Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Seventh Pan Book of Horror Stories (1966)








Pan7 was the one volume which was immeasurably uplifted by the cover art replacement, as the hungover bat is replaced by a fatally underweight chap set against a scarlet backdrop.

Bats put in an appearance in (not surprisingly) David Grant's story of that name, but these were a collection of little chaps who lived in Mervyn's shed - not the moustachio'd whopper we get on the cover.   There is also the bat-like thing which does for Sheila in The Fur Brooch, I suppose.


The alternative cover, I am sure, represents the semi-incinerated corpse of Owen in I'll Never Leave You Ever.



~

THE MAN WHO HATED FLIES
By Charles J. Benfleet

Two old friends discuss the nature of life after death.  One expresses firm views on reincarnation, and vows to prove his beliefs after his own, apparently imminent, death.  Which he does in a rather unsuspected manner.

A truly memorable twist mercifully saves the yarn from drowning under the verbose dialogue of the two friends.  Although quite why the narrator is so distraught by his actions I cannot fathom.  Surely his friend will soon return in another, hopefully more auspicious, form fairly soon?


THE THING
By R. Chetwynd-Hayes

A writer is getting pleasantly sozzled in a bar when he gets talking to a woman, as you do.  An acquaintance of hers arrives, and before long the newcomer has shot both her and himself.  Our writer generally takes this in his stride, being rather more preoccupied with the ominous figure who arrived with the gunman.

I am guessing the Thing of the title - the murderer’s sinister companion - is perhaps intended to represent Death in some way.  But this particular incarnation appears keen to take a more active role in proceedings; not content just to hang around and collect the souls of the departed, but to in some way expedite the process.  In this respect I found The Thing (the character, not the story) to resemble Poe’s Imp of the Perverse, rather your traditional Grim Reaper.


THE RETURN
By G.M. Glaskin

After spending a lazy afternoon luxuriating in the country sunshine anticipating her seventeenth birthday party, Masie Jane returns to the family home to find it not only burnt out but derelict.

I first read most of the early Pan volumes in my teens, back in the early and mid-Seventies.  One of the pleasures of revisiting these volumes in my dotage is that I now see things in a number of stories which I missed first time around.  Or, to be more, accurate, subtleties I did not have the maturity to appreciate back then.

The Return certainly falls into this category.  For I recall racing through the story all those years ago, fruitlessly seeking out any gore or sex, before swiftly dismissing it as one of those dull overly-wordy jobs Bertie invariably included in his selections.  Revisiting it recently, I saw for what it is; a beautifully sad tale of madness and ageing.  The passage where Masie Jane, connects each of the pastoral riverside delights to her family is quite magical prose. 

Furthermore I find that this is one of those stories where even though one knows the secret, this never detracts from any subsequent re-readings


THE BATS
By David Grant

A young boy starved of affection by his parents, transfers his attention to the collection of animals he keeps in his shed.  What little fondness he retains for his mother and father dies when he injures his arm while they are out partying.  The parents tolerate the menagerie, just, - but they draw the line (or at least attempt to) at vampire bats.

Grant, in his only Pantheon entry succeeds in ticking three PBoHS staples with this story: Vampirism, Revenge and Murderous Child.  But in truth this is rather perfunctory yarn with none of the characters, not even the resourceful eight-year-old, even remotely interesting.  


THE FUR BROOCH
By Dulcie Gray

Sheila Francis has been dating both Henry and John for the last three months, but has decided to ditch the former now she has become engaged to the latter.  But Henry is not the sort of chap to take rejection lying down and he has decided, with the help of a little furry friend, to ensure if he cannot have Sheila then no-one shall.

And with The Fur Brooch Bertie introduces us to the delightful Dulcie Gray.  Probably better known to those of us of a certain vintage as the actress who played Kate Harvey in the BBC series Howard’s Way, she was also an accomplished author who provided eleven stories to the PBoHS series.  Including it has to be said, a few particularly nasty ones.

But this one feels a bit like one of Dulcie’s early attempts at writing, for although it was published in 1966, we are in a world where girls date a number of boys simultaneously before deciding which one she will become engaged to, and girls continue to go out with slimy men for no other reason than their mother likes him. 

Gray’s language really is rather prim and proper at times (“I shouldn’t accept any present but flowers from Henry”), but this does lend a particularly jarring effect to the description of Sheila’s corpse.

Yes she does cop it, in case you hadn’t worked that out.


