Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Eighth Pan Book of Horror Stories (1967)



Pan8 features what we are intended to believe is the decapitated head of a Victorian gentleman resting inside a hat box.  Unfortunately the head is so unrealistic, the picture just looks as if some employee at Madame Tussaud's has taken some work home with him.

A couple of the tales in Pan8 feature disembodied heads, but these are either too small (The Tsantsa) or too female (My Dear How Dead....) to be represented by this whiskery chap.  


                                                      ~

THE ASSASSIN
By Raymond Williams

It is 1079, and Matilda Marshal has decided it is high time she rids herself of her halitosis-ridden husband Sir Hubert.  So she and her brother have enlisted the help of one Rufus Flambard who is going to knife Sir Hubert, and then take his place both as Lord of the Manor and in Matilda’s bed.

But a creaky door proves to be his undoing, and he swiftly finds himself down in the dungeons enduring an unpleasant eyeball/red hot poker interface incident.  Matilda, quite understandably, is concerned Rufus may spill the beans, so takes the business of eliminating Sir Hubert into her own hands.

An entertaining treatise on the fickleness of women, with Williams not stinting on the gory torture details.  Although quite why Matilda didn’t just do the job herself in the first place I cannot think.  I am sure an enterprising lady such as she, could easily have ran rings round the Taster. 


THE MOST PRECIOUS
By John D. Keevauver

An American dentist on holiday in Syria becomes engrossed in watching a street-stand vendor selling toothpaste.  Partly it is the flawlessly white teeth of the young boy on whom the stall-holder demonstrates his wares, but also the beauty of the vendor’s niqab-wearing daughter. 

I cannot help but feel Mr Keefauver, and indeed Bertie, are having a little joke at our expense with this one.  For although there is a modicum of horror involved (no-one, I’m sure could enjoy having their lips sewn shut), the pay-off last line is so left-field one’s first response is to go back and read the tale again, to ascertain if something obvious has been missed. 


THE CHILDREN
By W. Baker-Evans

Mr. Gillespie loves to travel, but loathes the whole package holiday business, so consequently often finds himself in weird and wonderful places – like stranded on a lonely country road in (what was) Yugoslavia.  So, with time to kill whilst his driver attempts to repair his vehicle, he toddles off into the woods for a spot of sketching.

There he encounters four feral children.  Four hungry feral children.

This tale reminded me a touch of the story Feathered Friends in Pan2, but without any of Philip Macdonald’s fine characterisation nor ominous build-up of tension.  In both tales, there is no back story to the murderous woodland inhabitants, but whilst this fact appears to add to the aura of weirdness which surrounds “Friends”, the omission just irritates with this yarn.   


THE ILLUSTRATED MAN
By Ray Bradbury

Having piled on the weight of late, the impressively named William Phillipus Phelps loses his job as “tent-man” with the carnival, but is offered the post of tattooed man.  A visit to the strange witch-like tattoo artist later, he finds himself covered in illustrations, with two special ones to be kept covered until the Great Unveiling.

These images, so the tattoo lady states, will foretell the future.  However his wife is not best pleased when the first one is revealed to be a representation of William strangling her. 

The Illustrated Man is perhaps Bradbury’s best known collection of short stories, but somewhat ironically this tale bearing the name does not actually feature in the collection.  Or at least did not initially; although I believe a number of more recent editions have included it.

This story, at least I think so, asks us to consider the role fate plays in all of our lives, and the extent to which can we can influence the future by actions in the present.  We are left to ponder whether the first image was a prediction of what was to come, or whether the deed was planted in William’s mind as a consequence of what he saw.  Or perhaps the old woman had looked into his heart and drawn what was already there,

Lots of interesting conundrums to ponder with this one.


PLAYTIME
By A.G.J. Rough

Six-year old David’s Mummy, whilst attempting to do a bit of window cleaning has tumbled off her perch and fatally cracked her skull on the gas stove.  Which is a bit of a nuisance for David, as he has just arrived home and is looking for his tea. 

