Thursday, 16 October 2014

The 19th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1978)


No ladies with blue faces and red eyes emerge from misty caverns in any of the tales contained in Pan19, more's the pity.


                                                                   ~



THE SPECTRE
By Dulcie Gray

Valentine has been since his boyhood an avid collector of butterflies.  In his collection may be found specimens of 63 of the 69 species indigenous to GB so we learn.  His latest addition to the collection is a Chequered Skipper, which initially proves stubbornly resistant to the effects of the killing jar. 

He has just put the unfortunate insect back into the ethyl acetate, when he is sure he hears a fluttering at his window.  And later in bed is convinced he is not alone in his house.
  
This one is a revenge story, and like many such in the Pantheon is a revenge based upon someone getting a taste of their own medicine.

Valentine, despite his name, is a decidedly unlikeable character – especially so when he recalls his excessive killing of butterflies as a child – so we feel little sympathy at his demise.

It is tolerably entertaining read and the scene where Valentine’s bedroom door slowly opens is memorable, but the problem is no matter how large Dulcie paints the spectre, one cannot really get away from the fact a butterfly is little more than a collection of crepe paper and brittle twigs with a rolled up straw for a mouthpiece. 


ERIC AND I
By Chris Morgan

The Eric of the title is a wheelchair bound chap with learning difficulties prone to an unspecified “monthly sickness”.  The I of the title is the narrator, Michael.

At the start of the tale Michael is a twelve-year old bit of a loner, who befriends much older Eric viewing him as a kindred outsider.  Hanging out with Eric also allows Michael the opportunity of contact with Margaret, a young Irish woman who lodges at Eric’s house, and who Michael enjoys watching undress through her bedroom window of an evening.  At least he does until he witnesses Eric brutally murder her.

Fast forward a quarter-of-a-century and the pair meet up once more, Eric a patient where Michael (now Mike) is employed as a psychiatric nurse.  Eric is still prone to his monthly sickness, and has to be prevented from suicide on each occasion - a task Mike is charged with on this particular evening.

It is a bit of a muddy puddle this yarn, with the true nature of the malevolent entity never entirely made clear.   Although the fact it rises with the full moon is fairly self-evident, even without the author’s clue of calling Eric “moon-face” at one point.

But this ambiguity never detracts from what is eminently readable story – I did like Michael casually dropping into his narrative the intriguingly redolent line telling us of his “two and a half decades of reasonably frequent nocturnal window-watching”.

One puzzle left unsolved is why Eric’s parents, whose physical scars clearly show they are painfully aware of what occurs to their son during the full moon, chose that particular time to enjoy a weekend away, leaving their unfortunate lodger in the house alone with Eric.


NEIGHBOURS
By David Case

Julia has left her Guinea village to come and live somewhere in middle-England with her new husband.  Generally the neighbours are polite yet distant, but the first one to come knocking is the obnoxious Mrs Jennings looking for her lost dog.

It disappointed me this one.  Much of the narrative is taken up by dialogue between the two women over a pot of tea.  Julia shows herself to be cultured, intelligent and articulate, whilst her neighbour Mrs Jennings is a boorish, small-minded bigot.  Yet Julia never lets her guest’s condescending utterances ("I was wondering if you mightn’t be thinking of going back where you belong”) rile her.

But once the vile woman has gone Case pretty much validates her prejudices, by letting us know Julia has the lost dog currently cooking away in a stew, and is pondering having her neighbour’s portly child next on the menu.

Without those last few paragraphs the short story would have represented an (admittedly not terribly subtle) satire of small-town colour prejudice, but it would not have been a horror story.  And I guess Case needed that final revelation to get the thing past Bertie and into Pan19.


A TRIP OFF THE MAP
By James Hallums

Self-made American millionaire and all-round self-sufficient graduate of the University of Life, Murray Finebaum is treating himself to a trip across Asia in his brand new convertible.  Finding life dull in the city of the unnamed central Asian country he has found himself in, he ignores the official advice and heads off into the hills to explore.  
  
Although on the surface this one is an entertaining one-way road-trip, the story is really a diatribe against the increasingly all-pervading and all-persuasive influence of Western capitalism into the more remote corners of the globe.  And whilst the many of the villagers gaze with awe at Finebaum’s car, you can be sure within ten years most would be wearing Chelsea or Manchester United replica tops.

Finnebaum is painted as just a bit too much a stereotypically brash, splash-the-cash Yank – he actually does spout at one point “I’m a citizen of the United States of America.  The greatest goddamn country in the world.” 


