Friday, 21 March 2014

The Pan Book of Horror Stories (1959)







The first few editions of the volume featured a rather nice pussy-cat on the cover - this presumably someones's attempt to represent the pissed-off moggy in Bram Stoker's The Squaw.  Up until 1967, the collection was still know as "The Pan Book.....", only evolving into "The First Pan Book.....", with the advent of the use of the familiar white "Horror Stories" logo that year.

Pan took the opportunity to change the cover pic at this point as well, the cat being replaced by what I assume is a head freshly dug up from a shallow grave.  I cannot really trace this image to any of the stories in the collection.  The only story with an exhumation is The Mistake, but that body had been safely sealed up in a casket
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JUGGED HARE
By Joan Aiken

Sarah is bored with her hunting-obsessed boor of a husband, so enlivens her existence with affairs – although her current paramour appears to leave her more than a little underwhelmed.  However, hubby Henry is no fool, even if he does have a screw loose, and when circumstances confirm his suspicions and bring the hapless Desmond into his clutches, he avows revenge on both lovers.

I am guessing Bertie thought long and hard before deciding which tale would open his inaugural Pan Book of Horror Stories.  To play safe and go with one of the biggies, Poe, James or Lovecraft say, would have been an easy choice.  As would have been to debut with one of the more gory tales which did make the collection, such as The Copper Bowl or The Squaw.  But instead he chose to go with Joan Aiken’s Jugged Hare.  Although I note all the entries appear in the order of the writer's surname, which perhaps better explains the rather tame opening. 

This one, I suppose falls into the category of psychological thriller.  No-one is murdered – at least not during the timeframe of the story, although one could argue Henry’s sin of omission renders him culpable. 

Where the story falls downs touch is that, whilst Henry and Sarah are both well written feisty characters, the “other man” Desmond is painted in such dull watercolours, our only reaction upon reading about his fate is “Oh well, never mind”.

As for the title, a bit of research brought me the fact that for a hare to be jugged, it requires to be cooked in its own blood.  Is it too fanciful to suggest Aiken’s was drawing comparison with Sarah being left to stew in her own juices whilst Henry awaits his moment to conclude his revenge?   

Probably.



SUBMERGED
By A.L. Barker

Peter is a boy who enjoys swimming in his local river.  Indeed, enjoys it to a slightly obsessive degree.  When he witnesses the accidental drowning of a woman, and her partner is subsequently charged with her murder, he faces a moral dilemma over whether or not to speak up.

After the sedate opening story to Pan1, Bertie chose another rather cerebral tale as the next entry.  One can only imagine what those puzzled horror-seekers back in 1959 were thinking at this point.  However, if one accepts the premise this is not really a horror story at all, but more of a study of the adult world from a young boy’s perspective, Submerged is a thought-provoking and entertaining (if slightly overlong) read.  It is undoubtedly the only story I have read which uses the word “loosestrife” a dozen times or more.   

Peter is certainly an odd chap; one who may in these more enlightened times have found himself diagnosed at the lower end of the autistic scale.  Witness his self-imposed requirement at first to tame and to later attempt to cleanse the river, by regularly swimming through the dangerous root entanglement beneath the surface of the river.  We may call that OCD these days.

He is described by Barker early in the tale as having a “lively conscience” yet he seems utterly indifferent to the fate of the innocent man, having neatly and conveniently erased him from his mind it seems.  Perhaps deciding that to hang is a suitable punishment for having tainted forever Peter’s river. 



HIS BEAUTIFUL HANDS
By Oscar Cook

A celebrated concert violinist develops a rather nasty leprous disease, which causes his precious fingers to decay and begin to drop off.  He refuses to attend a physician, instead insisting only his manicurist treat the ailment.  But there is history between the two.   

A neat revenge tale incorporating a dash of incest, although dated more than somewhat by Cook’s nasty racist inference to the heroine’s blood having been “tainted” by the introduction of “a coloured strain” into her family history.  The story is one of a number written by Cook in which as the writer he takes on the role of a gentleman hooked on the wonderfully grisly tales of his repulsive acquaintance Warwick.  



