Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The 17th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1976)

A skull with the mouthful of invertebrates and a suspiciously unrealistic looking eyeball is the cover star of Pan17

By Monica Lee

Apart from coming from a wealthy family, ugly duckling Melissa Weldon did not really have a whole lot going for her.  Although she did possess quite the most beautiful hands.  So when she dies, it is quite natural that she wishes the appendages removed from her corpse, embalmed and placed in a glass case in the Blue Drawing Room of the family pile.

The tale rambles on beyond the above scenario without ever becoming tedious, as characters (mostly unsavoury) drop in and out of the narrative.

I may be doing Ms. Lee an injustice, but I cannot help but feel she was (and perhaps still remains) a fan of those Tom Sharpe novels where he takes a vicious swipe at the upper classes: Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback and the like.

By Harry Turner

Journo Stew McAlpine succeeds in persuading the reclusive Count Vladimir Von Beck - reputedly the world’s greatest hypnotist – to give an interview.  At the Count’s Swiss chateau an initially skeptical McAlpine is treated to a display of his host’s powers of hypnotism upon both animals and humans.  These demonstrations both shock and disgust the journalist, but this is as nothing to what he unearths down in the cellar.

McAlpine storms off, vowing to expose Von Beck’s “morally indefensible” experiments when he writes his article.  But the Count’s reach is extensive.

Turner provides us with yet another sensation-seeking journalist getting into bother following on from Joan Hope in Fingers and Howard Benson in The Tunisian Talking Ferrett.  He clearly had a major downer on the chaps and chapesses of the Fourth Estate, which makes me wonder if perhaps had had his fingers burned at their hands at some point in his past.

Count Von Beck preens and struts like some clichéd Bond villain, albeit one with Dr. Moreau’s penchant for pushing back the boundaries of medical science.  One thing I could not quite work out was, what the Count’s motivation for agreeing to the interview in the first place was.

This minor niggle aside, I found The Hypnotist to be another entertaining entry to the Pantheon by Mr. Turner.

By Elleston Trevor

Released, apparently cured, from a mental institution, the unnamed narrator is full of the joys of life and therefore keen to perform some good deed or other.  Seeing a woman alone on a bridge, apparently contemplating suicide, he storms in to attempt a rescue.  But his clumsy efforts cause the girl to topple over the bridge and into the river.  She is saved from drowning by a police officer, but the man’s motives are misconstrued and it is back to the funny farm for him.

Or at least the above is the most generous of the number of interpretations one could ascribe to the events as related.  But more likely the narrator is lying both to himself, and by extension, to us.

By Barbara J. Eyre

Our narrator with this one is a dangerous girl to be around: mother, sisters and colleagues all appear prone to having accidents in her company.  Occasionally fatal ones.  So when her husband walks out, leaving her, quite literally, holding the baby, the infant’s prospects do not look good.

Another internal monologue, but with his one there is no doubt we are privy to the ramblings of a deranged individual.  The only unanswered question is just how many warning lights the health visitor requires, before it dawns she is dealing with a client whose parenting skills are not quite up to the task.

By Alex White

James really is a delightful chap.  From the pleasure he took in torturing animals as a child, through pushing a would-be mugger onto a live underground rail to strangling before raping a series of prostitutes.

When Fatima, his girlfriend tells him their relationship is over she is also treated to James’ ladykiller treatment.  But he has clearly not reckoned with Fatima’s brother Ali, who shares his delight in sadism.

Whereas the PBoHS series had in the past occasionally dipped a hesitant toe into the fetid pond that is necrophilia, here Alex White (who else?) dives headlong in.  She even succeeds in layering on a second taboo, as she conjures up the mind-boggling picture of James fighting down an erection at the sight of his mother in her coffin!

You will have guessed this a typically brutal piece of hokum from the probably Bourbaki-esque Ms. White; she leaving us with a delightfully unanswered question: Whose were the frightened eyes which stared back at James from the other crates in the aircraft luggage hold?

By Jack Shackleford

Occult writer Selby believes he has become impotent due to a black magic spell placed upon him by another occultist whom he has insulted (Starling).  So he elicits the aid of Alexandra, his attractive young secretary to help him break the hex.

It is hard really to know what to make of this one.  It opens reading almost like some updated M.R. James yarn.  Perhaps Casting The Runes with Selby playing Dunning to Starling’s Karswell, and the knotted string standing in for the parchment.  But as Selby alternately utilises anger then resignation to manipulate Alexandra out of her knickers, I began to believe we may be witnessing some particularly extravagant seduction technique.

But then, blow me down, did Selby not succeed in summoning up your actual demon.  But he soon wishes he hadn’t bothered.

By Maureen O’Hara

Jenny lives with her father and elder brother on a remote farm.  Her father dotes on Simon, who I think we are intended to believe has Down’s syndrome, yet clearly detests Jenny.  When she plucks up the courage to ask about her absent mother her father, after his initial rage subsides, finally agrees to take Jenny to her.

Another entry from the rather eccentric pen of Ms. O’Hara, although unlike her other contributions this one has a more gritty and lifelike feel to it.  But still her tendency to drift into unrealistic dialogue persists.  When Jenny’s father (although not her biological father, as it transpires) is taking her to be re-united with her mother, the following exchange takes place:

“Jenny, it was not until today that I observed your budding femininity.  Before today I saw you only as a source of irritation; now I see you as a source of great pleasure.  I need to be pleased by you, Jenny, otherwise there will be no reunion with your mother”

“I will do anything to be reunited with my mother”.