LADY ON DISPLAY
By Norman Kaufman

As Mr Quill, the rotund publican of The Lifeless Lass states to the rather too nosy female journalist: “I’m not kidding myself that folk come here just for the beer, or to see my fat mug”.  No, he is well aware the prime appeal his hostelry holds is the stuffed corpse of a naked young girl hanging by her neck in the corner. 

But the attraction, now twenty-or-so years old, is showing signs of deterioration, and Mr Quill is on the lookout for a replacement.

Good ol’e Norm is up to his ol’e tricks here – delivering a gruesomely memorable image within the absolute minimum number of pages to squeeze in a bit of characterisation and back story.  The “I’m going to leave your brain intact” business is, of course, Kaufman being very silly.  Not that I minded in the slightest.


WILD BEES, GOLDEN HONEY
By Guy Delaway

Mexico City has ordered the small church in the village of Rosalita to be closed, so the young priest Francisco is making his way to Guadalahara.  Hidden within pots of honey he is carrying are four gold bars; church gold.  He is waylaid by three bandits at a watering hole who, after discovering the hidden treasure, rape then murder him, smearing his bound body in honey and leaving him to the ferocious soldier ants.

The bandit leader (El Guapo), after dispatching his two companions, runs into the priest’s sister in a cabaret bar and seduces her.  He entreats her to come away with him, but she demurs saying she is waiting for her beloved brother to arrive from Rosalita – so the pair set out to see if they can find him.

There had been a few stories carrying hints of homosexuality previously in the series; The Flatmate in Pan10 and The Revenge in Pan13 spring most readily to mind, but nothing quite so overt as encountered in this tale.  And whilst there is quite a tender, almost sensitive, gay love encounter between the priest and the bandit leader, this is swiftly followed up with a brutally uncompromising male-rape scene.

It does not a whole lot of imagination to work out what El Guapo is referring to, when he suggester the bandits and the priest are now “blood brothers”.

The format the narrative is of a triptych of interlocking stories; each following one of the ménage-et-trois of main characters: Francisco, El Guapo and the priest’s sister Maria; with each ending up dead at the end of “their” section of the tale.  Indeed, there is almost a Shakespearean tragedy aspect to the yarn, with none of the characters actually succeeding in reaching the final paragraph.

And we are left with the beautifully written final image of the cracked church bell mournfully tolling out a death, as it is doing when the story opens.


THE BROTHER
By Edwin Brown

Stella has chosen to do the Marry-in-haste thing, so is now Repenting-at-leisure at the hands of her manipulative, paranoid clown of a husband.  But when she is finally introduced to her new brother-in-law she realises hubby is a paragon of sanity in comparison.

Although this story explores how psychological control may be exerted by one individual over another in an abusive relationship, and perhaps makes a statement about the sometime inapplicability of Care-in-the-community, it really is naught but a vessel to hold that shocking final in-the-car scene.


ZELMA, MY SISTER-IN-LAW
By Dorothy K. Haynes

Come and see Madame Zelma, the headless wonder” invites the barker at the travelling village fair.  Which is exactly what George and his brother Michael shell out their 50p to do.  George finds the sight of what is indeed a lady without a head lumbering around a touch disconcerting, but Michael by contrast is entranced and eventually persuades (what he believes to be) Zelma to accept an invitation round to the boys’ parents’ house for tea.

The girl who turns up is in full possession of a head though and, as in all the best tales, love flourishes and the happy couple soon set the date.  But it is the headless version who pitches up at the altar.

"What the fuck is going on?" wonders George.
  
This surreal piece of nonsense is so unlike the author's two other contributions to the series (The Cure and The Bean-Nighe”) as to almost make one suspect not only are there two Zelmas around, but also a pair of Dorothy K. Haynes out there.

One has to wonder though if the writer’s heart was really in this, for although it is diverting enough the tale dribbles to a close with a lazy second use of the “good head on her shoulders” joke.  Although I did enjoy Haynes’ description of the shuffling Zelma as a “predatory winchester.”  One presumes she meant the chemical container, rather than the rifle.


THE POWER CUT
By Rosemary Timperley

A man breaks into his former lover’s flat, planning to knife her to death.  But he has a change of heart when he sees her lying asleep in bed, but she awakes before he can leave.  Panicking as she reaches for the light switch, he slashes out at her arm with his knife, somewhat improbably severing the limb, before fleeing the scene

The following morning he discovers on the news the woman has bled to death, and the guilt trip kicks in.

A tale exploring guilt-ridden paranoia and the profound effect it can have upon an individual.  In this case the man begins to believe he is being held within the hand of some huge shadowy ghost of his victim, the dead woman quite literally having him in the palm of her hand.