THE COPPER POT
By George Fleming Eliot

Lieutenant Fournier, an Officer in the French Army has just endured a night’s torture at the hands of his enemy, without breaking.  But then his girlfriend is brought in……… 

Dipping another toe into the murky waters of racism, we are in Fu Manchu territory here, with a stiff upper lipped European in the hands of an inscrutable, ruthless Oriental – in this case one Yuan Li.  The torture carried out on the young girl is certainly horrific, indeed the description of it almost appears to be whole raison d’être for the story. 

One can almost imagine Eliot dreaming up the deed first, and then writing the story around it.  Consequently the narrative clunks with clumsy expositional dialogue, and relies upon a rather too convenient conclusion to close things out.  



CONTENTS OF THE DEAD MAN’S POCKETS
By Jack Finney

Tom Benecke foregoes the pleasure of an evening at the cinema with his wife in order to complete an important business project.  When a sheet of paper carrying vital data wafts out of the window of his eleventh storey apartment, he just toddles out onto a narrow ledge to retrieve it – as you would. 

Less a horror story than a thriller, but a superbly written tale nonetheless.  The tension throughout is palpable.  What makes the story so riveting is the few paragraphs early in the story, where Finney takes the time with characterisation.  The brief conversation between Tom and his wife Clare, shows the reader this is a couple deeply in love.  And it is the potential loss of that relationship (more than the sheet of paper), which makes us empathise with Tom.  We so desperately want him to succeed. 

Stephen King pilfered the premise of this one for his yarn The Ledge, I believe.


THE KILL
Peter Fleming

The young heir to the Fleer Estate finds himself alone in a railway station with an elder fellow traveller.  The young man relates the story of recent visit to the estate, and all the strange goings on: of slaughtered sheep and the violent death of the previous heir. 

A hint of Hound of the Baskervilles here (but without Mr Holmes or the good doctor), although this perpetrator is more other worldly.  The story’s twist, regretfully, can be seen from a good distance off. 

Peter Fleming was Ian (James Bond) Fleming’s elder brother, but non-fiction was really his preferred field.  And, although some of Fleming’s descriptive prose works well, he does drift into irritating verbosity at times:

“..he treated mankind as a museum, gaping conscientiously at each fresh exhibit, hunting for the non-cumulative evidence of man’s complexity with indiscriminate zeal.”   

and

“…the currents of contemporary thought have passed mainly through the hands of men whose gregarious instincts have been constantly awakened and almost invariably indulged.”

 Phew !



THE PHYSIOLOGY OF FEAR
By C.S. Forester

The Nazis are carrying out nasty experiments on human subjects in order to ascertain (as it says on the tin) the physiology of fear.  Heinz Schmidt, the “brilliant” young scientist in charge of the project really should have re-read Mein Kampf before producing his results. 

Written from the perspective of Georg Schmidt, Heinz’s uncle, this tale, although skirting around the worst atrocities of the concentration camps nonetheless reads like a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda.  Indeed Forester, spent much of WWII in the USA as a propagandist, although this particular story postdates the conflict by a decade

The twist at the end is a good one, though.


W. S.
By L. P. Hartley

Writer Walter Streeter is in receipt of a series of vaguely threatening postcards signed W.S. – each featuring a picture of a location progressively closer to his own home.

The best short stories in the horror genre I always feel have ambiguous endings (Ringing the Changes in Pan4 and The Monkey’s Paw in Pan7 are prime examples).  But sometimes loose ends are just annoying, and this tale is a prime example of such. 

I think the ambiguity we are being left to ponder with this one is whether or not Streeter was in fact writing the cards to himself, and committed suicide at the end by ingesting some poison or other.  Such a scenario is not totally implausible, for he does come across as a particularly highly-strung and skittish individual. 

But simple geography would have prevented him actually posting the cards from the towns depicted (Forfar, York, Warwick etc) and being able to get back home to be in receipt of them.  Unless of course he was simply popping them into a pillar box around the corner – a fact, one assumes, both his friend and the police would have swiftly ascertained from the postmarks. 

