Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories

     
                                               

The cover of Pan5 features a rather pretty brunette sporting a very sixties bob, the right half of whose face has a grinning skull superimposed over it.  I would have suggested this image referred to the undead Madelon Leroy in Seabury Quinn's Clair de Lune were it not for the fact she is pointedly described in the yarn as having "spun-gold hair, unbobbed".


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THE MAN WITH THE MOON IN HIM
By William Sansom

Les Baynes is a bit of a social misfit who enjoys scribbling profanities on the London underground advertising posters.  But the inadvertent loss of his pencil forces him up to the surface to seek his kicks elsewhere.

As with Pan4, Bertie chose to open Pan5 with one of William Sansom’s understated yarns.  It is an entertaining enough read, but I would suggest “Moon” would sit more comfortably in an anthology of psychological thrillers rather than a PBoHS collection.

The protagonist is certainly an odd young man, troubled by dark thoughts and obsessions: his name when phonetically converted to the French “les baines” translates back as The Undertow.  Coincidence?

Much of the overly-descriptive narrative serves as a build up to the rather confusing encounter with the girl on the common.  I read into this that Baines could only do what he was intending (rape, robbery, murder?) whilst the girl showed fear.  But when she appeared to surrender to him sexually (she was, in fact, looking to give up her handbag without a struggle), Baynes was suddenly left powerless.

But I could be well wide of the mark, for Sansom often left ambiguous loose ends in his Pan contributions.


I’LL LOVE YOU – ALWAYS
By Adobe James

Local boy made good Dan Spencer returns to his Dixie hometown, buying up and restoring the local haunted mansion – complete with nymphomaniac ghost.  But the spirit soon tires of dallying with Dan, and turns her attentions to his playing hard-to-get friend Pierre.

Typical James stuff here with lashings of sex hiding a distinctly un-PC sting in the tale.  This one, however, is played strictly for laughs, although I rather doubt Pierre will be finding much to smile about for the rest of eternity.   


COMMAND PERFORMANCE
By C.A. Cooper
  
By means of a séance, a departed priest relates the tale of his demise after being trapped in the cellar of an old house, and also the reasons why he found himself inexorably drawn there in the first place.

“Performance” is an unusually constructed tale; the opening paragraph acting as exposition to the séance transcript which forms the rest of the story.  But within this text lies a further embedded story, which the priest experiences as a vision when trapped in the cellar.  The plot itself is equally convoluted with, if I have got it correct, a mobius-strip reincarnation time-shift even Stephen Hawkins may struggle to explain.

For the priest is somehow transported back in time; whereupon his sudden appearance frightens to death the individual who was his previous incarnation.  But one would have thought the reincarnated individual could not have come into existence until after his predecessor had died!!  It gives me a headache just to think about it.

Equally skull-numbing is Cooper’s prose during the first half of the narrative, where he has the priest philosophically pondering the nature of depression (or moods, as he calls it).  After a few paragraphs, I wanted to shout at him “Just cheer up, for god’s sake.”  


THE TREAT
By M.S. Waddell

Harris is a hangman, and although he displays to the world a dispassionate professional attitude to his work, his inner thoughts are somewhat darker.  And he ponders if, after thirty-one “clean-breaks”, he deserves to give himself a little treat.

1964, when Pan5 was published was the year of the last execution by hanging in the UK.  So perhaps an examination of what may have gone on inside the head of those individuals who pulled the lever (or whatever) sparked the author to pen this one.

Waddell paints a picture of Harris as an outwardly normal individual, who commands the grudging respect of those who know his vocation.  But he, rather surprisingly has succeeded in keeping his second job a secret from his wife.  He also furtively maintains a scrapbook of cuttings covering the executions he has performed and regards Jack the Ripper as “a man after his own heart”.  Harris is clearly a man in the job for the fun of it.

But the tale, in truth, fails really to go anywhere.  Which is rather surprising given the quality of many of Martin Waddell’s contributions throughout the series.


CLAIR DE LUNE
By Seabury Quinn

De Grandin and Trowbridge are vacationing by the sea, when the Frenchman notices a young woman (Madelon Leroy) he is sure he has seen before – a long time before.  His suspicions that this woman may not be all she appears are heightened when Dr Trowbridge is called to attend a girl (Mazie) who has been visiting the woman in question; the girl now seemingly dying of starvation.

Whilst I would not go so far as to say this one is a re-write of Carmilla, I would put my mortgage on the fact that Mr. Quinn was at least familiar with Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella.  For both tales feature an undead creature only able maintain its form as a beautiful woman by feeding upon young girls.  Whilst there is a strong lesbian undercurrent to both, Le Fan’s creature drank the blood of its victims, whilst in “Clair”, the simple act of having her prey go to sleep in her arms seems sufficient to allow Madelon to draw what nutrition she requires from them.  Consequently her victims die from starvation rather than anaemia. 

