Monday, 31 March 2014

The Second Pan Book of Horror Stories (1960)







As with Pan1, Pan2 enjoyed a change of cover in 1967.  The original had, I think, been inspired by Vernon Routh's contribution to the collection, with its "eyes, lidless, red, bare"; the arrogant red faced individual being the Black Creator of the title himself, I assume.

The second cover continued the shallow grave motif from Pan1, but this one featured a rather too clean hand poking out of the ground with, somewhat preposterously, a squashed eyeball in the centre of the palm.  It looked for all the world as if a recently buried corpse had decided to have a look around, so improvised a periscope with what it had to (ahem) hand.  


Needless to say, the image did not reference any of the stories contained within. 


                                                           ~

PIECE-MEAL
By Oscar Cook

Eminent surgeon and anthropologist Gregory returns from a study-trip to Borneo to find his wife has left him for his best friend Mendingham.  But when the latter disappears seemingly without trace, no-one suspects Gregory as he is apparently out of the country.  But within days of Gregory's return to the UK, Mendingham turns up.  

Or at least bits of him begin to.  

Oscar is back with his ghoulish acquaintance Warwick, but this time Oscar is the one with the tale to tell.  And whilst he takes the opportunity to disparage his journalist listener’s avid interest in the tale - “It revolted me” - I cannot help but feel both men love revelling in the gore equally.  The only difference being the author is too prissy to admit the fact.

This one is another revenge tale (as were all of Oscar Cook’s Pan contributions), but the weakest of the three by far.  The author takes way to long to suss out who is the likeliest arranger of Mendinham’s disappearance, and Moyra’s descent into madness is just a little too convenient.  Why on earth did she continue to open the packages when she knew what was in the post, so to speak?

I did find myself pondering exactly what lay inside the last parcel though: the one which led to Moyra’s fixation with three blind mice.  Was Mendingham’s “tail” cut off with the carving knife, I wonder?


THE FLY
By George Langelaan

Andre Delambre, a scientist experimenting with matter transfer, is found dead beneath an industrial steam hammer, his wife Helene owning up to having operated the device.  But why has Andre’s right arm as well as his head been crushed?  And why was the hammer heard to fall twice?

Depending upon your vintage, I am guessing you will be familiar with The Fly from either the 1958 or 1986 film versions; starring Vincent Price and Jeff Goldblum respectively.  The earlier interpretation follows Langelaan’s short story really rather closely I seem to recall, whilst the latter (perhaps nor surprisingly given David Cronenberg was involved) is rather more of a typical Eighties body-horror gore-fest.

Langelaan avoids any difficult scientific explanations covering exactly how Andre’s machine actually transfers matter from one site to another, by simply swatting away any potential enlightenment: “there are parts of the transmission proper which I do not yet myself fully understand” spouts Andre, before jumping in to the contraption.

The notion of fly and human atoms catastrophically merging to create a monstrous hybrid only works of one ignores the fact the human body generally already carries around 1-2 kg of bacteria in the gut.  How come all them microbes didn’t become incorporated into the earlier successful animal transportations?

That being said, The Fly is an eminently readable story, and we feel real sympathy for the plight of poor Helene.  Andre evokes less pity, I feel, for not only has got himself into his fix by dint of his own arrogant stupidity, but seems quite happy to take the easy way out, whilst in doing so condemning his dutiful wife to a probable date with the guillotine.


THE VERTICAL LADDER
By William Sansom

Dared to by a girl he fancies, a youth attempts to climb to the top of a disused gas tank via a metal ladder bolted to the side of it, but soon finds he has bitten off more than he can chew.

William Sansom was a regular contributor to the early Pans with, I have to say, mixed success.  Many of his tales would became bogged down with overly-descriptive prose and unsympathetic characters.  His archetype was generally a social misfit indulging in weird stuff. 

“Ladder” is an exception however, with the protagonist Flegg being someone we can all empathise with.  Which of us, after all, did not do something rather silly in our youth in an attempt to impress a member of the opposite sex?

The action’s of Flegg's “friends” make little real sense, although I do appreciate they are necessary to propel the story upwards and onwards to its heartbreaking climax.


POLLOCK AND THE PORROH MAN
By H.G. Wells

African explorer Pollock upsets a local Porroh Man (witch-doctor) by dallying with his woman.  The Porroh Man attempts to murder both, succeeding with the woman, but failing in his initial attempt to do for Pollock.  The native is nothing if not a determined individual, and Pollock eventually has him killed in order to be rid of him.  