DREAM HOUSE
By Dulcie Gray

Dream House opens with an estate agent arranging the let of a country house to a married couple.  And what an odd pair they make: loud, overbearing, middle-aged Marjorie and the younger mouse-like Antipodean Henry.

Within weeks of moving in, Marjorie is referring to their new abode as her "Dream House", but hubby (clearly having read The Cask of Amontillado) has plans to make a few structural alterations.

A tale of nastiness and murder penned once again in Ms Gray’s rather polite style.  Not that this detracts from what is a diverting enough read.  In fact the almost deadpan prose in which Henry’s confession letter is written adds to the story I feel.  But I am not sure the additional information he provides in the postscript does though.  I almost had a sneaking respect for the little man, doing away with his obnoxious wife in such a manner, but I found myself thinking rather less of him when learning he had made a habit of the business.

Bertie’s decision (at least we assume it was a decision, and not a repeat of the suspected printer’s error seen with Pan1) to have the stories in Pan7 appear alphabetical by author’s surname resulted in both of Gray’s tales appearing consecutively in the collection.  Not that it mattered much I suppose.


THE STREETS OF ASHKELON
By Harry Harrison

The Weskers are an alien race who have succeeded in evolving a rather sophisticated society, without recourse to any form of religion or deism.  Incurably inquisitive they initially welcome the arrival on their planet of a priest whose aim is to convert them to Christianity. 

But the ever-literal Weskers cannot indulge in faith without proof, so they decide a miracle is required to prove god’s existence.  And only a repeat of the most important miracle in the bible will do.

This is another of the Pan entries which once read is never forgotten.  Harrison’s parable is a vicious examination of the utter worthlessness of religion, and the way it poisons everything.  It also has a fair old dig at colonialism into the bargain.  The Weskers are already living in a veritable Eden of their own making, and it is only through the introduction of god into their lives, that their paradise is lost forever. 

One’s susceptibility to the power of this story will inevitably depend upon one’s views on the Sky Wizard business, but I think it is an absolutely wonderful tale; poignant, angry and thought-provoking all at once.  In fact, were it up to me, I would have it as required reading for every primary school pupil in the country.

The phrase “The Streets of Ashkelon” is used in the book of Samuel, but apart from this biblical link, I am afraid Harrison’s actual reasons for titling the story as he did are too subtle for me.   


THE SNAIL WATCHER
By Patricia Highsmith

Fascinated watching the mating of a pair of snails (who were to have been his dinner), Peter Knoppert begins obsessively collecting and breeding the little molluscs, until his study is full of tanks and bowls of the creatures.  A busy period at work however, causes him to neglect his collection for a few weeks, and when he finally does pop his head into his study, he finds the snails have taken over pretty much every surface of the room. 

An attempt to clear the place up does not go well.

People were killed off in all manner of weird and wonderful ways in the PBoHS collections, but I have to say “Watcher” probably takes the prize for the silliest.  I suppose it is really a parable about the way obsession can take over one’s life, but I do think there is perhaps a warning to anyone taking too much interest in the sex life of others.

The rather eccentric Highsmith was a bit of a snail obsessive herself; apparently known for carrying a few dozen in her handbag everywhere she went.  Quite odd then she should have painted them as the villains of this piece.


THE MONKEY’S PAW
By W. W. Jacobs

Into the domestic bliss being enjoyed by elderly Mr. & Mrs. White and their grown-up son Herbert, arrives family friend Sergeant-Major Morris bearing a strange tale of a charm (the mummified monkey paw of the title) which apparently can grant its owner three wishes.  Morris has the charm upon his person but tosses it into the fire, telling the Whites that only regret can come from its use.

But before the paw can begin to burn, Mr White pulls it from the fire claiming the item as his own if Morris no longer wants it.  White subsequently wishes for £200 to pay off the mortgage on the house; the sum duly arriving the following day.

A beautifully written parable upon the way fate rules all of our lives, and a warning to those who would attempt to alter it.  Meticulously constructed with fine characterisation, pitch-perfect pacing and a breathtakingly ambiguous ending, The Monkey’s Paw is rightly regarded as one of the finest horror short stories of the 20th Century. 

The almost clichéd fantasy story staple of the three wishes is present, although the author has layered on top of this the fact that only three individuals may be granted wishes.  Indeed Jacobs has a strong number three motif running through the whole tale.  Morris only begins to talk of the paw after his third glass of whisky, and three times the old soldier urges White not to use talisman.  Although he appears almost compelled to pass the item on to a new owner, later freely informing White on how to use the charm. 

