Sunday, 31 August 2014

The 15th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1974)




The cover of Pan15 has what I think is meant to represent a skull, which presumably was once a complete head, bubbling away as it is dissolved in acid.

But it looks for all the world like skull-shaped Alka-seltzer after someone with a whopping hangover has plink-plink-fizzed.    

                                                  ~

AMONG THE WOLVES
By David Case

When his research brings him into close proximity with both a pathologist and the police, John finds himself privy to the usual facts associated with a series of murders.  His library-based research also brings him into contact with another researcher (Claymore) who shows an unusually detached attitude to the murders.

This latter individual outlines a tale as to why this should be.

As with Case’s story The Hunter in Pan12, it fairly swiftly becomes evident who is perpetrating the killings, but it is the psychological Whydunit aspect of the cases upon which the narrative is built.  With the consequence we find all of the main characters at some point or other go off spouting their respective philosophies on survival.

Coincidences abound throughout – for not only does John find himself by a fluke in the confidence of a remarkably chatty, (unprofessionally so, I would suggest) pair of professionals who can feed him the unusual details of the cases, but he is acquainted personally with one of the would-be-victims.  Then bumps into and starts up an acquaintance with the killer himself.

But we can forgive Case these liberties as Amongst The Wolves really is a fine piece of writing; the nested story told by Claymore is truly engrossing stuff. 

And although this last named is an intriguing character, the real star of the show is Bill – the blind man who fought off his intended killer – and his tales of frustrated local housewives queuing up for some “loving”.  


UNDER THE FLAGSTONE
By Morag Greer

A couple walking through a cemetery are shocked to come across a small boy apparently playing with bones from a recently disturbed grave.  The woman faints and, before she recovers, the boy incants a spell which will compel her to make her way to his family home at dusk….for dinner.

I found it slightly irritating the fact the author dispensed completely with any attempt at providing a back story to the boy and his weird collection of relatives; a cross between the Addams Family and Sawney Bean’s clan.  For there really were some rather intriguing characters in there.

But in many respects it would have been superfluous, for this story’s whole reason for existence is a means for Bertie to put into print a grotesquely graphic description of a woman being eaten alive.  Ticking another box. 

And whilst this certainly makes for a once-read-never forgotten yarn, in reality Under the Flagstone is little more than gore-porn.


AMANDA EXCRESCENS
By Conrad Hill

In the interests of scientific advancement, of course, the author of a found journal has poisoned his wife Amanda, rendered her body down into “corporeal remains” and “mucilaginous liquid” and spread the stuff onto an adjacent field.  The resultant fungus is not only a voracious absorber of surrounding organic matter, but throws up a fruit cap bearing a marked resemblance to the late Amanda.

A remarkably silly, but nevertheless entertaining tale, the real fun being the way the narrator (or author of the journal) attempts to impartially and impersonally record the progress of his experiment, completely blind to the fact his late spouse is out to get him.

Even the loss of his feet following exposure to the fungus is written down with admirable insouciance:

“Feet became numb and started to shrivel.  By 5 AM I was able to detach both members from their respective ankles.”

And as with all of the best of these found manuscript type stories, the victim is scribbling away to the every end, before locking the journal away in a safe to protect it from the fungus mycelium as it finally attacks the house.


‘QUIETA NON MOVERE’
By Sally Franklin

Georgina returns after a quarter-of-a-century to a now crumbling childhood home where still dwell her two elderly aunts and a pair of servants.  The spiteful cook Mrs. Shutter, whom she remembers with little fondness, is no longer around however, she apparently having left around the same time as Georgina.  Odd that no-one wants to talk about her, though.

Family skeletons rattling around in closets, a loopy elderly aunt, a possible case of trauma-induced amnesia and an underhand property plot all come together to create a heady melange of clues, red herrings and conundrums. 

And the best thing about this tale is we are left no clearer by the end just what has been going on.  Who exactly did for old Mrs. Shutter, and what was she blackmailing the family over?

The author’s excuse for getting Georgina to go poking around the garden in the middle of the night – a lost bracelet – appears at best flimsy and at worse contrived.  Surely any sensible person would have waited until daylight.  But this minor irritant fails to detract from what is an engrossing entry.


DARK REFLECTIONS
By Maggie Webb

Convinced her husband has been unfaithful to her, whilst he is asleep Wife decides to think him to death!  But he awakes midway through the process, so they make love and then she completes the task in the morning whilst he is enjoying a post-coital slumber.

The plotline of this tale truly is as left-field as my summary suggests.  It may be that there is some form of unreliable narrator business going on here, and that the husband is actually lying on the bed with a carving knife in his throat.

If not, we really have to applaud the wife for stumbling upon the perfect untraceable crime.


SCREAM!
By John Keevauver

As Mr. Anglos is explaining to his New York psychiatrist; since witnessing a cockfight in Manila he keeps having a recurring dream where he morphs into one of the combatants.  As if that was not bad enough, he has been finding blood on his clothes………..and there are these disconcerting reports of murders in his neighbourhood.

The opening line of this one reads:

“And you say, Mr. Anglos, that in these nightmares you turn into a cock?”

Which is a pretty startling opening line.  Although rather less so, when one realises it is a cockerel the psychiatrist is referring to and not a penis.  Now what an intriguing story that could have been.

But, sad to relate, it is downhill all the way from this opening line I am afraid, as we are treated to five pages of dull dialogue before a fluttering of predictable action.


