Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The 20th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1979)



The cover pic may represent Celia's departed husband in Round Every Corner, but just as likely is unrelated to any of the stories.


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THE LEATHER OTTOMAN
By Carolyn L. Bird

The marriage of convenience between young and beautiful, but poverty-stricken, Susanna and her elderly,rich husband has fizzled out to the separate bedrooms stage.  Hubby is convinced his wife is having an affair, but has no evidence beyond the vaguely sexual sounds which emanate from her locked room once a week, which coincide with the delivery to the house of the mysterious leather ottoman of the title.

The item is clearly too small to house a person, but he is nevertheless keen to ascertain what is going on, so has a two-way mirror installed in the lady’s chamber. 

Carolyne Bird’s previous entry to the Pantheon was Meat in Pan18 which fed us the delightfully silly image of a young Russian chopping of a limb to toss to a pack of hungry wolves which was pursuing his horse and sledge.  But she outdoes herself here having her heroine in the throes of sexual ecstasy wrapped in the shirt of the long-dead Casanova.

“Her tongue probes the button holes and she presses the sleeves against her breasts.”

After this scene I found it difficult to take the rest of the tale seriously, which was perhaps what Ms. Bird intended.

The story’s one saving grace is Susanna’s husband’s manservant, the memorably creepy Roe who at one point suggests to his master with a straight-face, that he be allowed to punish Susanna by “peeling off her skin with a butcher’s knife and sprinkling her raw flesh with pepper”.  And at the conclusion of the tale Roe is left whetting his knife on his shoe, to what end we are not privy.

His master’s twice-used threat to deport him back to Gloucester, I assume is a private joke made by the author at the town's expense.


THE MATERIALIST
By A.G.J Rough

Sheila Parker is dying.  Being killed by the tumour which has spread secondaries around her body.  Now very ill she has decided her final roll of the dice is to fly to Manila to be treated by a psychic surgeon called Parmeo – one of those bods who perform surgery with their bare hands without the use of anaesthetic or scalpel.

Husband Giles views the whole set-up as a scam to fleece the desperate, and his scepticism turns to fury when he views the actual operation, so later he meets up with the surgeon to demand his money back.

But Parmeo, who has already taken a dislike to Giles, decides to teach him not one but two lessons.

The quandary with this one is whether to believe Parmeo to be a charlatan utilising his impressive powers of hypnotism and suggestion to make it appear as if he is performing surgery.  If so, given his work coincides with Sheila’s remission, he is an extremely lucky one.

But if not, and he does have the power, then he is one remarkable individual.  For not only was he able to fish around inside Sheila and pull out a plum as it were, but somehow succeeded in removing all those pesky little secondaries too.  And to top it all re-distributed them not only inside her hubby, but also retrospectively onto an X-ray plate he had taken weeks previously.  Now that is some going.



ROUND EVERY CORNER
By Edwin Brown

Since the death of his former lover’s husband in a hit-and-run accident, Tom has been convinced the dead man has been following him around.  He makes his way to the house of the widow (Celia), but she has little time for him as she is expecting a phone-call from her new paramour.

Celia eventually sends Tom packing, whereupon he promptly gets himself run over too.  She has just finished dealing with the police attending the scene when dead hubby pitches up in her bedroom.

It begins promisingly enough this one, but it all becomes bogged down in interminably tedious dialogue, with almost the whole tale taking place in Celia’s living room.  Indeed, the yarn would probably work best as a one-act play.

What little action there is occurs off-stage so to speak, including the two hit-and-runs leaving us to wonder just who was driving at the time.  Two random strangers wandering into the narrative to oh-so conveniently eliminate a couple of characters would represent particularly lazy plotting by the author in my opinion.

So, did Celia perform the first on her own husband, with perhaps Matthers, Tom’s mouse-like works manager, responsible for the second?  Surely the resurrected cuckold played no part in the latter, given his driving abilities would have been severely impeded by the fact he now only had one eye which, “hanging on short bloody tendrils…stared sightlessly at the ground”.     


HELL ON BOTH SIDES OF THE GATE
By Rosemary Timperley

Astrid has spent almost all of her life on the Caribbean island of Saba, raised by her aunt and uncle after her father was convicted of murdering her mother.  Now twenty-six years old, Astrid has agreed her recently released father may come across from England to live with her and husband Cyril.

