Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The 21st Pan Book of Horror Stories (1980)

The cover of Pan21 is a reference to Harry E. Turner's contribution Flayed.  We are, I think, supposed to believe the chap has had all of the skin on his face (plus eyeballs) removed for whatever reason.  Unfortunately what is left beneath has the rather pale hue of chicken flesh.  He does boast a fine set of teeth, though; not a cavity or filling in sight.

By Carl Schiffman

Richard is beavering away in a farmer’s field with his metal detector hoping to discover some ancient treasure trove.  Instead his digging unearths an odd tubular structure which he takes to be a tree root.  Chopping it through with a spade swiftly shows it to be a power cable, with the force of the resultant shock somehow throwing Richard back in time four hundred years.

His misfortune is to be witnessed materialising in a flash of light by a pair of superstitious peasants.  This can only spell trouble.

Horror mixed with more than a soupcon of fantasy this one.  And, as with all the best fantasy writing, the author ignores the pesky scientific business of How, and instead puts his energies into exploring the human element to the story.  With the result it is all really rather entertaining. 

Poor Richard was pretty much doomed as soon as he was seen popping into existence from nowhere.  And persisting with the hope that it is all a bad dream until it is too late hardly helped his cause.

As fanciful as the premise of the narrative is, I did find myself wondering what tack I should take had I found myself in Richard’s position.  But it is hard to see how things could have wound up any different.  His clothes, wristwatch and general language clearly set him out as different - and different back in those paranoid days generally meant an appointment with the stake.

By Thomas Muirson

An unnamed narrator finds himself in the tiny village of Manton, and decides to drop into the local inn for a beer.  An attempt to engage the barmaid in a discussion over the origin of the unusual name of the inn – The Gibbet – is initially met with little success. 

But then she, in her peculiarly husky voice, informs him, in what should have a conversation-stopper of a line: “They hanged my father across the way, on the village green”.  The barmaid is just expanding upon her revelation when the landlord himself, a portly chap with an oddly twisted neck, arrives.  He promptly slaps the girl, and then orders the narrator out of the pub.

The narrator’s next port of call is a church a few miles further on, where he learns from the local vicar that the village of Manton has not existed for over a hundred years, and it appears likely he has just “met”, the hanged man and his daughter.

But there is one more member of the cast he has yet to encounter – the daughter’s beau. 

Another time-slip tale this one.  Although here it appears that the past, or elements of it, have somehow drifted forward into the present.  To what ends I am unsure 

The narrator’s attempts to convince himself that there are no supernatural elements to what he has witnessed are quite entertaining.  For as evidence mounts to the contrary, he tosses increasingly desperate self-deceptions such as “emotions…imprinted on the stones” and “woman’s throat…encircled by a red and white scarf” into the mix.

But ultimately, I have to say, The Gibbet Inn is a tale which does not really go anywhere of interest.

By Ian C. Strachan

There is a lengthy, if sporadic, record of unusual events occurring in and around the English village of Scanham.  The discovery of a number of dead cows completely drained of blood, heralds another bout of weirdness.

Had this story concerned proceedings in a place like Scrotum, Alabama or Pustule, Kentucky it would probably immediately have dropped into the category of disposable pulp-horror.  But the fact it has been set in the sleepy Nottinghamshire village of Scanham has it reading like the premise for some cheapo BBC Horror series from the 1950s: Quatermass and The Vampire Slugs, perhaps.  This impression being amplified by the almost formal official-ese language used by the author.  All of which lends it a certain charm.

The little chaps who pop up out of the ground, misbehave then return from whence they came, appear almost kissing cousins to Gerald Kersh’s Men Without Bones in Pan5.  The conundrum over what the creatures eat when they are living downstairs, as it were, Strachan solves by the simple expedient of advising us readers not to worry our pretty little heads about it, with the final line:

“…it is unlikely we shall ever know, and it would be foolish to speculate without further information.”

That is us told off, then.

By Fay Woolf

A catastrophic accident on a funfair ride has left nine people dead or maimed and six-year old Darren Martindale trapped inside a deadly tangle of wreckage.  Enter Chief Engineer Calhoun to save the day.  Or perhaps not.

We enter the action post-catastrophe to find the two main characters already in situ.  And therein lies the problem with Slowly, there being no room for any meaningful characterisation.  Thus does the fate of both Darren and Calhoun become, for the reader, a matter of utter indifference.

By Alex White

Attempting to find her feet in London following the breakdown of her marriage, Cynthia is delighted to take up old Mrs. Casterton’s offer of lodgings.  However she begins to have misgivings when introduced to her landlady’s decidedly creepy nephew Charles, with his sly glances and nocturnal wanderings.

Cynthia and Charles represents another of Alex White’s misogynistic rape’n’slash fests.  And whilst the tale does feature, if that is the correct word, one of the most brain-searing endings to any of the stories in the series, this only serves to divert attention away from the fact it is actually rather poorly written.