A PROBLEM CALLED ALBERT
By Roger Dunkley

Henry and Maud Wortle own a large yellow-eyed cat called Albert.  This feline, like most of its kind, realises the Tin-openers are pretty useless at catching small animals so, whenever it can, it likes to bring them presents home.  The Worltes can just about cope with mice and voles, but a headless rat proves to be the catalyst for a trip to the vet for Albert to be "adjusted".

Following the op, Albert's appetite and consequently his size increases considerably. And when he brings home a baby's disembodied arm still holding its rattle, the Wortles realise they have a Problem.

A diverting piece of black humour this one, neither particularly memorable nor taxing.  I did like the aural image painted as "Hundreds of furry throats vibrated with noisy anticipation".


FINGERS
By Harry Turner

For journalist Joan Hope the opportunity of a private interview with distinguished explorer Lonsdale Prince at his country pile is too good to miss.  Especially as she is promised note only a scoop, but a tale of “exceptional hideousness”.

Prince spins an increasingly skeptical Hope a yarn featuring a witch doctor, a mummified finger, a rather unorthodox form of conception and a hideous cyclopean child.  But a swift trip down to Prince’s cellar soon convinces the journalist of the veracity of the tale.

Another woman being eaten alive!  Pan15 was turning into Bertie’s culinary collection.  At least here the author has the good taste to have the meal being consumed offstage, so to speak.

Joan, I felt, did not really deserve her fate.  For if anyone was the guilty party in the whole business, it was surely Prince’s feckless son-in-law, who not only filched the finger in the first place, but was stupid enough to use its powers upon his wife.

What Joan was guilty of though, was what our insurance broker friends call contributory negligence.  Any remotely diligent preparatory research would have unearthed the relationship between Prince and her former lover, and throughout the interview there were not so much alarm bells ringing as a freight train with warning lights screaming down the track at her.

Yet still she chose to ignore this and follow her journalistic nose.


ON THE BOX
By Alex White

Pamela (or Pim-Pim) is by her own admission a touch past her prime, so she is really rather pleased at having attracted the attention of the dishy Archie.  She is enticed back to his house where she becomes an unwilling participant in one of Archie’s amateur magic tricks.

Boy meets Girl, Boy fucks Girl, Boy murders Girl.  Welcome to the dependably predictable world of Alex White.  One wonders at times just what was behind all these woman-gets-done-for-in-a-nasty-way tales by Ms. White.  Perhaps she had a number of unresolved issues in her life – although, in all probability, the name Alex White was just a convenient one used by any of the PBoHS authors who had come up with a brutal tale which they were just a bit wary of putting their own name to. 

On the Box is almost a re-write of Don’t Talk to Strangers in Pan 7.  There are a few refinements:  the killer’s quirky hobby and hence the mode of murder is the most obvious one.  There is the decidedly creepy business of the little jar of fat kept as a trophy although, thankfully, I don’t think we are again into the realm of cannibalism here. 

But the author, regretfully, could not resist tagging on the clich├ęd Oedipus/Norman Bates trick of putting all of the blame onto the killer’s dead Mum.


SANCTUARY – FOR THE PIPED
By Charles Thornton

All the houses in old Nellie Crupp’s street are being demolished, although she is making a stand by refusing to move out.  Unfortunately the local rat population, as their own homes are being demolished, are moving in with Nellie.

She can just about feed the growing horde from her meager provisions, but when these run out the rats turn elsewhere for their next meal.

Not much to say about this one, beyond what I have done in the summary above.  It is a so-so tale with an utterly predictable outcome.

I did recall being rather bemused by the title, when I first encountered the tale in the early Seventies.  In what way were the rats piped, I puzzled?  But, of course, it is a reference to The Pied Piper of Hamelin.


THE GATES WERE LOCKED
Morag Greer

Janet receives an invitation to stay with a pair of old friends in a Scottish castle they are caretaking.  She begins to hear and see odd things as soon as she arrives, and thinks she may be losing her mind until both her hosts begin experiencing unexplainable phenomena too. 

Is a ghost story a horror story?  It can be, I suppose, and I am certainly glad Bertie chose to include this ghost story in Pan 15.  For it really is a most enjoyable read, featuring a rambling old castle with its mirrored room, winding stairs, disapproving portraits and self-kneading dough.

I am sure most seasoned ghost story readers would have sussed out the situation way before the final page revelation.  Indeed, with hindsight, it was the only likely explanation for events following on from the locked gates incident on Janet’s arrival.

A few plot loose ends do jangle a bit though:

If Ellen and Robbie did not post their letter until the 30th, how come Janet was on the road to the castle on the 29th?

And if the castle staff from 200 years ago were somehow able to see the ghosts of Janet and Ellen from the future, how come no stories of these hauntings were passed down the generations as castle legend?

But the real mystery is: did this beautifully understated ghost story really come from the same Morag Greer who penned that splatter-fest earlier in the collection?


WALLY
By Conrad Hill

Ron and June Rainbird are a pair of keep-fit fanatics who find themselves the accidental parents of Wally.  Although the lad pops out of the figure conscious June weighing a trim four pounds, once he begins school he soon begins piling on the beef.

By the age of six he weighs 13 stone, and is an embarrassment to his parents who decide the must get rid of him.  But Wally is nothing if not resourceful.

I can recall enjoying this one back in the day, so was looking forward to re-reading it for these scribbles.  And I was not disappointed, for it is a real treat from start to finish; from the "udderry battleaxe” who gives June a hard time for not putting on sufficient weight during her pregnancy to the reactions of the unfortunate PCs who catch sight of the naked obese Wally on the motor bike.

And more people get themselves eaten.

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