So do we have to assume he is being haunted by the ghost of one of his fictional characters?  If so, then what is all the poisonous snow about? 

All very frustrating and irritating – as is either Streeter’s or the author’s grasp of geography, for Berwick is a darned sight more than eighty miles from either Forfar or York.


THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM
By Hazel Heald

There is a wax museum in London’s Southwark Street where the outlandish exhibits are all just that little bit nastier than even Madame Tussaud’s famed Chamber of Horrors.  Stephen Jones finds himself both repelled and attracted to the place, but cannot believe the claims of the artist responsible for figures that they represent “real” creatures.  So Jones accepts a challenge to spend a night locked in the museum in the company of these weird creations. 

The biggest mystery regarding this particular story is who actually wrote the darned thing.  Bertie has gone for Hazel Heald, who was one of number of 1930s authors whose writing ambitions were being nurtured by none other than the great H.P. Lovecraft. 

Internet trawls regarding “Museum” suggest good old Howard may have “revised” the text (whatever that means), or even ghost-written it.  Had not Ms Heald’s dates (1895-1961) appeared on one webpage, I may even have believed she to be naught but a pseudonym of Lovecraft’s. 

Certainly there is a deal of the “Lovecraftian” about the story, as mythical beings such as Tsathoggua, the Tcho-Tchos and that old stalwart Cthulhu are tossed into the mix.  We are presumably meant to be familiar with and frightened by the mere mention of such entities, without the author having to go to the bother of explaining why.

That being said, I really cannot believe Lovecraft was responsible for such gloopy dialogue as:

“You damned sadist…you do a thing like that and dare to speak to a decent man!”

or

“See here, Rogers, this won’t do.  There are limits you know”.

However, once the largely expositional first part of the tale is done and dusted, the writing settles down to dealing with the business at hand, and there are some pleasantly atmospheric passages, even if the climax to the yarn is all rather unsatisfactory.

One would have thought such a towering figure within the horror genre as H.P. would have been represented at some point within The Pantheon, but he appears not even once.  Perhaps there were some copyright issues, and that including the Heald/Lovecraft collaboration was Bertie’s best compromise?


THE LIBRARY
By Hester Holland

A young lady trying to get over the breakup of a relationship accepts the position of Personal Secretary to an old dear who lives in the slightly run down, but nevertheless imposing Witcombe Court.  

A rather dull period tale, with the only character of note being the rambling big house itself, which may or may not have a life of its own.  I am probably giving the game away here, but at the end of the story I could not help recalling the Monty Python sketch where Carol Cleveland collects milkmen.


THE MISTAKE
By Fielden Hughes

When a patient in a Private Mental Hospital who, we are told, has never slept, dies he leaves a manuscript.  The tale related in the script forms the bulk of the story, and concerns the deteriorating relationship between a village Vicar (the writer) and his Warden.  A feud which should have come to an end at the funeral of latter. 

A tale of revenge and suppressed guilt which plods its way to the predictable final revelation. 


OH, MIRROR, MIRROR
By Nigel Kneale

15-year old Judith is told by her aunt the reasons why she must never go out into the world.  For she is an “ugly” girl with white skin, blue eyes and blonde hair, whilst the rest of the world has “dark and tough” skin, dark brown eyes and thick black hair.

I am not quite sure I know what is going on here.  Is the aunt a deranged coloured woman who is spinning an elaborate yarn to prevent the young girl from leaving her?  Or is this a story set in some alternate world where caucasian features are so rare as to be feared and ridiculed?

The ambiguity of the story is one of its strengths, and one feels genuine pity for the unfortunate Judith.  


SERENADE FOR BABOONS
By Noel Langley

A Scots doctor relocates from Glasgow to South Africa, determined to bring his own “practical, down to earth” sensibilities to his new job.  Detesting the local hottentot witchdoctor, who is stealing most of his potential patients, he is nonetheless brought into contact with him when called upon to tend to an injured woman at a remote farm.  An encounter which changes the doctor’s perception of local “mumbo-jumbo” forever.