The plot holes are myriad, with some of the dialogue embarrassing to read.  To whit:

From Cynthia being a girl with few friends there suddenly is a plot-convenient boyfriend on the scene proposing marriage, she putting him off with the crushingly humiliating line:

“I’d love to marry you…but…I have to give a month’s notice in my job.”

Nevertheless she eventually succumbs to his charms, even agreeing to some pre-marital bumps with the following cringe-worthy exchange:

“Shall we try out whether we suit each other in bed?”

“It would be marvelous!” said Cynthia “I hope to god Charles doesn’t find out, though”.

She is such a feckless idiot we wonder just how many warning signs she needs to convince her to get the hell out of the mad-house.  Yet, even when she is finally convinced that Charles has been out on the murder mile on his nightly perambulations, she decides to stay, believing since

“gypsies on one’s own common never harmed the surrounding people (so) perhaps it was the same with murderers”.

Way to go, Cyn.

By Rosemary Timperley

A woman becomes troubled by the regular sightings of a small Indian gentleman whom she always appears to be encountering on her shopping trips.  Then one day he invites her to view a carpet he has at his home.  It is indeed a beautiful carpet.  A Thug carpet he informs her. 

As with the previous entry here we have another woman unable to read warning signs, to her eternal cost.  Although there is the hint of perhaps some form of hypnotic suggestion going on.

In most forms of literature an invitation from a stranger to a woman of “would you like to come and see my carpet?” would ring like some sort of Benny Hill double entendre, but in a PBoHS yarn one may be sure grief will follow.

As indeed it assuredly does.

By Ruth Cameron

Mrs. Carter is keen to meet her fellow-lodger Patrick’s new bride.  Dolly she is called, and quite aptly named with her rigid jerky gait and odd monotone voice.  A consequence, Patrick informs her, of Dolly’s father featuring her when she was growing up in his ventriloquism act.

Never mind.  Patrick clearly loves his wife deeply, and once the new baby arrives, “She’ll be a real woman”.

Quite a diverting little tale, with a delightedly off-kilter premise, but spoiled by a WTF ending.

By Brian Mooney

All Ellie has ever wanted was to become a mother.  So she is delighted to be able to inform her father when he returns from his latest visit to the hospital that “I’ve got a baby at last.  A beautiful baby girl”.

The pair dote on the new arrival, although Ellie’s husband Tom treats it with utter indifference.  But violence erupts when he threatens to “smash that fucking baby”.
I hadn’t really noticed it before, but it is true that, even through the more violent excesses of the Seventies’ Pans, bad language was pretty much absent from the stories.  I can recall Barry Martin’s nut job of "In Mother’s Loving Memory" being a bit of a potty-mouth, but yer actual swearies were conspicuous by their absence.

I assume Bertie just did not like such language.

But he allows the author free reign to let rip here with the crude Tom making hay with “fuck”, “fucked” and “fucking”.  Even throwing in “cunt”, that taboo word among taboos

And yet, by the end of the story, one cannot but feel sympathy with the poor chap for all his boorish ways.

By Ken Johns

Following an accident for which they may have been partly responsible, Mumsy and Sonny are told to leave the circus.  But they reap their revenge by murdering most of the other performers.  Generally they form quite a close-knit and effective team but Sonny has his own agenda.

A diverting little tale with two sort of twists in the tale: just who are the Mumsy and Sonny of the title, and what is this secret the latter is keeping?

But is the style in which the story is written I found most interesting; it giving at least a nod in the direction of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.  And there are those oddly appropriate pieces of poetry inserted into the prose.  But the most disturbing aspect of the narrative is the insistence with which Sonny requests to be given someone to “play” with.

By Stephen King

A group of textile workers come in during a holiday to clear out the basement of the mill.  The place is infested with large fearless rats, but as the men gradually begin to clear the place they notice the rats have disappeared.

The discovery of a trap-door confirms suspicions there is a sub-cellar.  So three of the team go down to investigate. 

I still find it difficult to fathom why Bertie would have chosen to include two Stephen King stories in Pan21.  By the time of the publication of this volume King was already a (if not the) major player within the horror fiction genre.  So attempting to introduce him to the mainstream clearly was not the reason. 

Perhaps Bertie had hoped King’s inclusion would be a shot in the arm for what I am guessing by the early Eighties, would have been the diminishing sales of the series.  But even this holds no water, given both this one and The Mangler had already been published in King’s 1978 anthology Night Shift – a collection every self-respecting horror aficionado would already have read.

Alternatively, I wonder if Bertie just enjoyed the kudos of having the Great Man’s name on the (rear in this case) cover of one of his volumes of the PBoHS series?