But if Pollock thought that would be the last he saw of his adversary, he was sorely mistaken.

Racial stereotypes abound here, but I feel Wells is remarkably even-handed given the times.  He uses the word “taint” to refer to mixed race background (in a similar fashion to Oscar Cook in Pan1), but here it is a Caucasian taint.  And he draws most of our sympathies towards the Porroh Man, for Pollock certainly is a real cad; note his utter lack of concern for the murdered woman.  We also learn this business is just another of his “dirty scrapes”, a further one being the scrawling of graffiti on a native idol.

There is however a cartoonish element to the way the Porroh Man’s severed head keeps turning up, and Wells’ description of the football match back in England almost descends into farce.

But the final few paragraphs are so powerful we can easily forgive the silliness. 


THE INN
By Guy Preston

A country doctor is awoken in the night by a wild-eyed visitor, carrying a tale of a ghostly inn on the Cumberland moors and it’s ghastly proprietors.

One of the first things the visitor (Methuen) asks the doctor as he enters the house is “Am I mad?”  And for all the remarkable details related during his story, and the apparent physical evidence, we are no closer to the answer to his query at the end.  For this one could just be another unreliable narrator job.

There a number of plot holes: the coincidence regarding the keys carried by Methuen stretches credulity more than somewhat, and the business of the sanguinous plumbing is just laughable. Plus a deal of Preston’s prose has dated more than somewhat: he describes a contraption intended to kill him in his bed as “the most damnable invention for murder ever invented by the brain of a fiend”.  Ouch!   
  
But for all the disparate elements “Inn” works as an enjoyable yarn, partly due to Preston’s fine pacing, and he even finds time to fit in a frantic rooftop chase for our pleasure.


THE JUDGE’S HOUSE
By Bram Stoker

Malcolm Malcolmson is a student “reading for the Mathematical Tripos”, and decides a touch of isolated solitude is exactly what is required to allow him to get to grips with the intricacies of his studies.  So he rents a few rooms in the run-down former home of a (now deceased) local Judge – one who enjoyed a particularly cruel and vicious reputation.

The accommodations initially appear perfectly suited to the young man’s requirements, even if the rats behind the wainscoting are an inordinately active lot.  He does not really mind their noisy scrabblings, but is more than a little disconcerted when a peculiarly large specimen settles down in the fireside chair beside his.  A rat whose eyes look faintly familiar.

We are hardly in unknown territory here, with a lone individual spending a night in a possibly haunted house.  And even the ending is really rather predictable.  But Stoker’s succeeds in incrementally increasing the all pervading sense of imminent danger throughout the tale, and also manages to flesh out the student's character to an extent his fate becomes a matter of our concern.

But one cannot help but feel Malcolmson could have saved himself a whole heap of trouble had he just heeded warnings.  Both the house letting agent and the local inn landlady made clear their misgivings regarding the property’s reputation as haunted, but Malcolmson chose only to listen to the one person who dismissed the rumours.  “Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats”, opined his charlady, although with perhaps more truth than she knew.

For even the very rats in the house itself were, with their incessant scurryings, attempting to warn Malcolmson off.  But the student, lost in his scientific empiricism, found them a “comfort”.  That the little blighters shut up when King Rat pitched up was another warning missed by Malcolmson.   

Given the rats at one point attempted to thwart the Judge’s plans, I wondered if they were all meant to represent the poor unfortunates who the aforementioned Judge had sent to the gallows?  If so, that would represent a particularly cruel afterlife punishment for the little chaps.


THE SPECIALITY OF THE HOUSE
By Stanley Ellin

Costain is invited by his boss Laffler to a discrete, select restaurant Sbirro’s to dine.  The food is so delicious both men end up visiting each day after work.  One evening they are informed “The Special” is to be served, and express their sympathy that one of the regulars will miss out, noticing his chair is empty.

I am unsure quite how I feel about this one.  I know its charm is the fact the real meat of what is going on is only hinted at, never blatantly stated.  And, while I can appreciate a tale which uses subtlety rather than brutality, Ellin’s yarn always leaves me rather unsatisfied.

The whole premise that there could be a select group of diners, who every few months unknowingly feast upon one of their (former) fellows, without someone becoming at least a bit suspicious over the regular disappearances, is frankly laughable.  And the entry into the story of the drunken sailor to progress the plot is clumsy at best.

