Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The 18th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1977)


A rather effectively spooky skull with human eyes adorns Pan18 to good effect I feel.  Those eyes could in the correct light almost be said to have a slight golden hue to the iris, and with the arachnid on the forehead, the image may represent death has meted out by the nasties in Alan Temperley's The Boy With Golden Eyes. 


                                                                    ~

MEAT
By Carolyn L. Bird

A teenaged boy encounters an elderly one-armed Russian silk-seller in an Istanbul bazaar who spins him a tale relating how he lost his arm. 

The old Russian’s rather fun and occasionally exciting nested story forms the bulk of this inoffensive yarn.  It is a pity the boy’s father had to come along and spoil it all at the end.


THE BRAVEST RAT IN VENICE
By Patricia Highsmith

A rat finds its way into the water-filled cellar of a Venetian villa, where it is set upon by a couple of the children who reside in the building; the rodent losing two legs and an eye in the attack.  The rat licks its wounds, subsequently enjoys a series of rousing adventures in the city before taking its revenge upon the family.

As with Patricia Highsmith’s two earlier entries to the Pantheon (The Snail Watcher and The Terrapin) an animal features heavily in the narrative.  And whilst I am not sure if the critter here lives up to its title billing, it certainly appears to be The Most Resourceful Rat in Venice.  The author’s third person omniscient narrative mode has us inside the heads of most of the characters, including the rat.  Which I think was a first for me.

Given the tale is the product of the acerbic pen of the redoubtable Ms Highsmith, I could not help but suspect the whole yarn was but some subtle allegory.  But it would take someone whole lot better-read than myself to work out of what.


QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM
By Judith Eleanor Green

At the library enquiries desk a “budding scribe” asks if there are any books detailing the effects of a heavy object upon the human skull.  When the librarian informs the chap rather sniffily that they have nothing of that nature on the shelves, he takes his research into his own hands.

The most interesting aspect of this rather weak tale is the dual streams of consciousness format adopted by the author, as alternate paragraphs relate events from the internal perspective of each of the two characters in turn.  That is until the conversation is terminated when the man bluntly states “I battered her bloody head in”.

We are then left with the slightly preposterous notion that the tale has been written by the killer; frantically scribbled down as the authorities arrive at the murder scene.

BTW, the title of the tale is more often written as QED, and translates as “What was to be demonstrated".


BELVEDERE’S BRIDE
By Jane Gregory

Belvedere is a reclusive marine biologist, whose sole companion in his remote Cornish abode is his eighteen year-old adopted daughter Clare.  She has been blind since birth, but astounds Belvedere by informing him she believes she is beginning to be able to see.  But this fact gives the elderly Belvedere, who has plans to marry the girl, a problem.

This tale reminds me very much of Nigel Kneale’s entry to Pan1 Oh, Mirror, Mirror.  And whilst there are sufficient differences between the two stories to discount any thought of plagiarism, I should be most surprised if the author had not read Kneale’s piece beforehand.

As with the best horror stories though, Ms. Gregory leaves the real grim stuff to the reader’s imagination.

Although, I use the name Jane Gregory with some caution, as I note this story (or at least one by this name) appears in a collection of short stories by Pan stalwart Harry Turner.


THE COFFIN FLIES
By Myc Harrison

It is 1792, and noted academic Professor Garron has abandoned his studies into mesmerism and alchemy, and taken himself off to a remote house on the Yorkshire moors to devote his time to unravelling the mysteries of the Coffin Fly – those tiny flightless insects often found inhabiting exhumed coffins.

Garron’s approach is to obtain a corpse – which he does by the simple expedient of murdering a local mill worker girl – and burying it up against a large pane of glass he has had built into the foundations of his house.  Thus, although the body is buried the standard six feet down, Garron can view its decomposition from the comfort of a cellar.

To help with the observations, the professor has enticed to his house a young student Martin Ashley who apparently once mentioned the flies in a published article, and who Garron optimistically assumes will share his interest.  Ashley, not surprisingly, is appalled at the sight of the girl’s corpse, but is locked in the cellar and compelled to participate in recording the experiment.