Graveyard Shift was one of King’s earliest short stories to be published, and has an unfinished or perhaps over-edited feet to it.  The main character Hall is maddeningly underdeveloped – he appears to have some connection with the foreman Warwick, but what is only ever hinted at:

“Hall went directly to the shower, still thinking about Warwick, trying to place whatever it was…that drew him, made him feel that somehow they had become tied together.”

At the end of the tale we are left frustratingly in the dark as to what Hall’s motivations were for driving Foreman to his death, then effectively committing suicide.

By Stephen King

Officer John Hunton has been called to the messy scene of an industrial accident involving an automated Ironer and Folder.  His Investigation uncovers that this is not the first incident with the equipment. 

And when the owner of the laundry subsequently loses an arm to the insides of the machinery – even when it is powered off – Hunton reluctantly begins to consider the possibility of some supernatural force at work. 

Stephen King has, according to Wiki, sold some 350 million copies of his books, which pretty much makes any criticism I may make really rather superfluous.  Not that that is going to stop me, of course.

To my mind Stephen King’s greatest literary gift is not his plotting nor the horrific situations he dreams up, but his characterisation.  An author can pen all manner of weird and scary stuff, but without being able to place believable, sympathetic characters into those settings, the stories become so much fluff.

And the reason the story fails to work is the (untypically for SK) lack of depth to the characters.  The three protagonists (Jackson, Hunton and Martin) are such interchangeable Joe Ordinaries, we could pretty much perm any two from three as the ones to attempt the exorcism, and to toss a coin to decide which of those pair was going to be in receipt of the iron ‘n’ fold treatment.

By James McClure

Eminent plastic surgeon Dr. Frank K. Agostino has been found murdered, with his body expertly mutilated to make it appear like “Humpty Dumpty”.  But Chicago Police Officer Tommy Tomacelli is on the case.

If David Lynch is ever given free rein to direct an episode of Chicago P.D. this story is the sort of thing he may come up with: an utterly bizarre murder solved by the simple of act of having a humble officer sit down for a chat with the victim’s widow.

With its strong characterisation (I keep banging on about that word), intriguing back stories to the two main characters and believable motivation, this well-crafted revenge story is all that the next entry to Pan21 regretfully is not. 

Note: The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry exhibit McClure describes in the story does exist, although it has apparently been removed from display recently.

By Harry E. Turner

Mario Trapelli has grown up on the mean streets of New York City, knowing nothing but violence at the hands of his drunken brute of a father.  Upon reaching the age of fourteen he makes his way west to Los Angeles where he finds he has an aptitude for racketeering.  By the age of thirty he has become a big-time hood, with a criminal empire stretching back to Florida and New York.

But he is tormented by nightmares relating to his past, until a trip to Africa fords him the opportunity to peel away these memories from his mind forever.
The changing tense in which this one is written irked me for some reason.  Turner begins the narrative relating a lengthy encounter between Mario and his father in the present tense before, suddenly and disorientatingly, moving to the past tense to chart Mario’s rise to infamy.  For the final act we return to the present tense.  Now, perhaps there is a name for such a literary style, but I just found it intrusive.

The author does succeed in neatly wrong-footing the reader with his choice of title; us seasoned PBoHS aficionados perhaps thinking Mario’s actions are going to leave his father skinless, but the flaying which occurs is of a more subtle psychological form.  But even this clever trick fails to lift Flayed above the level of a bog-standard PBoHS revenge yarn.

By Carolyn L. Bird

Daniel hates the fact he has to accept social invitations to the country pile of tycoon Michael Sheldrake since the latter bought over his publishing business.  During his latest stay, he does find some compensation when Sheldrake’s beautiful daughter comes to his bed one night.

Eschewing a shooting trip the following day, Daniel visits his host’s private zoo where he learns there is kept a hairless female monkey, which although on heat, apparently “bites (the males') throats out during copulation”.   The primate is also carrying venereal disease.

Later than night, a very drunk Daniel again has a nocturnal visitor.

It reminded me of David Farrar's story The Revenge in Pan13 a touch, this one.  Although, whereas in Farrar’s yarn we were expected to believe the protagonist was so drunk he could not tell if his night-time visitor had been a boy or girl, here we are asked to swallow the suggestion that Daniel’s inebriation was such it rendered him unable to distinguish between a monkey and a young woman.  A woman, I might add, whose body he was already intimately familiar with.

Now I have been really rather tipsy myself on a number of occasions, but I cannot imagine ever being so drunk as to make that sort of mistake.

This leap of faith aside, The Black Bedroom represents a fine closer to Pan22, it's narrative giving Ms. Bird free rein to nail her own personal political colours to the mast with some wonderful descriptions of Daniel's co-guests:

“One of the guests, an old Harrovian of almost rodent-like intelligence and manners was neighing about his investments in South Africa while another, an even more fetid parasite of the British ruling class, was belching noisily into his cognac.”

I love it!

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