And hunger is a theme which runs throughout the tale.  Upon first sight of Madelon in beautiful female form, De Grandin describes her as a “bonne bouchee”.  Soon afterwards the Frenchman is describing himself as “almost starved” and “vilely hungry”.  And how does he celebrate his subsequent triumph over his adversary?  Why by having a slap-up meal of course, the dishes of which are described in intimate detail.

Also never very far from the surface of the narrative is sex.  Besides the obvious chemistry between Madelon and Mazie, there are also some not so subtle hints at the true nature of the relationship between De Grandin and Trowbridge.  For one can almost hear the green-eyed demon of jealousy at work as Trowbridge scolds his friend for staring at Madelon, mistaking his interest for lust.  And what are we to make of De Grandin’s “We might try going to bed” suggestion to Trowbridge?

I feel for all its derivative plot line, “Claire” is a far more sophisticated yarn than Quinn’s Pan1 offering House of Horror.  In addition to all the intriguing sexual ambiguity, De Grandin’s silly vocal explosions are toned down significantly and the horror is all rather more subtle.     

My only real complaint with the story is, as with “Horror”, our two heroes are aided in their quest by another convenient bolt from the blue - in this case a car crash.


THE SINS OF THE FATHERS
By Cristianna Brand

A messenger pitches up at a remote Welsh cottage, asking that “the sin-eater” return with him to perform his work over the corpse of his deceased master.  But the sin-eater is himself close to death, so his son is persuaded by his mother to take his father’s place.

I admit to having never heard of sin-eaters when I first read this story back in the early 1970s, but fortunately the tale houses a concise expositional paragraph early on:

A good meal – the worse the sinner, the better the banquet.  They spread out the food upon the dead man’s bosom. And from there you ate the meal and with it the dead man’s sins.  And the dead, made innocent again, went directly to glory.”

It all seems rather silly these days, but I suppose the practice may have made perfect sense when viewed through the eyes of the more primitive adherents to christianity; a religion obsessed with the idea of passing one’s sins onto some scapegoat or other.

As a piece of historical commentary “Sins” is certainly a diverting read, but as a short story I feel it is all about deception, and the lengths to which a resourceful woman will go to look after her own.

The sin-eater’s wife deceives the messenger into taking her son as a replacement, even though he (the son) knows little about the whole business.  She instructs him how to deceive the relatives of the dead man into thinking he has eaten the food and hence taken the corpse’s sins.  And finally she deceives her own son into agreeing to eat the stolen food from the chest of his deceased father, so that her husband may go to his grave with a cleansed soul.  In doing so, of course, the mother has also ensured her son will never go hungry again.

She, and not either of the sin-eaters, old or new, is the star of the show.

As an aside – after rereading the story for this blog, I dropped into Wikipedia to see what it had to say about Sin-Eating, and was amused to see the alert “Not to be confused with the ‘80s pop singer Sinitta”.


MESSAGE FOR MARGIE
By Christine Campbell Thomson

Margie is attending séances hoping to make contact with her dead brother Tom.  When a message finally does come through, the medium swiftly rather wishes it hadn’t.

A real duffer this one, with unsympathetic two-dimensional individuals plodding their way towards the story’s dénouement.  The most promising characters, Ada and Lucy, are regretfully the least developed.  The final paragraph does attempt to tie up a few loose ends and to provide some motivation for the narrative, but is maddeningly vague.  


THE OTHER PASSENGER
By John Keir Cross

A famous pianist is being haunted (or at least believes he is) by a doppelganger.

This one is another of the PBoHS found manuscripts – this one effectively a suicide note, so we have to allow for the fact the whole thing may be a fabrication by a deluded or ill individual. 

I did enjoy the first part of the tale, where Spenser related his harsh Perthshire upbringing – a bit like a cross between Sunset Song and Life in a Scotch Sitting Room.  And I also liked the manner in which the author subsequently drew together all the little clues he had scattered throughout the opening few paragraphs. 

But I felt the narrative became rather unfocussed after Spenser first encountered his doppelganger face-to face, and I was disappointed the way the potentially rather titillating business of the broken engagement was glossed over. 

All in all a frustrating and slightly overlong yarn, at the end of which we are no closer to ascertaining just what the “Other Passenger’s” motivation was for making such a nuisance of himself.  


THE SPIDER
By Basil Copper

A travelling salesman finds himself still 50 miles (not kilometers?) from Paris, so stops for the night at an inn.  Having a pathological fear of spiders, he is more than a little alarmed to find himself sharing a toilet with three particularly fat specimens of such.  But these are as nothing to the whopper awaiting him in his bedroom.