We are surely here witnesses to perhaps the most polite and formalised rape in literary history.

And are we I wonder being treated to a rare piece of humour by the hitherto po-faced authoress, when we read of a broken milk-bottle in the shallow grave?  As if a milkman would perhaps perpetually carry one around with him like a calling card?

And, as for the polished ribs and sparkling teeth……..

By Myc Harrison

Consequent to some wartime misdemeanor elderly tailor Rantz has been subject to "years of blackmail and violence" at the hands of "the man".  Rantz, along with his wife, is now planning to escape by boat to Holland, but before doing so is determined to get even with his tormentor. 

The actual nature of the naughtiness Rantz got up during the war to lead to the blackmail is not specified, but some sort of profiteering is hinted at.  There is, however, no ambiguity about the particularly cruel demise he contrives for the unnamed man.

Indeed, the almost wilfully complicated and contrived nature of the punishment is the one weakness of this tale.  For after taking careful steps to free himself from clutches of the man, Rantz then appears to take some decidedly unnecessary risks in order to achieve his revenge.

But, I suppose without these there would be no story. 

By Dawn Muscillo

Sister Coxall likes things just so in the psychiatric ward she runs.  The last thing she needs is some newly-qualified young doctor pitching up with his new-fangled ideas for change.  But she has a plan to deal with him, as she has done with his nine predecessors.

It is the nine previous doctors who “failed to report for duty” which turns this tale from what could have been a real psychological tour-de-force to something just a bit silly.  Sister Coxhall – a Nurse Ratched figure with control freakery taken to the nth degree – could conceivably have got away with one instance, but ten?

By Jonathan Cruise

It is the early 1930s and freshly ordained curate Trescott has been allocated (if that is the correct word) the Somerset parish of Stumber.  There he encounters Aigur Gondercrest, the arrogant Master of Claygo Hall, and learns of the legend of the Claygo Worm; a large creature apparently pliable to the bidding of the Gondercrest family.

When Gondorcrest rapes Alice, one of the local village girls, the yokels, worm or no worm, decide to sort him out.

This one reads and plays rather like a Sixties Hammer Horror film - one can almost imagine Christopher Lee as Gondercrest and Madeline Smith playing Alice. 

Events do all get a touch confusing during the climactic final night, but I think the author intends that the business is all left intentionally rather ambiguous, with either Gondercrest having been pitchforked to death whilst in worm form, or that the worm has done for him.

The waters are further muddied by the mention of a "taciturn young fellow carrying a pitchfork", who briefly drops into the narrative before disappearing equally swiftly.  I think this individual may be Alice's paramour Ben Tippett, with whom she admits to having enjoyed a romp with "last haymaking time".

Gondercrest's corpse is found with wounds consistent with a pitchfork attack, but of course, the pincers of the worm could equally have caused these. 

A strong first entry to the Pantheon from an author who would later enjoy the privilege of contributing the final story to the series. 

By Myc Harrison

A dentist receives an out of hours visit from a patient at his home surgery; a patient whose face is grossly swollen by what appears to be a huge tooth abscess.

But a little emergency dental surgery reveals a surprise.

There had been a couple of creatures-living-inside-bodies tales before in the PBoHS series: spiders, caterpillars and a little octopus spring to mind.  But the human body is such an inhospitable host that the science of these stories never really stood up to any serious scrutiny.

But The Abscess gets around the biology by having the culprit not an alien creature, but some grossly mutated tumour-type cell of the host.  One which not only has in a matter of days grown to the size of a golf ball, but has apparently equally swiftly evolved enzymes capable of dissolving tooth enamel and dentine.  But that is OK, for it is other aspects of the narrative which really jar.

That the dentist would be happy to let his son – a lawyer to trade – pitch in to help with the surgery is silly enough, but furthermore that the dentist – a man of science, one would imagine – destroys the abscess, and hushes the whole business up, rather than glean a modicum of professional fame from the unique affair stretches the reader’s credulity more than somewhat.

By Norman P. Kaufman

Young married couple Jamie and Merrill Henry have a record of violence against their small son.  They are called in to see the Child Welfare Officer, but find not only is their interview taking place in a seemingly deserted part of the local Office, but is with a woman they have not seen before. 

This rather fancifully silly yarn I should imagine was written by Mr. Kaufman as a form of wishful thinking, in response no doubt to yet another failure by our overworked social services to protect some poor innocent.   

His target, the Merrills, are a stereotypically malodorous Wanye and Waynetta Slob pairing, but I think we know these days that just as much abuse against children goes on inside so-called good homes as bad.

By Roger F. Dunkley

Maud is entertaining a guest with morning tea in the garden; a rather intense yet handsome young man whom she cannot quite recall inviting.  He suddenly jumps up and rescues a dove from the jaws of the woman’s cat, before dispassionately snapping the bird’s neck, as it was “suffering”. 

The man cannot abide pain in any living thing apparently.  He then notices his hostess’ bottle of aspirin.
We arrive rather late into the narrative of this one, with the chap of the title already having escaped and on the run from some unnamed institution.  He has subsequently charmed the elderly biddy into offering him tea, she being taken in by his good looks and charm, especially so since hubby is away for the day.  Is she considering seducing the chap?

But even without the hovering police helicopter and the savage dispatching of the injured bird, there are enough clues in the man’s conversation to alert his hostess that he was not quite the full shilling: “When they’d let me” and “They don’t understand”.

But Maud, to her cost, fails to read the signs. 

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