Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Twelfth Pan Book of Horror Stories (1971)



One of the more memorably silly covers, Pan12 has a skull, perhaps even a whole skeleton, encased in snow.  

I am inclined to believe it is just the head, for Pan12 is very much the volume of beheadings.  For, by my reckoning a total of seven individuals "Lose the Head" over the collection of stories.



                                                               ~


THE HUNTER
By David Case

Retired big game hunter Wetherby is persuaded by police to help them track something or someone which has been responsible for a series of particularly savage killings on Dartmoor.

Pan12 was, I am fairly sure, one of the first volumes I bought back in the early Seventies.  It was certainly my first exposure to David Case’s epics within the series, and I can recall feeling ever so slightly cheated that over half of the pages of what was supposed to be an anthology of short stories was taken up by a single entry.  Consequently The Hunter was read last, almost reluctantly and certainly grudgingly.

It is actually an enjoyable fast-paced thriller and an intelligently written yarn with all manner of layers going on.  On the surface the narrative takes the form a run-of-the-mill Whodunit, although by the end we clearly become more concerned with Whydunit.  Running through the story are hints at lycanthropy and even vampirism, although underpinning everything is the relationship between Wetherby and Byron; the latter another big-game hunter, who happens to live suspiciously near the scenes of the killings.

The plotline is far from watertight though; for despite there being three sensationalist murders in the same village within a matter of days, the police appear to take a rather laissez-faire approach to the investigation, and both the local and national press similarly so.  With the result the unnamed Dartmoor village where the killings occurred appears resolutely deserted.

Case diligently takes time with the characterisation of most of the characters, even if an inordinate number do appear to have a preoccupation with thrift.  Another minor point which irks, and I do appreciate I am drifting into the realms of minutiae here, is that Wetherby recalls a previous hunt where he was surrounded by evergreens, yet describes the “trees ablaze in reds and yellows”.

But my main grouse with The Hunter, for all the fact it is an extremely readable tale, is that is a novella and really has no place in the PBoHS collection at all.


THE INSTANT DIVORCE
By David Learmont Aitken

A woman having just, so she believes, murdered her husband is rather prematurely contemplating her newly procured freedom, when the body stirs.  So she fetches an axe to complete the job.

Bertie scattered a number of poems throughout the Pantheon, to mixed success.  This is one of the more readable examples of the type, partly as the author barely wastes a word within the fourteen lines.

Indeed, had Aitken taken a touch more time over the rhyming pattern, his poem could almost have passed for one of Shakespeare’s love sonnets.  Well perhaps not, although it could probably have found a home within the text of that splatter-fest Titus Andronicus.


IN MOTHER’S LOVING MEMORY
By Barry Martin

After murdering three prostitutes on consecutive evenings, a diarist chooses to commit suicide.

Barry Martin was an author who pitched in with a couple of contributions to each of Pan11 and Pan12, before seemingly disappearing off the face of the globe: a set of circumstances which screams pseudonym if ever there was one. 

This tale stands as one of the most memorably brutal from the entire collection, with each diary entry consisting of little more than an unstintingly graphic description of the slaughter of a woman unfortunate enough to have encountered this Norman Bates-with-a-cause nut job.  The beating with a belt endured by the third victim I found particularly difficult to read, although I don’t suppose the victim disemboweled by the tin-opener had much fun either.

This latter modus operandus did allow Martin the opportunity to drop in the (one hopes) blackly humorous line “Killing someone with a tin opener isn’t very easy".  One has to assume this was a lever-type utensil rather than the more common today rotating wheel job.

Martin also predated the great Jim Royle by some quarter of a century by having his protagonist spout “Mercy my arse” at one point during one of his executions.


ASHES TO ASHES
By Alan Hillery

Dr. Frank Morrow is convinced his younger wife is having an affair, so utilising his knowledge of “the application of anaesthetics to organ transplants”, contrives to have her cremated alive in her coffin.  But a shock awaits him that evening. 

Whatever criticism one may have been laid at Bertie’s door during those vicious Seventies, one could not argue his eye for a memorable storyline.  And Ashes to Ashes is certainly one such, for I found I could clearly recall both the plotline and characters, despite it being 30-odd years since I had last read the tale.  The author’s description of poor Melanie’s immolation leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination, and I found the details to have been seared (pun intended) upon my memory.

But re-reading the entry recently I could not help but feel that single vividly descriptive paragraph to be almost intrusively superfluous.  And I wondered if, had Hillery chosen to leave details of Melanie’s fate to the imagination, the story may actually have boasted even more impact.

Not that my teenaged self would have agreed, of course. 