Never mind, clearly Mummy is playing some sort of game, so the boy picks up a crayon to draw on her face.  Then a pin……and then a sharp vegetable knife…….

A.G.J Rough is another of those authors whose work appears only in the PBoHS collections, seemingly having had nothing in print before or after.  Which does not really surprise me, for this story is an unpleasant piece devoid of any meaningful characterisation or literary merit. 

The only thing it does have in its favour at fewer than three pages, is brevity.


THE TSANTSA
By Maurice Sandoz

Set in Rio de Janiero this tale has a young man, in the thrall of an American girl, procuring at her request a tsantsa – a shrunken head.  But the girl wants one made from a white man, so it has to be specially “commissioned”. 

Before she can be presented with her gift however, the girl succumbs to yellow fever and her lover, racked with guilt that a young boy may have been murdered to provide the head, flees to Europe.  But once there odd things began to happen to both the tsantsa, and our hero's own head.

Written in 1950, The Tsantsa harks back to the early PBoHS volumes which bristled with classic horror stories.  This one opens with an almost comical recipe for producing one’s own tsantsa, before embarking upon a really rather enthralling tale of love, obsession and manipulation.  It rambles a touch at times perhaps, but I found the narrative so engrossing, persevering to see how things turned out was no chore.

But the tale turned over so slightly dull after the death of Alice, and I found I really rather missed the feisty little fruit loop.  For thereafter proceedings just sort of whimpered to an slightly unsatisfactory and unresolved close.


THE “BEAN-NIGHE”
By Dorothy K. Haynes

A young girl returning home at dusk to her lonely croft encounters an eerie figure washing garments in the river.  Her mother anxiously informs her she has seen the “bean-nighe”, the ghostly figure of an old woman whose presence foretells a death.

The girl’s consumptive brother is regarded as the likeliest candidate, but when after a few days he begins to improve, the mother asks her daughter to return to the river.  For apparently, if one catches the bean-nighe unawares, it is compelled to reveal whose shroud it is washing.

Although it is not explicitly stated, most of the clues would suggest this story is set in rural Scotland somewhere.  Dorothy Haynes (a Scot herself) litters her prose with almost parodic Scots words like “wheesht” and “gloaming”.  The only place name mentioned, although fictional, does have a Caledonian ring to it, as do the names of the characters.

But it is the uttering of the Mother which raises doubts.  For when she spouts such twaddle as “Oh Holy Mary”, “Oh, merciful Lord” and “Try. For the love of God”, you can be sure wherever she worships, it is not in any post-reformation Church of Scotland Kirk.

This linguistic anomaly notwithstanding, The Bean-Nighe really is a particularly effective ghost story and an ominous sense of foreboding permeates the whole narrative.
  
The author succeeds even within the limits of eight pages to create a cast of three-dimensional characters we care about.  I could particularly relate to her description of the daughter as living in “a perpetual dream of being otherwise, but did not realise it, because she did not know what she wanted.”

A fine story by a little-remembered Scots writer.


THE TUNNEL
By Raymond Harvey

George is just about to settle down to a night-shift in his job as signalman when he receives a phone call telling him he can "stand down" for the night, as there has been a derailment further up the track.

Arriving home after midnight he is puzzled to find his best friend’s motorcycle parked in his drive, but no longer puzzled when unobserved, he witnesses his best friend’s hands parked on the naked body of his (George’s) wife.

With admirable self-control he turns around and leaves, but already is plotting his revenge.

Ah yes, Revenge.  Where would the PBoHS series have been without generous helpings of that dish best served cold?  And few servings are colder than the manner in which George dispassionately dispatches the two lovers.  The actual nuts and bolts of the business is not terribly credible, not least the ease with which he persuades the pair down to his signal box.