Basil Copper supplied three contributions to the PBoHS series, this one not only being his first, but also apparently his debut fiction in print.  It is a fairly run-of-the-mill yarn, with the salesman being such a silly wimp we have little sympathy for his plight.

The one note of interest is where Copper describes the landlord of the inn as one "who lived by the fears of his customers”.  Surely not everyone who pitched up at his inn could be such a strung-out arachnophobe as the unfortunate M. Pinet? 


LUKUNDOO
By Edward Lucas White

A party of African explorers set out to the aid of a white man ailing with “something like carbuncles”.

A delightful body-horror tale.  Imagine if you can that David Cronenberg had filmed Heart of Darkness and you are halfway there.  The author sets out a trail of intriguing little mysteries – all that whistling, speaking in tongues and those tiny shrunken heads  - that one turns the pages eager for the explanation.  And White does not disappoint.

I did so love his description of the “carbuncles” and their “wicked wee eyes”.  Quite why they spoke in Shakespearean English ("Yea, verily…..") though, I have no idea.


WORDS OF THE DUMB
By Alex Hamilton

Justin Thyme (honest) is a chap with an unusual talent.  He can imitate the sounds made by a whole range of birds and beasts.  Indeed, it is his assertion he can (a la Dr Doolittle) actually speak with the animals.  But as his abilities to converse with the dumb improve, he finds communicating with his own species more and more difficult. 

Not quite up to the standard of Hamilton’s contribution to Pan4, but “Words” is a divertingly odd read nonetheless.  Whether Justin could actually converse with the animals, or whether this is just a tale recording one man’s descent into mental breakdown is left to the reader to decide.


The REVENGE
By Adobe James

James Rogers receives a frantic call from his friend Jack Conklin asking for help to find the man who has raped his bride Susan on their wedding night.  When Susan identifies the guilty party, the two friends take the law into their own hands.    

Some Pan stories just stay with you for life, and this is one such.  For I can distinctly recall my first reading of The Revenge; squirming in my seat forty-odd years ago.  And I have never forgotten it.  By far the strongest entry to Pan5, it unsettles, disturbs and indeed horrifies as all good horror stories should.


THE CONFESSION OF CHARLES LINKWORTH
By E.F. Benson

The Charles Linkworth of the title is a convicted murderer who has just gone to the gallows.  Despite being indisputably guilty, he refused to confess to the chaplain beforehand.  But, now deceased, he is having second thoughts.

“Confession” has a distinctly Poe-like feel to it, but fails to raise even the remotest chill. Telephones were perhaps still a novel invention back in 1912 when the tale was first published, so perhaps the idea of the dead picking up the phone for a chat held more bite back then?  


KALI
By John D. Keefauver

An American tourist visiting Calcutta chooses to eschew the Government Tourist Office, and instead explore the city in the company of an attractive unregistered tour guide.  The pair witness the sacrifice of a number of goats at Kali’s temple, after which the girl (also called Kali) invites her charge back to her room.  The American optimistically hopes some jiggy-jiggy is on the menu, although is sure he hears a goat bleating somewhere not far off.

It is hard really to suss what all the fuss is about here.  Were it babies getting the chop rather than goats, one may understand the protagonist’s angst.  But he really is a bit of a drama queen, continually whining on about "nightmares" and "terrible things", and punctuating his narrative with ! after !.

As for the obsession he appears to have taken back home with him one would have thought, given he has given up on teaching, a career in an abattoir beckons.  The good ole US of A after all, slaughters 800 million land animals per year.  Not too many of these are goats admittedly.


MEN WITHOUT BONES
By Gerald Kersh

A wild-eyed American academic stumbles onto a banana-boat (!) carrying a tale of an encounter with strange oleaginous creatures in the depths of the Nicaraguan jungle. 

Although the killer last line does not really stand up to any sort of scrutiny - surely the remnants of earthmen would be found not living alongside the invading spacecraft, but more likely in some remote spot on the other side of the globe, Men Without Bones is nevertheless an exhilarating ride.

Kersh’s evocative prose pitches the reader head-first into the bustle of a busy Central American port, and then deep into the claustrophobic, almost impenetrable rain forest.  And he does not stint with his description of the chaps of the title.  I particularly enjoyed the eye-popping conclusion to the dissection/autopsy.

A strong contribution to Pan5 and, rather disappointingly, one of only two stories by the sadly underrated Kersh to be selected by Bertie for the series.


THE SMALL WORLD OF LEWIS STILLMAN
By William F. Nolan

In post-apocalypse Los Angeles Lewis Stillman’s world consists of the extensive storm drains beneath the city, with occasional forays up onto street level to scavenge essential supplies.  But he has to be very careful, as those who have inherited the earth wish him harm.  For Stillman (the name is not accidental) may well be the last man alive on the planet.