But then the local yokels come-a-calling searching for the missing girl and all goes pear-shaped.

This was the final of Myc Harrison’s five contributions to the Pantheon, and by far his finest.  The narrative opens with an intriguing prologue which scatters all manner of clues and mysteries for the reader to ponder – not least the motivation behind the killer’s careful positioning of the corpse in the grave.

The personable Ashley is just one of life’s unfortunates it appears; from being tricked by the coach driver to being unwittingly implicated in the mill girl’s murder, before being left to starve to death.  He appears to stumble from one misfortune to another.

But at least he was the first man ever to witness the (admittedly scientifically preposterous) “truth” about the metamorphosis of the coffin flies – both second then first hand.


REST IN PEACE
By Norman P. Kaufman

After a half-century spent in the same drudge of a job, Hindle is looking forward to a long leisurely retirement doing nothing, unencumbered by responsibilities or obligations.  But then into his life crashes a young woman in her black sports car.  And there is no-one there to help the unfortunate woman except Hindle.

Not quite sure what to make of this one.  On the surface it appears to be some sort of examination of the notion of responsibilities we have for our fellow human beings.  But I have a sneaking suspicion it is little more than an excuse for Kaufman to graphically record a girl's immolation.


STEVIE
By Monica Lee

Three year-old Stevie has disappeared from his bed following an afternoon nap, and when his cap turns up on the moors some two miles away it is naturally assumed he has been abducted.  But his elder brother is confident he will be back by Christmas.

As with Monica Lee’s entry to Pan17 The Remains of Reindeer, this one is another family saga of dysfunctional toffs up to no good in their crumbling country pile.  There are perhaps rather too many similarities between the two stories for comfort: alcoholic relatives living in squalor, characters conveniently wiped out in transport accidents, cancer visitations, greedy folks enjoying the fantasy of a life in the Seychelles, and murder(s) being covered up. 

Whereas Stevie never quite evolves into the Tom Sharpe-esque farce of “Reindeer”, what is layered into the mix by contrast (if my arithmetic is correct) is underage sex.  Quite a bit of it.

Oddly enough the narrative appears to come to a natural end on page 91 with Stevie’s reappearance, but Lee decides to scribble on, introducing a raft of new characters generally to good effect.  But the real flaw is the all too contrived ending, which suggests to me that the plotline had pretty much got away from the author, and she had run out of ideas.


ISLAND OF THE SEALS
By Samantha Lee

Moira Spencer has chosen the solitude of a remote Scottish island to help her complete her latest book; an investigation into folk legends surrounding seals.  But the writer’s block she is suffering from is only exacerbated by the arrival at her door one evening of a handsome young man.

I wonder sometimes if I have read just a few too many of these PBoHS tales.  For I found I could pretty much predict the plotline of this one after just a few paragraphs.  Even down to the epistolary newspaper report, which left the reader with sufficient leeway to either take the narrative at face value (including the supernatural elements), or to decide it was all the ramblings of a lonely woman driven to suicide by her self-imposed solitude.

Lee works hard to attempt to capture the austere beauty of the nature which surrounds Moira, but where she fails is in painting the doomed heroine with any real depth – hence her fate arrives as more a point of interest than regret to the reader.


THE ATHIEST
By Maureen O’Hara

Padraig and Lilly Flaherty are living out their twilight years in poverty and mutual loathing.  It is Christmas Day and they are both hungry and cold, although an unwise dalliance with a faulty paraffin stove fords both the opportunity of warmth, however fleeting.

With each of her three contributions to the series, the dialogue in Maureen O’Hara’s tales became progressively less flowery and more gritty; to the extend this one feels contemporary even today some 40 years after it was first published.

The very enmity between the couple is palpable; they each seemingly persisting in living together for no other reason than in the hope of outliving the other.  Which Padraig succeeds in doing, just – but at least he does enjoy the pleasure of warming his hands before he passes.
  