What I do like however, are the little jokes Ellin puts in, which are often missed upon first reading:  One former patron who has “disappeared” is noted to have been “greater in his death than in his life” and Laffler as he his innocently led into the kitchen requests of his friend Costain “I hope you’ll continue to dine here until we meet again.  It shouldn’t be too long”.


THE LAST SÉANCE
By Agatha Christie

Simone is a Parisian medium who is not only very successful, but may even be genuine.  But sitting scares her and she wishes to stop, but is persuaded by her avaricious fiancé to sit one last time, for the sinister Madame Exe.

Had any tale by Agatha Christie appeared in a collection of crime, or even thriller short stories we may have expected some misdemeanour, perhaps even a murder, to be have been solved by the close.  But the fact this one appeared in a Pan collection was a clue that all was probably not going to end well.

Simone, for all her other-worldly powers, is quite a skittish individual: seemingly resolute then lily-livered by turns.  She appears to be almost totally in the thrall of her manipulative fiancé Raoul.

He plainly views Simone as his cash-cow, shamelessly using emotional blackmail to persuade her to continue sitting.  He briefly suggests cancelling this last séance, when he sees how weak Simone has become, but fails to carry through his decision.  And his ready willingness to be tied to a chair by the clearly unhinged Madame Exe, when he feels Simone’s fee may be in jeopardy, seals Simone’s fate.

And one can feel the tension rise after this knotting episode, as the story inexorably develops into a runaway train speeding to the inevitable smash.  But the redoubtable Ms. Christie leaves the greatest mystery to rattle around inside the reader’s head: what happened to Madame Exe after she scuttled off with her prize?


THE BLACK CREATOR
By Vernon Routh

Doctor James accepts the post of botanic research assistant to the oddly named Dr Diaz Volo.  His new place of work is a remote island off the south-west coast; an island populated by half-animal mutants, devilish plants and missing/presumed dead celebrities.  James soon discovers not only is he a prisoner on the island, but has been matched up with a bride-to-be.

I suppose it had to happen really, the irony being that it occurred midway through Pan2, generally regarded as one of the strongest collections within the set.  Yes, “Creator” is a donkey.  Chock-full of cardboard characters apparently devoid of any logical motivation. Beatrice, for example, falls in love with Dr James without even knowing or asking his first name.  In fact the hero and heroine are such a feckless pair, they are only saved by the introduction of a new character into the final couple of pages.

All this made me wonder who exactly Vernon Routh actually was/is.  This was his only entry into the Pantheon; indeed apparently the only writing he ever had published.  The yarn is so bad, I could well believe the latter, but I thought it more likely the name to be a pseudonym. 

But of whom?  Given the entry is acknowledged as “original to this book”, I did wonder if Vernon Routh was none other than our Bertie having an unwise foray into actual horror writing as opposed to mere anthologising.   


BY ONE, BY TWO, AND BY THREE
By Stephen Hall

Orphaned student Angus Macbane detests having to rely upon his rich uncle for financial support, so is perhaps understandably not heartbroken when said relative is found with his throat ripped out.....and Angus inherits the lot.  But one of Macbane’s acquaintances becomes more than a little disconcerted when a mutual friend is found dead in India in not dissimilar circumstances.

At forty pages “By One…” is the longest story in Pan2.  Much of the first half is taken up with interesting characterisation, and the creation of a number of mysteries.  From the point the narrator learns of the death of his former friend, the pace sharply quickens and the Darton Manor cellar encounter is really rather frightening stuff.

But the conclusion to the business in Macbane’s tower is more than a little unsatisfactory leaving more questions than answers.

In light of the story title, and the associated local saying “Killed two men, and the third…..” the attack upon the narrator makes no arithmetic sense. 

Why did the beast/demon or whatever it was change its modus operandi when killing Macbane, and what was the “little heap of grey ash” found next to Macbane’s body all about?  Was this the remains of the creature, turned to ash after having done what it was called into existence to do, or was this the burnt remains of the old manuscript which related the tale of the Macbane ancestor?

These little irritations aside, “By One….” is a worthy addition to the collection, and it is well worth persevering with the rather slow first half of the story, to reach the adrenaline rush second.


BOOMERANG
By Oscar Cook

The journalist Warwick has a tale to relate to his acquaintance.  A tale of adultery, betrayal, madness, murder and general mayhem.  Oh, and there is also a caterpillar involved.

