes going on inside Mr. Slime.  Indeed, one feels no small degree of sympathy for the creature by the end.  Or at least I did.

My one gripe with this tale is the author’s rather limited vocabulary.  I do appreciate there are only so many names you can give to a bit of slime, but he calls it “The Horror” on seven separate occasions, The “Hood of Horror” six times, as well as throwing in the occasional “Nameless Horror” and “Black Horror” for good measure. 

The thing was a bit of a horror, apparently.


THE OHIO LOVE SCULPTURE
By Adobe James

Andrew is a prodigious collector of erotica, claiming to have spent over $3.5M (at 1963 prices) on the stuff.  His latest, and he feels finest, acquisition is a sculpture depicting three teenage girls in “anticipatory” positions.  But the fact the artist is a shotgun-toting pig farmer from Hicksville, Ohio should perhaps have rung some alarm bells with the collector.

Adobe James (a pseudonym, surely) provided half-a-dozen or so stories to the early PBoHS collections.  His yarns generally featured a strong sexual element, with a couple boasting plot twists Roald Dahl may have been proud of.

He, rather delicately skirts around the actual form the sculpture takes, but phrases like “extended thigh tendons” and “sexually realistic” makes it clear we are not dealing with Canova’s The Three Graces here.  The sting in the tale with this one, however, is not too difficult to see coming and once it is out in the open as it were, renders repeated readings pointless.  


THE HORSEHAIR TRUNK
By Davis Grubb

Editor of a Southern States’ newspaper Marius Lindsay is regarded as a misanthropic old goat by those who know him.  And the general opinion is he somehow became worse during a bout of fever.  That may or may not be the case, but what did happen whilst he was ill, was that Marius perfected the art of leaving his body behind whilst his spirit did a bit of wandering.  

Through force of will, and a bit of practice, he also learns how to move objects.  Useful objects like knives, which could come in handy when dealing with his eloping wife and her lover.

Like “Sculpture” which preceded it, “Trunk” is a tale which relies upon its sting to satisfy.  But unlike James’ yarn, I find this one bears up to repeated readings, even when one knows what is coming.  I think it is due to the fact Marius is such an obnoxious bugger, the route to his demise is a pleasing one to travel.  Also Grubb’s pacing is first class.

Even a shaky plotline fails to detract from the fun:

For the plot to progress, Mary Ann and her lover Jim must choose to spend the first night after their elopement in separate cabins.  This seems rather unlikely, even in the ultra-conservative Deep South.  Especially so as Jim introduced himself and Mary Ann to the Captain as husband and wife.

Additionally, Marius was intending to use his spirit self to commit the perfect murder, but by showing an earlier interest in Jim and asking for a cabin next to his, he would surely have become prime suspect for the crime, particularly so once the identity of Jim’s “wife” became apparent.
  
Grubb, to his credit did foresee the fact that Jim may have ended up being suspected of Marius' murder after the event, but cleverly supplied a snoozing Negro in the corridor to burst in on the screaming and still bleeding-to-death Marius, and confirm this was a suicide.

Which indeed it was. 


THE ATTIC EXPRESS
By Alex Hamilton

An overbearing father has built in his attic (ostensibly for his son, but in reality for himself), a model train layout which “can’t be matched in any home in Britain”.  Son, however, remains resolutely indifferent to the track’s charms, much to his father’s frustration.  So Dad decides to give Son one last chance to show an interest.  But an odd thing happens when the lad takes the controls.

This one shouldn’t really work – yet somehow it does.  The main twist has the father inexplicably shrinking down to scale alongside his models.  The author sidesteps any explanation here, other the having the father cryptically state “Anyone can do anything, if they want to enough”. 

The next equally preposterous leap of faith is to accept that neither the father nor the son should be even remotely fazed by this turn of events.  For the father gleefully clambers on board one of the engines for the ride of his life, with his son almost casually setting things in motion.

But once the reader accepts these premises, the story is quite an exhilarating ride, with Pop quickly realising letting his browbeaten offspring loose at the controls was perhaps not his best idea.  There is a grim inevitability to the climax of the story, but some of the father’s encounters with the figures he had created for the set-up are really quite sinister.  Particularly the dead girl at the swimming pool.


THE HAUNTED TELEPHONE
By Elliot O’Donnell

A country doctor answers a telephone call requesting he come at once to tend to the owner of a nearby country house.  Upon arrival he finds the patient dead, and the Lady of the house really rather keen to have the death certificate filled out there and then.

Bertie filled Pan4 with a significant number of American authors, many of whom brought their own no-nonsense style to the collection.  When one adds to the mix the contributions by more contemporary British authors such as Martin Waddell and Rosemary Timperley, it is perhaps not surprising The Haunted Telephone appears dreadfully dated.

It is O’Donnell’s dialogue, rather than the weak plot line though which makes this entry stick out like sore thumb within the collection; as his hero utters such tosh as:

Moonshine!  There aren’t such things as ghosts.”

and

I’m not open to bribery, you devil”.

There are a couple of neat twists towards the end though, as first we finally learn why the tale was titled as it was, and then O’Donnell’s enjoys a little last-line joke at the expense of one of the minor characters.


THE ELEPHANT MAN
By Sir Frederick Treves

Not a bona fide horror story at all, but rather a factual excerpt from the memoirs of the doctor who rescued and cared for the unfortunate John Merrick.

It is an interesting, even poignant in places read, but it does not really belong in the PBoHS collection.







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