All of the events which follow, including the killer’s eventual death from what appears to be a heart attack, could all be laid at the door of his own neuroses.  However the author (unfortunately so, in my view) could not resist tossing a superfluous supernatural element into the mix right at the death.  Which rather spoiled the fun a touch, I felt.


GIVE A DOG A BONE
By Diana Forster

Husband has decided the only way to rid himself of his “complaining, whining” Wife is to kill her.  But he is aware that, where not getting caught is concerned, the actual murder itself is generally not the problem.  It is the subsequent disposal of the body.

So, after much research he has decided getting in a pair of large dogs to consume his Dearly Departed is the way forward.  But he has concerns they may not have a taste for human flesh.

I am now almost two thirds of the way through the PBoHS series, and am beginning to wonder if already I have read too many of the tales.  For with this one I could tell pretty much where it was going after reading the first paragraph, given the helpful clue in the title.

The only mystery was just how Husband was going to mess up: would it be through bad luck, a blunder on his part or (as it turned out) an unfortunate combination of the two.


THE SINISTER NURSEMAID
By Philip Dell Creed

Retired army major Jonathan Jenkins is visiting an old friend from his Raj days in the remote Indian village where he resides with his wife and baby.  Jenkins knows there is much of old Indian traditions which he does not understand, but that his friend should choose to encourage a large cobra to live within their hut to help look after the baby is beyond his comprehension.  

There is all manner of weird stuff going on in this yarn, but nothing more so than the odd stilted language used by the author.  Consider:

“It was just after they had finished eating that the thing began”

or

“Jenkins watched his friend set out bravely towards the jungle” (carrying) “a cloth sack containing none other than Rakheval the Cobra”


before we arrive at one of the biggest literary clichés of all:

“Something he knew was wrong.  Very wrong”


Add to this the author’s propensity for sprinkling the text with native words we are perhaps supposed to be familiar with (charpoy, shikar, dacoits and the like), and it all makes for a disjointed and not particularly enjoyable read.


THE BOY WHO WAS AFRAID TO DIE
By Guy Delaway

India and Pakistan are bickering over Kashmir again, which is bad news for the inhabitants of the tiny village situated at a strategically important spot along the Jammu Valley.  For an invading band of Pathan soldiers have deemed they all must be executed. 

All except the remarkably beautiful teenage boy Kishor, who is spared by one of the officers for, as he says, “A woman for duty; a boy for pleasure”

Kishor is prepared to do what he has to do to stay alive, but will that be enough to save his skin?
  
More homosexual shenanigans from Mr. Delaway, but whereas in his other offering the male rape scene was an integral part of the plot, here it appears the attack serves solely as the, if you pardon my language, climax to an unremittingly brutal yarn.


THE INQUISITOR
By Simon Walsh

‘Tis the time of The Spanish Inquisition, and Don Sancho has been rather unwise in his choice of mistress; he choosing to have an affair with the wife of the Grand Inquisitor Don Eduardo Medina D’Cruz.  Unfortunately the lovers have not been sufficiently discrete and hence both end up in the Eduardo’s dungeons.

A fair to middling tale of fun and games down in the dungeons beneath Toledo.  The jarring language is the most noteworthy aspect of this one, as the author swoops between gore-fest lines like:

“They tore the skin from my back with lashes and glowing pincers; burned my flesh with branding irons”

alternating with po-faced passages such as:

“praying to Him that in his infinite compassion He would deliver me from the hands of my enemies”.

Don Sancho’s revenge upon his torturer is so obviously simple, one wonders why all guests of the Inquisition did not take the same tack.


THE QUIET GIRL
By Robert Holdstock

Country doctor and sometime lay-minister John Taggard is called out to visit a near-catatonic young woman who has been found wandering the countryside.  Odd goings on have coincided with her arrival in the village – corpses exhumed and mutilated - and Taggard is convinced these incidents are not unrelated, so sets out to get to the bottom of things.

I cannot help but feel with this one that a Dave Case-sized narrative has been shoe-horned into a mere fifteen pages.  The plot has subtle elements of both The Wicker Man and Rawhead Rex contained within, but once the doctor has decided to investigate the business at hand, everything appears to be performed at a breathless pace. 

Not even the discovery of the corpse of a recently buried old biddy lying outside her grave is enough to drive our man-with-a-mission from his quest.  Taggard continues to scurry hither and thither at the behest of his latest hunch – each of which turn out to be 100% correct all the time.

Except, of course, his final, fatal assumption that holy water will do the trick.

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