This is perhaps Oscar Cook’s best-known short story, and certainly the most visceral of his Pan contributions.  The yarn, as well as dipping into the realm of body-horror, preys upon the fear most of us hold for creepy-crawly things.  And even after it appears the worst is over, we are given a further jolt with the bizarre description of the business with the white ant exterminator pump. 

Cook paints the storyteller Warwick with an even darker brush than in the earlier tales, highlighting his misogyny.  Rhona Tring, the lady in the Boomerang ménage-a-trois is repeatedly referred to as a filly, and at one point he dismissively states she “is down-and-out, but for some silly religious scruples feels she must live.” 

Despite this, the journalist really is the star of the show, and I am just a little bit sorry to be saying farewell to him.


OUR FEATHERED FRIENDS
By Philip Macdonald

City boy Jack and his fiancée Vi have taken a drive out to the countryside.  The sound of the birds singing appears to fascinate Vi, even if they cannot see them.  Then the birds appear.  Lots of ‘em.

I was rather surprised to learn this one predated Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 story The Birds by over two decades.  Neither story attempts any explanation for the behaviour of the birds, although in “Friends” their does appear to be some controlling force at work, some leader.

Jack and Vi’s language – “I lost me bearings after that big village place” and “Haven’t been in a real wood since…Effie an’ me went to Hastings”, sets them out as working class townies.  They are already out of their element even before their encounter with supernature.


TABOO
By Geoffrey Household

Three Western tourists visiting a remote Hungarian village are drawn into the hunt for someone or something which has been picking off the locals.

I can recall being compelled to wade through Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male at school, and hating the thing.  Revisiting it some years later, I was able to appreciate the tension in the yarn’s Hunter and the Hunted motif, even if some of Household’s prose before the action started was hard going.

Taboo, I feel, is a microcosm of Rogue Male with many of the same flaws and qualities.  Ostensibly a discussion of the dangers of bottling-up one’s emotions, the real meat (literally) of the tale is the nested story told by one of the characters relating the hunt for a serial killer, set in superstition-ridden Eastern Europe. 

With such a small cast, second guessing the identity of the perpetrator should have been easy, but I must own up to have been completely wrong-footed by Household.  And he even had time to add a further sting to the tail of this tale, after the killer was unmasked.

By goodness me, the dialogue in the first few pages isn’t half turgid stuff.


THE BLACK CAT
By Edgar Allen Poe

A convicted murderer chooses to “unburden his soul” on the evening prior to his execution, with a tale of alcohol fuelled spousicide and animal cruelty.

Although a dreadful crime is committed and solved in The Black Cat, Poe’s story is actually an examination of descent into ruin and madness through alcoholism.  An impressive drinker himself by all accounts, Poe was never one to shirk from confronting his own demons and fears (premature burial, loss of those close to him) in his work.

But although the death of a beautiful woman is a strong recurring theme throughout his work generally, here the narrator’s wife is such a lightly sketched character she appears to serve little purpose other than to be murdered.

We never hear her views on any of the proceedings, indeed she has nothing to say at all throughout the whole yarn, not even uttering a sound when killed.  Paradoxically she only finds a voice after death through proxy, as it were.

Despite the title there are actually two black cats in the story, although they may actually be one and the same – that both have lost an eye would suggest so.  Perceived differences between the two may be a consequence of the storyteller’s deteriorating mental state, for we are well into unreliable narrator territory with this story.


LEININGEN VERSUS THE ANTS
By Carl Stephenson

Owner of a plantation in the Brazilian jungle, Leiningen has built up his farm considerably over the previous few years.  So he is not going to abandon it just because 20 square miles of voracious army ants are heading his way.  After all, he believes there is no elemental force which cannot be overcome by judicious application of the human intellect.  But these appear to be pretty smart insects.

I suppose this entry would probably fail under most people’s criteria of what constitutes a horror story, but I can forgive Bertie including this one as it is such a rattling good yarn.  More Rider Haggard than H.P. Lovecraft perhaps, but Stephenson’s story packs enough tension to keep the reader entertained.  And, although the narrative stretches out over three days of action, the pace never falters.

There are no hidden depths to the hero; and one can almost imagine him barrel-chested, chisel-jawed chewing on his cigar the “size of a corn cob” staring out over his property, daring those darned insects to trespass.  His four mile dash (there and back) through the ants at the climax of the defence perhaps stretches credulity a touch, but at the breathless conclusion of the whole business one’s only reaction is “Phew”.

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