But the plot is all an excuse for some particularly gore-ridden descriptive prose by Harvey who, just when we think things can get no worse, playfully tosses a few hungry rats into the pot.


THE GROWTH
By Bruce Lowery

Mother has a pea-sized growth on her side but, not trusting doctors she refuses to consult one.  Until it has reached the size of an orange that is.  Once hospitalised, she finds the surgeons strangely reluctant to operate.  And the growth?  Well it just gets bigger and Bigger and BIGGER.

Quite why the tale was set in 2021 (it was written in the Sixties, I am guessing), I am not sure as surgical science certainly does not appear to have progressed much.  The only references to any futuristic events are talk of a Canado-American War and the author taking the tube to Detroit.  Neither of which advance the narrative, nor even seem relevant.

I liked this one, nevertheless.  I enjoyed the way the author scattered little anatomical mysteries to keep me intrigued – those two organ-like things, and those pebbles.  And he did not fail to deliver with a wonderfully gloopy gross-out scene as Son goes guddling around inside Mother's coffin, looking for what?  Any signs of mum I suppose.

For lovers of gunge and goo out there, this one’s for you. 


LOVER’S LEAP
By Frank Quinton

Brothers Paul and Bernard have not seen each other for twelve years; not since Paul found his wife skinny dipping with Bernard in his own pool.  Paul appears to be holding out the olive branch, but clearly Bernard does not know his brother as well as he thinks he does.

One of the many stories which I am sure was written in reverse; with the author beginning by dreaming up a nasty way of killing someone, and then working backwards through motivation and finally characterisation.  Unfortunately the author skimped on the latter more than a touch, with the result Bernie disappears before our eyes without engendering a flicker of emotion.


THE JANISSARIES OF EMILION
By Basil Copper

Farlow is a physicist who has been working rather too hard of late; a consequence of which may perhaps be the series of lucid recurring dreams where is finds himself on some sandy shore in sight of some beautiful ancient city called Emilion.  Each recurrence of the dream allows him to move closer towards the city, wherein his lady love resides.

But one night, into the dream arrives a group of fierce warriors on horseback – the Janissaries – riding furiously towards him.  And each subsequent night's dream appears to bring them closer.

Farlow naturally becomes rather anxious as to what will happen once the horsemen are upon him in the dream, particularly so as he has been in the past able to bring back both sand and a rock to the real world from this otherworldly dreamscape.

This one begins with a jarring wrong-footing exercise by Copper, as he begins the story in the third person present tense, before abruptly switching to the voice of past tense narrator (a friend of Fallow’s).  And, although some of the prose becomes rather too flowery for my taste at times, this is a fine contribution to Pan8.

Where Copper does succeed is, in less in developing a sense of foreboding (there is none really, we know things are not going to end well), but in painting the utter helplessness of Farlow.  A quiet, likeable, bookish individual, he cannot for the life of him work out how or why these visions are being visited upon himself.  And apart from an early reference to overwork, the author does not really address this conundrum either.

There is initially a brief suggestion there is some retained memory from a past life responsible for things, but Copper’s introduction of the supernatural into the climax blows that theory out of the water.


THE COFFIN MAKERS
By Raymond Williams

Thomas and Samuel are the titular artisans.  Thomas is a perhaps slightly slow-witted, but nevertheless dedicated craftsman, whilst Samuel is a rather more cynical individual; not above stripping corpses of their valuables, either before or after burial.

But when Samuel chooses to flaunt his latest prize, Thomas decides to put an end to high light-fingered activities once and for all.

As with William’s other contribution to Pan8, The Coffin Makers takes us back in time.  But this one to the mid-Nineteenth century, with its talk of “jars of ale”, “Thomas me lad” and necks being “stretched at the end of a rope”.

It is a readable enough yarn, even if Samuel’s reaction to, what I can only assume was probably regarded as a perk of an undertaker’s job back then (and perhaps still is), does appear a touch extreme.