Barely has he set foot on Saba, but he is criticising Astrid’s clothing, abode and more viciously, her husband.  With weeks Cyril is dead, and Astrid is pregnant with her own father’s child.

Even though all of the unlikely sounding locations (The Bottom, Hells Gate, Sombrero Island) are all real places, there is a peculiar fable-esque quality to the narrative here; the plot progressing through a series of fantastic, almost dream-like scenes.  The story probably has something to say about the powers of psychological manipulation, and also the way bad family history has a habit of repeating itself.

But ultimately it reinforces the impression (witness the likes of They’re Making a Mistake in Pan17 and The Brother in Pan19), that when inmates are released as “cured” from mental institutions things rarely turn out well. 


DON’T GO DOWN IN THE WOODS
By John Arthur

After serving ten years in a secure unit for the murder of a young woman, He (we never learn his name) has been released by “the Medical Board, in their infinite wisdom”.  Realising He still poses a threat to attractive women, He chooses to attempt to shut himself off from the world and the temptations it holds.

However, Susie, the local teenage sexpot espies Him, and liking what she sees decides to pay Him a visit one evening.

Here we have yet another convicted crackpot prematurely ejected back into society.  The difference being this chap is aware of his illness and what it can cause him to do, so somewhat fatuously sets himself up in a tent in the woods and attempts to live off the land.   

I really did not enjoy this story at all; the author failing to imbue either of the two main characters with any sort of believability.  And once the Draybridge incident was drooped into the narrative, the twist and the climax became totally predictable. 

Although the PBoHS series had certainly included a deal of sex over the years (usually with one unwilling participant, it has to be said), this was the first story I think to contain quite a lengthy blow-by-blow account of the business.  Although one does wonder it if was not the author’s first attempt at doing so, for we have to endure such Mills & Boon tripe as:

“she began to stroke his bursting manhood with her well-practised hand”

before

“his own hand found and caressed her deepest secret”.


It doesn’t really sound to me as if Susie was the sort of girl to have many secrets left at all.


THE VICTORIAN CONSERVATORY
By Alan Temperley

Student Colin’s girlfriend Bronwyn has disappeared.  One of the last places she was known to have visited was the glass conservatory at the local Botanical Gardens.  The shifty behaviour of one of the park keepers convinces Colin the key to the mystery lies within the conservatory.   So he persuades a friend to join him in a bit of late-night burglary, whereupon they discover a selection of dead, small animals laid out in front of a small stone statue, as if in tribute.

Colin returns alone the following night after dark, to be reunited with Bronwyn.

After a decidedly vapid opening to Pan20, Alan Timperley here raises hopes that the volume may not be a complete duffer with this excellent contribution.  The success of the story is due in no small way to the author articulating what many of us already know – that those large glorified greenhouses which live in botanical gardens housing tropical plants are creepy places.

The language is perhaps a touch florid at times – over twenty plants are mentioned by name; although I did appreciate the author’s sly joke, when he has the old keeper informing Colin ”I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here”.

Colin and his friend Barry come across as a bit of an amalgam of The Hardy Boys and Gary and Tony from Men Behaving Badly; regretfully leaning towards the latter pair’s investigational skills.  But the two conservatory-after-dark visits are scarily enjoyable with the sense of primeval menace palpable.


THE LION’S CRADLE
By Harry E. Turner

Eddie is, as the opening line of this tale attests “the most successful burglar in Europe”.  Consequently he is probably one of the richest, but indulging in all the trappings of wealth generally leaves him jaded.  The only time he feels truly alive is when burglarising – and the riskier the job the better.

Reading that a multi-billionaire Saudi businessman will be in residence at the nearby Villa Louvigny proves to be just too much of a temptation for Eddie.

It is clear early on with this one that were Eddie to get away with things there would be no story, and were he to be caught but unpunished there would be no horror story.  So the rather predictable tale becomes one of patiently wading through all the It Takes a Thief preamble, to find out what nastiness is in store for our hero.  And really rather nasty, if preposterously contrived, his punishment turns out to be.

The opening eight pages consist of rather dull scene setting with Turner going to great lengths to impress upon us that this tale is set amongst the mega-rich; with a veritable Harrods shopping list of product placements scattered around: Remy Martin champagne, Piz Bruin sun oil, Gucci suitcases, Cartier watches and the likes. 