THE TERRAPIN
By Patricia Highsmith

A boy, emotionally bullied and tormented by his mother, finally snaps when she kills a terrapin he thought she had brought home for him as a pet, but was actually an ingredient in “a ragout”.  

Philip Larkin was, of course, correct: your mum and dad do fuck you up.  This being particularly so in the case of poor Victor who, through the combination of an absent father and slightly unhinged mother finds himself having to endure the humiliations of being asked if knows the days of the week, compelled to recite children’s poetry to visitors and, forced to wear short trousers at the age of 11.

All of which is a pity, for Victor is a likeable, sensitive, intelligent and even precocious individual, and we really feel for the poor chap as his mother taunts him for his tears.  She, who enjoyed a modicum of success as a children’s book illustrator some years back, still wishes to retain her son as a child-sounding board for her creations, and is blithely indifferent to the fact her baby is rapidly growing up.

His act of revenge, which mirrors the almost casual manner in which his mother killed the terrapin, does feel like something which had been in the post for some time.


SERGEANT LACEY DEMONSTRATES
By Norman P. Kaufman

The titular Sergeant Lacey is attempting, by his usual methods of bullying and humiliation, to teach a dozen or so Privates how to safely bind the broken limbs of an accident victim.  He has successfully managed to piss-off the entire group with his insults and sarcasm, but one is not prepared to take the tirade sitting down.

Kaufman’s latest entry to the Pantheon is a concise, well-structured one getting straight to where it wants to be in fewer than five pages.  Lacey’s fate is a tad contrived perhaps, for not only has he allowed his charges to practice their binding skills on himself rather than on one of their own number, but has, for no apparent reason, sent all of the group bar the joker in the pack off to an adjoining beach – out of sight and earshot.

Quite who this disparate bunch of Privates are, is not made clear.  Their utter loathing of the whole business would tend to suggest this was a bunch of young National Service bods, but one is “around thirty-six years old and tending to flabbiness”, and another balding.


BORDERLINE
By James Jauncey

Sewer worker Harry does not really appear to have a whole lot going for him.  Born with a withered arm, a stooped gait and a head rather too big for his body he, by his own admission, looks “so horrible that the best thing for me is to get a job where at least no one can see me”.  But in amongst the sewage one night, he enjoys a lively adventure involving a canvas bag of stolen valuables, an inconvenient metal grille and some hungry rats.

I am unsure where the title of this one comes from, certainly not the Madonna song I am sure.  Perhaps it is referring to Harry’s existence on the borders of society, or implying that he has Borderline Personality Disorder.

Yet Harry, for all his unfortunate appearance and curmudgeonly outlook is one of the PBoHS series more sympathetic characters.  And we, or at least I did, find ourselves rooting for the chap as he faces one setback after another during his ordeal.

But regretfully, in addition to being someone who was dealt a crap hand at birth, he just appears to draw useless card after useless card before, one assumes, finally picking up the Ace of Spades.


PIECES OF MARY
By Robert Ashley

Little Mary’s mother does not like her mixing with the other girls in the neigbourhood, but is happy for her to play with John and David, those two quiet boys next door.  But the boy’s idea of fun is generally to take things to bits to see how they work. 

“Right Folks”, said Bertie at the monthly Pan Books Limited staff meeting.  “I require some story about children killing each other, and I need it today.  Robert, could you cobble something together over coffee, and I can get it off to the printers before five?  Thanks.  Now, where did I put my Hilaire Belloc biography manuscript?”


MISS FLETCHER’S PLUM TREE
By Frank Neate

The bane of old Miss Fletcher’s life is the band of urchins who regularly raid the plum tree at the foot of her garden.  If truth be told the tree is so bounteous that she barely misses the pilfered fruit, but that is not the point.  It is the principal of the thing that matters, so she hatches a plan to make at least one of the boys pay for the thieving.

When I made the decision to re-read all of the PBoHS collection for this blog, there were a great number of stories I was keen to revisit.  But also a few I was not.  This one certainly fell plumb into the latter category, for I recalled it as a heartrendingly cruel tale.  I struggled with the story as a teenager but, now as a parent, I found it almost too painful to read.

The narrative begins in an almost light-hearted manner, relating Miss Fletcher’s encounters with the light-fingered local lads, but the tone of the whole story shifts seismically when the author pens the line:

“And in those quiet, listening moments, Miss Fletcher went quite queer.”

And so it proves to be the case as the woman kidnaps one of the boys, after enticing him into the house with promises of cake; there being a symbolic changing of places during the capture, as the boy is securely trussed up, whilst the lizard he had earlier caught scuttles from its prison to freedom.   