As perhaps may be expected from the author responsible for the darker aspects of The Wizard of Oz screenplay, Langley’s clash of cultures parable is reassuringly offbeat and a disconcerting read. 

My only gripe with it is the author’s pitiable attempt to colour the yarn with a Caledonian hue. The use of “Scotch” as an adjective rather than a noun is something most Scots detest, whilst the dialogue Langley’s places into the mouth of the doctor’s wife is clichéd almost to the point of parody, viz  “a wee bitty more”.   



THE LADY WHO DIDN'T WASTE WORDS
By Hamilton Macallister 


Two strangers are sharing a railway carriage.  The female has a habit of moving seats whenever the train enters a tunnel.  This so unnerves the male passenger that he pulls the communication cord, leaves the train after it stops and promptly throws himself into the path of an oncoming train on the adjoining rail.  By the time the initial carriage finally reaches its destination the lady has vanished, possibly or possibly not be throwing herself from the moving train.  

I have to hold my hands up in surrender here and admit to not having a clue what is happening in this tale.  It reads like someone’s bad dream, or perhaps a swiftly-discarded outline for an episode of Outer Limits.

Is the lady of the title really “an angel of the Lord”, or just some fruit-loop her co-traveller has been unfortunate enough to share a carriage with?  If the former, her punishment of the chap for what appears a lightweight utterance of blasphemy does seem overly severe.  Whilst, if the latter, then the man’s actions are equally extreme.

The conversation between the guard and the doctor after the lady had either tumbled from the train or returned to heaven is surreal in the extreme.  And as for what the dust on the carriage wall is about………..? 




A FRAGMENT OF FACT
By Chris Massie

A lone cyclist, lost in the fog, thirsty and tired knocks on the door of a isolated house, asking for some water.  The householder obliges, but in a dirty dog-bowl!  But this proves to be but the first episode of what turns out to be a really rather odd evening.   
Hot on the heels of The Lady Who Didn’t Waste Words, Bertie presents us with a further dollop of weirdness.  “Fragment” being another of those Pan entries which after first reading, we are left wondering what on earth it was all about.

Massie’s story begins promisingly enough with some evocative descriptive prose, and the encounter with the dog bowl is memorably odd, but the yarn meanders to an unsatisfactory conclusion thereafter.  The dialogue between the traveller and the house owner is unconvincing, whilst what actually happened after the caller leaves the house is left, probably deliberately, maddeningly vague. 

Is the creature which chased the cyclist the ghost of the departed mutt?  Or is it perchance the bereaved house owner taken on doggy form.  In either case, I cannot imagine what the visitor had done to provoke such ire.  Of course, the animal could have been just as suggested: “another sheepdog”.

All in all a rather confusing tale which is best summed up by the narrator’s final sentence: “I turn it over in my mind in an effort to clarify and rationalise it; but it remains insoluble.


THE HOUSE OF HORROR
By Seabury Quinn

Trowbridge a country doctor, accompanied by his friend and fellow physician Jules de Grandin are driving through the night to minister to a sick child when they become lost.  They spot the inevitable light of a lonely house and stop to seek shelter.  

Here they encounter the usual suspects of an eccentric householder and the sick relative (in this case they are told a daughter).  It is plain to the ever observant de Grandin, that things are not as they should be, and the poor man’s Holmes and Watson set out to get to the bottom of things.

The characters of Trowbridge and de Grandin feature in almost one hundred of Seabury Quinn’s writings (Quinn’s own middle name was Grandin uncoincidentally), investigating all manner of unnatural, and sometimes supernatural occurrences.  But I found both characters in this tale thoroughly unlovable.

De Grandin punctuates his barely competent English with an irritating selection of preposterous Gallic ejaculations, such as “Par la moustache du diable!”, “Nom de Dieu de nom de Dieu!” and “Sang du diable!”  Trowbridge meanwhile pretty much trumps all of these by somehow sneaking the word “horripilation” into his narration.  And the manner in which the latter casually gives up on the sick child he had initially set out to aid was callous in the extreme.