SAD ROAD TO THE SEA
By Gerald Kersh

Thatcher’s tailoring business is suffering a cash-flow crisis, and the stress is driving him to a complete mental breakdown.  The final straw arrives in the shape of rent collector Mr Burke, who’s head Thatcher staves in with a heavy pressing iron. 

Obsessed with having a swim in the sea, Thatcher flees to Southend, but is recognised and arrested before he can enjoy his dip.  But he will not be denied a final “swim”. 

This story is a rather more cerebral contribution than Kersh’s previous: the pulpy (but nevertheless fun) Men Without Bones.  The title of this yarn refers not just to Thatcher’s literal journey to the coast, but also the sad end to his life, the sea representing death itself (I think).

Not that the narrative is all unremitting misery, for Kersh injects a couple of rather incongruous musical interludes into the narrative.  The rich chap who occasionally lends Thatcher money, punctuates his toff utterings with lines from the latest jazz tunes “Oh whaddiddi doo-diddy, doo-diddy,do…” and the like.

This is as nothing though to the chanting antics of the Detective-Inspector Knatchbull, the policeman brought in to investigate Burke’s murder.  Kersh spends almost half-a page introducing him in a manner Dickens would have been proud, before having him interspersing his dialogue with half-remembered music-hall songs.  One has to wonder if Dennis Potter read this tale at some point early in his writing career, for Knatchbull is very much A Singing Detective. 

A song motif runs throughout the tale, with Thatcher himself whistling “These Foolish Things”, before depression descends.  And, of course, there are also the flies around Burke’s corpse, which Thatcher imagines to be “singing and vibrating”.

The light-hearted and doom-laden contrasts do jar a touch at times, making it quite a disorientating read, but by the end I did feel Thatcher was one of the few PBoHS killers for whom I felt a modicum of sympathy.


THE BRINDLE BULL TERRIER
By Dulcie Gray

The parents of siblings Nigel and Janet live overseas, so term holidays are spent with School-matron Miss Dacie.  Whilst Miss D dotes on Nigel, she cannot stand Janet and bullies her constantly.  So when Janet threatens to go to the Police following a particularly severe beating, Miss Dacie decides to act.

Enter the Brindle Bull Terrier.

Children killing adults even as early in the series as Pan8 had already become a staple of the collection; with the likes of The Pale Boy, The Children, The Small World of Lewis Stillman, The Attic Express, Party Games and so on.  I wonder if Ms. Gray was aware of this fact when she neatly sidestepped the obvious revenge tale, and instead took the narrative in a totally different direction. 

One which resulted in the clearly unhinged Miss Dacie ironically ridding herself of one problem, to find it replaced by another even more intractable one.  

And I for one hope the resourceful Nigel screwed the vicious old trout for all she was worth.


SUGAR AND SPICE
By A.G.J. Rough

A young boy dismembers his sister with his Junior Handyman Set, in order to see what makes her tick.

I really did not enjoy either of A.G.J Rough’s contributions to Pan8.  It was not the nastiness being perpetrated by a child which I found offensive, but more the fact I felt my intelligence (such as it is) was in some way being insulted.   Both this tale and Playtime struck me as lazy vignettes probably scribbled down in a couple of minutes, with the sole intention of attempting to shock.


THE COMPUTER
By Rene Morris

The year is 2100 and society has done away with the need for a judicial system by entrusting a computer with the task of detecting crime, sentencing the guilty, and organising the punishment.  And where the sentence is death, the execution is carried out by an “Eminent Citizen” chosen at random and informed of his/her task by the computer.

What could possibly go wrong?

Whatever criticisms may be pointed at Rene Morris’ writing style, one cannot argue the subject matter in her first three Pan entries were diverse in the extreme.  Here we are in some dystopian future society where crime and punishment is in the hands of an omnipotent computer. 