And just in case we are still in any doubt, Eddie enjoys a bout of vigorous nine-orgasm sexual olympics with current squeeze Samantha.  Although I did, rather wistfully I admit, enjoy Turner’s description of girls with “wet mouths like strawberry mousse”.



SCHOOL CROSSING
By Francis King

Professor Mark Clark has recently lost his lucrative post as head of a Comprehensive School, and is having to make ends meet by teaching English to foreign students.

Each time he drives past his old place of work, there always appears to be a line of pupils blithely dawdling across the road heedless of the traffic.  But it gradually becomes apparent to Clark that he is the only one who can actually see them.

A visit to an ophthalmologist has the doctor come up with the smart idea of the Professor simply driving through the hallucination to prove to himself it is not actually real. 

An, on the surface at least, rather simple tale of mental disintegration which maintains the reader’s interests by the selection of little mysteries it keeps to itself:

  • What exactly was the misdemeanor which led to Clark being either dismissed or edged out of his previous post?
  • What is the true source of the inner rage which appears to constantly consume him?
  • Why does Clark insist on wearing the glasses his ophthalmologist insists he could do without?
  • And why does he detest his twin children quite so much?


These questions are never truly answered, and yet this fact somehow adds to the business at hand rather than detracting from it.


CONTENTS
By Norman Kaufman

The beautiful but naïve Julia has fallen for the suave Dr Pedro de los Espanitos who is twice her age.  But upon discovering he is a “womaniser and a fortune-hunter” she spirals into depression and eventually suicide.  Daddy, a real doctor, is not best pleased and avows revenge.

A rather run-of-the-mill contribution from the generally reliable Mr Kaufman.  The sole memorable aspect of the yarn is, as might be expected, the form the revenge takes.  And whilst the deed does make for an uncomfortable read, the victim has been painted as too much of a pantomime villain for us to feel either sympathy or satisfaction at his demise.  


THE LAW: IT'S ADMINISTRATORS
By Sheryl Stuart

A pair of doss-house dead-enders are discussing the parlous state of modern society in general and a recent apparently motiveless assault on an elderly man in particular.  The less-bright of the two goes out for a walk, and finds himself locked inside Hyde Park after dark.  He encounters a girl who has run away from home whom he promptly rapes then murders.

But then a gang of teenagers, self-proclaimed vigilantes, get their hands on him.

This tale is as dull and meritless as the outline above.  The author was one of the large number who appeared to be represented by London Management Ltd, which I assume was the agency to which aspiring writers would send off their unsolicited scribblings in the hope of catching Bertie’s eye.

Nine of the twelve entries in Pan20 list London Management Ltd as the author’s agents, this being one such, and apparently the only thing Ms. Stuart ever had published.


A SMELL OF FRESH PAINT
By Carl Schiffman 

George and Helen are delighted to have purchased their new house at what appears to be a knock-down price.  Not even the revelation that the previous owner had ended up being been committed to an asylum has dampened their enthusiasm. 

But their renovations do not all go to plan: grime appears to be ingrained into the woodwork, and there is the constant smell of fresh paint in the place, even before George has opened his first tin.  Plus there is that elderly woman in a blue dressing-gown wandering about the house and grounds both claim to have seen. 

But the worst thing is the gradual change which comes over Helen, she incrementally morphing into “an acid-tongued nagger”.  A clue to what is going on given with her statement: “There’s no-one in the house, not a living soul; except me, of course”.  The transformation is complete when George is served up the family cat for tea, which cues a visit to the psychiatric unit of the local hospital for Helen. 

George, persevering with the renovations, unearths a sealed-up cupboard in the kitchen, inside which he discovers the source of all his and Helen’s woes.

Quite an effective ghost story this one, although we are never informed quite why the woman in the cupboard appears to harbor such a grudge against the new owners of the house.

And one would have thought, given she was naught but an, admittedly animated, collection of rags and bones that George would have chosen to minister a good kicking rather than run and hide under a bush in the garden.


A COUNTRY TALE
By Thomas Muirson

A stranger in the village pub is told a tale by a beer-cadging regular, of druids, witches and a gloomy copse which appears to bring disaster upon any who attempt to clear it.

A fun little tale to close what had been a disappointingly weak volume of the series.  We are led to believe that the story-teller’s yarn is being embellished with each pint of ale being set before him, before the author neatly wrong-foots the reader.  Or at least he did with this reader.

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