Rather in the manner that The Importance of Remaining Ernest reflected One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so “Small World” is I am Legend given a haircut.  The outcome is depressingly similar, but the difference here is that Stillman’s adversaries are not mutants, but feral children. 

I should have preferred the author to have spent some time expanding upon what sort of society the children had evolved for themselves, and how they had managed to survive for six years on their own – I should imagine unless they began eating each other, they would pretty soon have all starved to death.  But the narrative ignores this stuff and concentrates on Stillman’s deteriorating mental state, with an irrational piece of risk-taking leading to his demise.


THE LIVING SHADOW
By Rene Morris

Rutland believes Manson to be his love rival, so waits for him in a darkened country lane and bashes his head in with a boulder.  But although he wins the girl, Rutland is tormented by nightmares, leading him to return to the scene of the crime some months later, just to ensure his victim is still hidden in the ditch where he left him.  Manson’s copse is still there, although the dead man appears to have made some friends in the interim.

“Shadow” is a fair-to-middling revenge tale, where the victim uses the rather unusual method of somehow persuading a colony of ants to do his bidding.  I can live with that concept, but it is the minor details of plotting which irk me slightly.

Manson apparently only learned the girl’s name that evening, so we have to assume this was a first date, yet Rutland has already got wind of events and decided murder is the most appropriate course of action.  Rutland is such a violent, short tempered thug, we consider him to be some rough farm labourer or such like, but he is apparently a member of a gentlemen’s club – we learn this from an acquaintance he meets out walking.  The introduction of this latter character to the story makes no narrative sense at all.

And some of the dialogue is best described as fanciful: when a clearly bonkers Rutland informs Mason he is going to murder him, his response is “May I ask what I have done to provoke such an act?”  Talk about British stiff upper lip.

An interesting eye-motif runs throughout the narrative, with the stars described as “like uncountable watching eyes”.  Manson’s own eyes remain open after his death, and it is these which haunt Rutland’s nightmares.  The moon also figures significantly.  As Rutland waits for his victim in the night, Manson’s moonlit shadow falls at his feet, mirroring the final act when the living shadow takes it’s revenge, this scene moon-bathed also.

This made me reflect upon just how many tales in Pan5 had the moon as a theme.  The opener was of course The Man With The Moon In Him, with both this tale and The Revenge exploring the effect of the full moon upon human behaviour.  Then we had the vampire-like creature who described herself as Clair De Lune in the yarn of that name.  And I do not think I am stretching the link too greatly here when I add to this The Importance of Remaining Ernest – a tale full of lunatics. 

Yep, Pan5 really was the lunar collection.  


THE BONFIRE
By C.A. Cooper

John Wilson is a career-frustrated headmaster of a “village junior school” whose pathological jealousy of Martin, a younger colleague, leads him to plot murder.  When the chance discovery of a medical condition suffered by his intended victim coincides with imminent Bonfire Night celebrations, Wilson puts his plan into action.  

The narrative in this one takes the form of a madman’s internal monologue, which I found very reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart.  In both stories, the narrators repeatedly attempt to convince the reader of their sanity, whilst their thoughts and actions prove conclusively otherwise.  But whilst Poe, I feel got the balance right, Cooper has his character banging on and on about his sanity.

But that is fine.  Where I feel the story really falls down is the manner by which Martin is dispatched.  Having one of the two protagonists in a story suffering from epileptic seizures is permissible.  But having both is just silly!!

The subsequent encounter with the policemen outside the storage hut is straight out of Fawlty Towers, even if does end with Wilson jacking up the body count, whilst the business of hauling Martin up onto the top of the pyre is equally unconvincing.  All in all, not one of Bertie’s better choices, I feel.

That being said, Bertie clearly enjoyed the notion of folks being immolated on a bonfire, for this is the third such tale in his collections (after Guy Fawkes Night in Pan4 and The Other Passenger earlier in this volume).  Perhaps he was a closet sympathiser with the aims of the hapless Guido, and this was his way of paying his respects?


HAND IN HAND
By M.S. Waddell

Rosie has just been brutally murdered in her own house, and is now suffering the additional indignity of being dismembered and packaged up for disposal by her killer.  But he is interrupted by the arrival of two of Rosie’s friends.  He hastily manages to conceal most of the pieces of Rosie, but appears to have lost a hand.

This is quite a pivotal story in the Pantheon, as it is the first introduction of out-and-out humour to the collection.  Each subsequent volume would generally contain at least one of these light-relief pieces; a fair number from the pen of Mr Waddell.

We arrive at the tale with the murder already committed and poor Rosie already in pieces.  And, even with all the gore slopping around, “Hand” reads like some frantic Ben Travers farce….with extra body parts.  Right down to the “Can we give you a hand?” line, and Rosie’s final revenge. 


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