Ms Morris struggles a touch in describing her Brave New Worlds, randomly casting in vague references to the “auto-path”, “tele-tape” and the like.  But it is with the description of her 22nd Century computer - replete with spinning reels of tape and needles on dials - that she flounders.

And as for the whole premise of the story, one would have thought, given the myriad variables within could scupper the computer’s arrangements, a successful outcome would be a rare exception rather than the norm. 

But at least, after having ballsed things up so spectacularly, the computer had the good grace to commit suicide.


SUDDENLY – AFTER A GOOD SUPPER
By Martin Waddell

Denis awakes to find himself sealed in a coffin within his family crypt.  By means of some vigorous rocking he succeeds in toppling his coffin over, and breaking his way out.  Now, all he has to do is get out of the crypt before he starves to death.

Martin Waddell really got into his stride with Pan8, perfecting his style of macabre humour.  There was a cartoonish element to many of his plotlines, hence the reason he got away with so much casual gore.  But it was his lightness of touch, and laconic humour which raised his contributions above the majority of those in the Pan collections around this period.  Such as:

“He now lay in a damp, dark vault with a particularly nauseous smell which could only be blamed on the onset of decay in his grannie, whom he had buried the week previously”

And later:

“He battered upon (his coffin lid), he shouted, but there was only his dead grannie to hear … at least she was the only person with ear-drums left unrotted, the rest were quite past that stage, poor dears.  Not that his grandmother’s unrotted ears were much use to her then, or to Denis, though they were later to prove quite a delicacy”

Really not bad, for a man whose day job was writing children’s stories


THE BENEFACTOR
By Walter Winward

A young girl is brutally murdered, ostensibly to save her soul from sin.

It is impossible to find anything positive to say about this tale, as Winward creates a monstrous Jimmy Saville/Cyril Smith hybrid haunting Childrens’ Homes in order to indulge his paedophilic, necrophilic desires.

I can recall reading some time ago about another horror anthology (More Devil’s Kisses, I think it was), whole print runs of which were seized and pulped by the Police due to the presence of one particularly obnoxious story.  Had the same fate befallen Pan8 due to the inclusion of The Benefactor, I do not think Bertie could have complained one bit.  


SUITABLE APPLICANT
By Charles Braunstone

Helen is perusing the jobs’ page in her local newspaper when she comes across something familiar.  It is advertisement for a live-in companion to a retired surgeon.  What surprises her is that her friend Monica took up this post just a week before.  Why has it become vacant again so soon?  Best way to find out, thinks Helen, is to apply herself.

This story was Charles Braunstone’s only contribution to the PBoHS series, which I find rather surprising given it is just the sort of semi-pornographic, misogynistic twaddle Bertie had moved towards including in the series.  The fact that googling the author’s name fails to bring up any other literary activity suggests to me it was a written-to-order piece for Pan8, and that Braunstone is most likely a pseudonym.  Surely not Mr. Waddell again?

Re-reading the thing recently the story struck me as more silly than disturbing, although I do have to admit (and I blush as I write this), to having been more than a little excited by it back in my testosterone-fuelled early teens. 

Perhaps the fact I was terrified of girls at the time, meant the thought have having access to some helpless female appealed.  And I recall wondering back then, whether I would be considered a suitable applicant myself should Harper’s post ever become vacant? 


MY DEAR HOW DEAD YOU LOOK AND YET HOW SWEETLY YOU SING
By Priscilla Marron.

Although Wilbraham has murdered his wife and hidden her body beneath the floorboards, he has not been able to stop her singing to him.

Although written in an unusual poetry cum prose style, there are shades of Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart in the narrative, with the same outcome for the killer. 

The one puzzle left unsolved is whether Wilbraham actually chopped Florence into pieces or not.  He appears to believe so, and her songs also suggest so.  But Florence's body is described after discovery as being "uxor intacta" (Latin for wife untouched).

All very confusing, and I guess probably deliberately so.

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