A subsequent passage where the boy, clearly able to hear his mother in the room above him, attempts to attract her attention is heartbreaking.  As are the descriptions of the regular beatings handed out by the, clearly by now totally unhinged, Miss Fletcher. 

Although she is not so deranged as not to realise she can never let the boy go so, sadly, it is off to the river with him.


THE NURSERY CLUB
By Martin Ricketts

Recently widowed Lord Brandon has employed two live-in tutors to educate his four primary-school age children at home.  The pupils are a likeable if rather intense group, prone to literal-mindedness.  Which is unfortunate for one of the the tutors (Mr Graydon), who just after presenting a history lesson on the fate of traitors in the middle ages, breaks a promise of secrecy.  

Although there is not even a hint of the extra-terrestrial about the four children, I could not help but be reminded of The Midwich Cuckoos when reading this one; the children's uniform appearance, particularly their eyes, and their self assured, self absorption within their own little world.

Ricketts' prose positively bulges with alliteration, almost at times to the point of obtrusiveness.  We are fed "dank and dismal", "dripped and drooped", "dark and dismal" before receiving some "damp darkness".  

I did like the way the author linked in the "roaring fires that crackled with devlish fury in almost every room" to the "devil's light burning" in the eyes of the children as they casually inform their second tutor of the punishment metered out to the "traitor" Graydon.


LAURA
By Barry Martin

Laura has never been quite the same since being involved in a car smash caused by her drunk-driving husband.  Not only has she lost the power of speech, but can no longer walk or dress herself.  But hubby is happy to take care of her, secure in the belief that she will get better soon.

This one is another of Pan12’s once-read, never-forgotten entries.  The revelation (assuming the reader had not already guessed it) not only that Laura snuffed it in the car crash, but our unnamed narrator has dug up her corpse and brought it home, is a jarring one indeed.  Particularly after husband has regaled us with details of her prowess in bed.

However, once the secret is out, as it were, the short (three-page) tale really does not stand up to any further readings.  Particularly when close scrutiny of the tense reveals that the husband has not actually been giving his dearly departed one, but is merely looking forward to her recovery when normal service may be resumed.

An uncharacteristic sliver of tact from the normally indelicate Barry Martin on his final PBoHS appearance.


THE DANCING SHOES
By Rachel Kemper

A woman, who had longed to dance as a child, has to make do with working as a typist at a ballet school, and wistfully yearning after a pair of dancing shoes in the window of a shop she passes each evening.  She strikes up an acquaintance with a handsome dark-eyed male dancer who presents her with the shoes as a gift, but laughingly warns "You'll dance in them as no one has ever danced before".

No stabbings, dug-up-corpses or beheadings here, just a beautifully understated ghost story.  


THE PEG-DOLL
By Rosemary Timperley

Amongst the ruins of an old orphanage his company is demolishing, Alan finds an ancient wooden peg-doll.  He takes it home for his daughter who, generally indifferent to dolls, takes this one to her heart.  But both parents soon become rather concerned at the extent of their daughter’s devotion to the toy.

Whilst reading this one I found my mind drifting back to Rosemary Timperley’s first contribution to the series back in Pan4; the disturbing ghost story Harry.

For in both tales a set of parents begin to express disquiet at their daughter’s relationship with an imaginary friend.  And in both, one parent sets off on a venture of discovery to attempt to ascertain what the heck is going on.

But whilst in Harry there is a rather dismal ending to proceedings, here the business dribbles to a slightly unsatisfactory conclusion.  Has the doll’s hold over Alma been broken or not?  We are left unsure.

Where Peg-Doll does score significantly over Harry is that is boasts the presence of the delightfully eccentric Miss Letherington – the doll collector (or “plangonologist”) who really deserved a short story or two of her own. 


MAN WITH A KNIFE
By T. H. McCormick

House surgeon Frank Jackson begins a new job on a general surgical ward under the redoubtable Reginald V. Kershaw MS.  Jackson swiftly notices that a greater than may be expected percentage of the admissions end in arm amputations.  So he does a bit of digging into patients’ records.  And soon wishes he hadn’t.

For reasons I cannot quite work out, this one annoyed me.  I think it was the fact it is all written in the past tense until we reach Jackson’s pleading plea for help, which makes no real sense.

Generally these internal monologue format stories are either manuscripts which may or may not be being read posthumously, or are written as if being related verbally by a narrator.  But here, I think we are being led to believe Jackson is about to be murdered on the operating table by Kershaw, to protect the latter’s secret?  If so, to whom has the monologue just been told?

Even making allowances for a touch of artistic licence on the part of the author, “Knife” just irked.

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