But the real flaw in the writing is the too convenient demise of both the householder and his “pets”.  One deus ex machina in a story is generally one too many; this yarn relies upon two.  
That being said, when we do get down to the bare bones (as it were), it is indeed a house of horror, and Quinn’s descriptions of the poor unfortunates in the cellar would not have been out of place amongst the grosser excesses encountered in the later Pans.   



BEHIND THE YELLOW DOOR
By Flavia Richardson

Marcia Miles, rather to her own surprise, has been successful in applying for the post of Companion/Secretary to renowned surgeon Mrs Merrill.  When introduced to Olivette her employer’s daughter , Marcia is distressed to discover the teenaged-girl had been born with withered and useless legs.  

Never mind though, Marcia has a fine pair of healthy ones.  And Mrs Merrill, as stated, is a rather fine surgeon.

I hadn’t realised quite how shallow the gene pool was for horror writers back in the first half of the 20th century.  For Flavia Richardson turns out to be none other than Christine Campbell Thomson, famed compiler of the seminal Not at Night horror anthologies of the 1920s and 1930s.  She was also, I learned recently, married for a spell to Oscar Cook – he of the grisly Warwick stories.  One wonders what sort of pillow talk passed between the happy couple of a night.

“Yellow Door” is a short sharp shock of a tale, having Marcia enjoying her first morning at her new job before contriving to have her butchered in the evening.  The manner of her demise does pack a punch, but the briskness of the narrative allows Richardson little room for characterisation, and I found it impossible to engage with any of the characters. 



THE PORTOBELLO ROAD
By Muriel Spark

A ghost of a murdered woman spends her time “mooching” around her old haunts.  No-one can see or hear her with the exception, she discovers, of an old childhood friend - perhaps with good reason.

If there remains any doubt of Bertie’s literary ambitions for his new anthology, then they may surely be discounted by the presence of the likes of LP (The Go-Between) Hartley, CS (Hornblower) Forester and Muriel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) Spark in Pan1. 

The Portobello Road is a ghost story rather than a horror story, and even then the haunting, (if such it may be described) is so benign as to almost seem accidental.  And the ghostly narrator tells her tale in such a matter-of-fact manner, it is clear she carries no real enmity towards her murderer.

Although there are no conventional chills to be found, Spark’s writing ensures the story is a riveting read nonetheless.  She effortlessly wrong-foots the reader on two occasions tossing in with a light touch, the lines “I departed this life nearly five years ago” and later “He looked as if he would murder me, and he did”.  We find ourselves stopping and rereading these lines just to ensure we have read them correctly the first time.  Although I do think she may perhaps have just overcooked slightly the “needle-in-a-haystack” joke.

Portobello was reputedly one of the short stories Spark was most proud of, and it not difficult to see why.  But whether it belongs in a horror anthology is perhaps a different debate entirely.



THE SQUAW
By Bram Stoker

A newly married, and already bickering, couple are glad to fall in tow with a brash American tourist during their honeymoon in Nurnburg.  When their new friend accidentally kills a kitten, he laughs off the mother cat’s attempts to get even.  But this is a particularly resourceful feline, and content to bide her time.

Although Bran Stoker is best known for Dracula; his rather po-faced examination of sexual frustration, I am sure he is having a little fun with us with this one.  His tongue must surely have been wedged firmly in his cheek when he had the newly married groom state “My wife and I being in the second week of our honeymoon, naturally wanted someone else to join our party”.  For apparently, not only did the gooseberry stop the lovers quarrelling, but the bride took to subsequently advising “all her friends to take a friend on the honeymoon”.  Perhaps old Bram’s own honeymoon in Paris in 1878 had been a similar disappointment?

Whilst the titular cat, which coincidently starred on the cover of the original print run of Pan1, was a memorably feisty beast, the real star of this yarn is the American Elias P Hutcheson.  Yet he is painted is such large brush-strokes, and is heard spouting such clichéd Wild West-isms and frankly unlikely tales - “slept inside a dead baffler” - that surely Stoker was drifting into parody here. 