On three occasions the representative from Herbert’s work approaches the White’s gate and turns away before he finally can pluck up the courage to enter, and it is the (?Herbert’s) third knock at the door which is finally heard by Mrs White. 

The story itself is split into three sections (each housing a separate scene) and, of course, the Whites themselves are a family of three.  But whether or not all three are present at the climax of the narrative is left to the reader’s imagination.


THE LAST EXPERIMENT
By John D. Keefauver

US Army Private Neff Nelson has volunteered to spend time in a darkened sound-proofed room, as part of some sensory deprivation study.  But after not too long, he is sure he can hear the scrabbling of rats.

John D. Keefauver (sometimes writing without the D) was one of the few PBoHS regulars from across the water, the American providing half-a-dozen tales to the series.  But The Last Experiment was not one his stronger efforts.

He paints a picture of Nelson as someone who already has a screw loose, with his almost pathological need to be hearing something, indeed anything, at all times.  Quite how he got that past the two psychologists who interviewed him I am not sure.

The study itself makes no logical sense (pun intended) at all; the organizers suggesting they may ask the subject a number of questions before and during the period in isolation, but none of this appears to happen. 

Nelson is also told if he leaves the room, which he can at any time, he will be disqualified – but from what?  Despite this restriction, he is apparently free to open the door to his cell, and peek out into the corridor.  This action seemingly there simply to serve as an opportunity to allow the conveniently escaped lab rodents to enter and mess with poor Neff’s head.

I have to say I did like the nested story of the lighthouse keeper, but Keefauver’s lazy plotting made this one a frustrating read overall.


Mareta
By John D. Keefauver

Mareta is onto her third husband, with both of the previous having drowned.  Both were non-swimmers.  Husband number three also cannot swim, and he is wondering if there is a pattern emerging.

Whilst this is not quite a complete re-write of Keefauver’s Pan6 effort Give Me Your Cold Hand, I would suggest had any other author come up with this story, Keefauver’s lawyers would have been on the phone PDQ.

Consider: In both tales the narrator is a California-based school teacher who has fallen for a psychotic woman with an (at the time, unknown) murderous past.  In “Hands” the woman has an obsession with (not surprisingly) hands and carries with her at all times a long darning needle.  Mareta’s fixation is with eyes, and a razor sharp vegetable knife is never far from her reach.

In both stories, the climax occurs after the narrator has made the decision to leave his paramour; a moved fatally delayed in each by an inability to find suitable alternative accommodation.  And, if all of the above is not enough to convince you, Keefauver repeats his irritating habit of starting paragraphs with the single word sentence “Fear”.

All this being said, the story is actually rather engrossing right down to the delightful Pan-friendly gross-out ending.  But I felt just a little short-changed.


I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU – EVER
By Rene Morris

In a remote Welsh croft Owen is dying, but not quickly enough for his wife Moragh who wishes to move her lover in.  So Moragh enlists the help of a local witch to attempt to expedite matters.

After a ponderous and utterly superfluous opening paragraph, Morris succeeds in spinning a spellbinding tale of love, betrayal and revenge – with a box of black magic tipped into the mix.   She effortlessly paints a picture of three individuals caught in a situation which must surely have a happy ending if Owen’s illness is allowed to run its course.  But one in which Moragh’s impatience, brought to head by Owen’s kiss, sets in place a chain of events which seal her fate.

Morris’ pacing is flawless throughout, beginning with the lovers tryst lit by a lightning bolt which foreshadows the trial by flame to follow.  The scene where Moragh attempts to burn the doll is an agonising read, with the author’s description of the flames; “yellow, tapering tongues hungry for wood”, I found particularly evocative.  And the pace picks up incrementally with Moragh’s headlong race down into the quarry for another lover’s tryst.

One is left ever so slightly breathless at the conclusion.  


SMELL OF FEAR
By William Sansom

A skittish young female living alone in London, believes she is being stalked. 

This one feels a bit like the author's The Man with the Moon in Him which appeared in Pan5, but written from the stalkee’s perspective.  Although with some well written passages (notably when the heroine is cutting her fingernails, and also in the fishmongers), the ending is most unsatisfactory, and it leaves one wondering just what the actual point of the story was.


THE LITTLE ROOM
By William Sansom

Nun Sister Margherita has been found guilty of “the usual”, so faces punishment by immurement.

Another crashing bore-fest from Mr. Sansom, I am afraid.  The only point of interest (which is never developed) is that the story is set not in the Middle Ages when such barbaric punishments were recorded as having been carried out, but rather more recently. 