THE BOY WITH GOLDEN EYES
By Alan Temperley

Weeks after returning from a school trip to Greece, Andy falls into a three-day coma from which he wakes to discover his eyes have turned from brown to golden.  The same thing then begins happening to a number of his schoolmates, and then to his younger sister.  Around the same period a series of murders are committed; in each case the corpse found drained of blood and missing most internal organs.

Andy suspects some connection, but it his mother who uncovers the horrific reality. 

My initial thoughts whilst reading this his wonderfully crafted yarn, were that it reminded of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, and I expected that the murders would be traced to the golden-eyed children in some way telepathically punishing those individuals who had irked them.

But Temperley takes things in an altogether more gruesome direction, and the scene where Andy’s mother discovers what has been going on is unforgettable.  As is the narrative twist re her son’s sight, with the boiled-egg image a real shock.  But the most horrific aspect is left hanging after the story has ended: the dilemma Andy’s parents face regarding their daughter's golden eye.

Alan Temperley would become a stalwart of the rest of the PBoHS series, contributing eleven stories to the final thirteen volumes.  And he had set himself a high standard with this one. 


DOUBLE PUPPETT
By Charles Thornton
  
Arthur Day is a ventriloquist with wonderful technique, but an outdated script.  Agent Frank Seymour promises him billing on a top rate show, if only Day will update his script.  The ventriloquist refuses, and is in the process of explaining why, when he hears news of a fire at the club where his precious puppet is being stored.

Shades of the Anthony Hopkins’ 1978 film Magic here, although the true nature of the intriguing ventriloquist/dummy relationship is barely touched upon by Thornton.  Indeed the whole yarn appears to have been constructed solely to allow the author the joy of tossing in the “double scream” line.

  
THE UNKNOWN CALLER
By Rosemary Timperley

A widow believes she is being haunted by her dead husband repeatedly calling on her telephone, then hanging up after he says Hello.  A trip to a sympathetic GP, reassures her she is probably the victim of an elaborate hoax – the likeliest suspects being either her former brother-in-law, or her ex-husband’s gay lover.

Simply getting the phone removed should solve the problem.  But why afterwards can she still hear the bloody thing ringing?

A rather dull tale of guilt-induced paranoia this one, the only aspect of note being the way the widow gradually releases more and more information about her husband’s death as the yarn progresses, revealing herself in a darker light with each revelation.

This was Rosemary Timperley's first contribution to the series Since Pan12.  And Pan18 could almost be described as Bertie's sex-equality volume, with eight of the fourteen stories attributed to female writers.  Although at least one of the female names (Jane Gregory) we know to have been a pseudonym for Harry Turner.


THE FLY-EATER
By Barry Tonkin 

A writer of occult books befriends a librarian, and visits him at home whilst the latter is recovering from a heart attack.  He is horrified to witness his host stretch out a long scaly tongue to catch and eat a fly.

I recall reading a short story some years back called Toad where a plug-ugly student is, to the puzzlement of his classmates, a great hit with the female tutors.  The mystery is solved one evening when Toad is seen to stretch out a foot-long tongue to catch a fly.

That story was memorable, but Tonkins' regretfully, is anything but.  Indeed, it is best summed up by its closing line:

"I am a writer of the Occult, not the macabre.  I think it best to leave this sort of story to that sort of writer." 


IT’S HUNGRY
By Harry E. Turner

Since returning to Europe following a year-long visit to Borneo, Salaman has developed a prodigious appetite; yet somehow never gaining any weight.

He is presently being treated by Venetian clinician Dr. Farbrizzi whose somewhat unorthodox approach is to invite Salaman to his villa and let him loose upon a banquet.  But when a second doctor (the narrator) sees Salaman’s X-rays, he decides an alternative approach is required to save the patient’s life.

It is great fun this one, featuring another Pan staple of having a creature living inside the human body.  There is a breathless chase through the canals of Venice, and the author even finds time to give American writer Harold Robbins a stiff kicking.  My only regret with the yarn is that Turner chose to have the great unveiling, as it were, happen offstage.  Now that would have been a scene worth reading.

Salaman’s quote at the end of the tale “I am still rather hungry”, one hopes was but a little joke on his part, for he is such a likeable character we truly wish him no relapse.

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