And do not forget for all his bluff geniality and tall tales, Hutcheson also had a rather nasty side.  He tells a tale of a squaw whom he “wiped out” for flaying a man – a man whose skin Hutcheson claimed to have had made into the cover for his pocket book!

Whilst The Squaw is on the surface a Poe-esque revenge tale, I cannot help but feel Stoker’s prime motivation for writing the thing was to have a poke at our transatlantic cousins.  The one in this story brought to heel partly through the actions of a little ole puddy tat, but mostly through his own arrogant stupidity.



FLIES
By Anthony Vercoe

A tramp breaks into an empty house seeking shelter, and is more than slightly surprised to find the rooms fully furnished and, even more welcoming, a meal laid out in the kitchen.  Then he begins to notice the buzzing sounds from behind a closed door. 

Works mostly on the level of Vercoe’s decription of the repulsive insects of the title rather than on any cerebral level, and the time-warp motif is unsatisfactory.  



RASPBERRY JAM
By Angus Wilson

The wonderfully titled piece has a young boy spending rather too much time with a pair of elderly eccentric spinster sisters than is probably good for him.  Generally everything is all very innocent as they encourage Johnnie in both “the manlier virtues” and “the arts”.  All changes, however when the boy visits the sisters for tea after they have been on a four-day gin binge, and witnesses a gruesome event which changes his life forever. 

I am really a bit unsure of where to start with this one, as there is so much more going on than I have outlined above.  A sense of loss, I feel, permeates the whole story; the most resonant of which is that old favourite, the loss of childhood innocence.  Johnnie (as indeed was Wilson when growing up) is a bit of a loner with no siblings or friends his own age.  He consequently finds himself compelled to spend a deal of his time in the dull and unimaginative adult world.  The Swindale sisters are different, however, as they love to hear of his odd games and childish fantasies. 

But the weird sisters, who are in the sixties, are also attempting to cope with loss; the elder one Marian the loss of her Father whom she clearly worshiped, and the younger of the long-faded beauty of her youth.  Dolly attempts to deal with this by fanciful flirtations with younger men, and both also enjoying the occasional gin binge.

The story is non-linear with the opening half having Johnnie mulling over the fact he will never be able to visit the sisters again, after their shocking actions during his previous visit.  The second half relates the visit two weeks earlier.

I recall pondering at the time of first reading whether Wilson really required to be so stomach-churningly descriptive when describing the sisters’ actions, as they delightedly torture and kill a captured bullfinch, by first putting out its eyes with a pin then disembowelling the unfortunate creature.  The last few paragraphs, after the rather sedate prose of the rest of the narrative, are a genuinely shocking read.

On reflection I think so, as Wilson had gently led us to believe the incident which had so traumatised Johnnie was perhaps sexual; witness Dolly’s recent attempt to seduce a youth in the village which had caused a minor scandal.   To move from this had to be to something truly monstrous.

Re-visiting the Pans for this blog after a gap of over thirty years, I find I can recall nothing of many of the entries, (e.g. House of Horror), and it is akin to reading them for the first time.  But this is certainly not the case with Raspberry Jam, a truly disturbing tale which long ago indelibly imprinted itself upon my memory.



NIGHTMARE
By Alan Wykes

Cured of his paranoia by one Dr Frazer, the patient now finds his life paradoxically “empty”, without the anxieties his illness caused.  That is until he finds himself being persecuted in a recurring nightmare.   

Nightmare is a fine closer to Pan1, employing as it does a really rather neat twist to the ending.  However, as with all internal monologues, we are left unsure whether what has been related has actually occurred, or is merely an ill narrator’s perception of reality. 

Nevertheless, Wyke's opening paragraphs where he has the unnamed patient describe in detail the (to him, rational) reasons for his persecution complex, do give a fairly convincing insight into what must go on inside the head of your average paranoid schizophrenic.

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