Margherita is walled up using plastic boarding, she has an electric fire in her room and, even more incongruously, a manometer fitted so she can chart the decreasing oxygen levels in the her sealed room.  No-one really does subtle torture like the Catholic church.

Much of the tale consists of Margherita pondering her fate: “…the hours had no clear ending, indeed life itself seemed monotonously long”.  Wading through thirteen pages of Sansom’s turgid prose, I knew exactly how she felt.


STREET OF THE BLIND DONKEY
By Rosemary Timperley

Fleeing her abusive husband, Della makes her way to Bruges, a place where she enjoyed a memorable family holiday as a child.  But her husband haunts not only her, but also her childhood memories.

A study in paranoia was a regular PBoHS theme, but this is one of the less successful entries.  Della comes across as such a strung-out biddy we wish to give her a Good Shake.  She is quite literally jumping at shadows, fearing her husband will come to Bruges to take her back home........even though she knows in her heart of hearts he cannot.


CANNIBALS
By Martin Waddell

An erotic fumble with the daughter of the local councillor leads to an unhappy marriage and unwelcome parenthood for Siddy Okey.  Even worse, he is compelled to give up his beloved café, where he loved to cook.

Still, he can always keep his hand in at family gatherings.

From Pan7 onwards, Bertie would often introduce at least one piece of light relief into the, at times unstinting, misery – more often than not from the pen of Martin Waddell.

The route this one takes is pretty obvious from the title, and the only surprise awaiting the reader is who is going to eat who.


THE OLD ADAM
By Martin Waddell

The Old Adam is (or was) the first attempt by science to create a synthetic man, in this case half human, half rubber tree!  But Adam is not a particularly successful prototype, so finds himself consigned to a bottle on a dusty laboratory shelf.

His sole companions over the years are a young female student (who records his ramblings and passes them off as her own poetry, to her great success) and the Moon thing, some anemone-like creature who Adam is convinced has been casting lustful glances in his direction from her adjacent glass case.

But when Una arranges to have the two star-crossed lovers placed in the same bottle, Adam discovers to his cost that those glances were not ones of lust at all.

Again playing strictly for laughs, Waddell playfully parodies the often self-important science fiction genre, dropping in all manner of frankly silly nonsense such as the "rroldyheart worm", "Indoctrolum tapes" and (best of all) "florelmghyt eardrums".  And he still has time for a brief swipe at cold war politics.

Whilst this is an entertaining and humorous read, I would suggest Bertie was stretching the boundaries of the horror genre when choosing to include this one in Pan7.


THE ISLAND OF REGRETS
By Elizabeth Walter

Timid Peter and domineering Dora have recently announced their engagement, so are taking a holiday together in Brittany in order to get “better acquainted”.  Staying at a village on the coast, they learn of the mysterious Ile des Regrets, a source of much local superstition. 

Not least of which is the Island’s reputed ability to grant the first wish anyone makes upon setting foot there – but granting the wish in such a way as to lead the wisher to regret making it.

It is a bit of a pity that “Regrets” was included in the same Pan volume as The Monkey’s Paw, as both mine the same Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For seam.  But this one stands up well against its more celebrated rival, I feel. 

At almost forty pages it is the longest tale in Pan7, which gives author Elizabeth Walter adequate space for some in-depth characterisation.  Peter really is such a spineless wimp, with his odd-couple partner Dora such an obnoxious bully, that I occasionally found it rather difficult to engage with either of them.   

But Peter’s return journey is an object lesson in the fine art of pacing, and after the hectic previous 36 hours, I felt taking up residence in the peace and quiet of The Island of Regrets must have come as something of a relief to the stressed out Peter.

The geography of the story puzzled me a touch.  I do appreciate that the coastal village of Keroualhac where the couple stayed is fictional, but Walter describes it as 30km east of Quimper, which would put it well into the Breton hinterland, a considerable distance from the Atlantic.

  
NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS
By Alex White

Lottie is moving down to London to work, but her friend has failed to meet her at the station.  Whilst waiting for her, she is approached by two men on the platform; a rough one and a smooth one, and chooses to go off with the latter.  Bad decision. 

In the same manner that Pan7 saw Bertie introduce Martin Waddell’s surreal brand of gross-out humour to the collection, so did he introduce Alex White’s trademark, soulless, motiveless, misogynistic brutality.

But whatever criticisms one makes regarding the cardboard cut-out characterisation and the clichéd dialogue, there is no doubting the punch-to-the-solar plexus impact of the last few paragraphs.  

A harbinger of things to come.    

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