Friday, 7 November 2014

The 22nd Pan book of Horror Stories (1981)

The cover of Pan22 shows Anna Marshall from The Girl With Violet Eyes being barbecued in her bed. 


By Elise Karbacz

Drew and Anna Marshall recently lost their teenaged daughter Lucinda in a road traffic accident.  Anna’s depression only appears to lift when she is the company of Helen, a pre-school child she has befriended in the local park.  The couple adopt Helen from her impoverished chav parents, and move back to Scotland to attempt to rebuild their lives.

But unexplained events begin to occur in the house: a broken mirror, trees uprooted, and a water tank falling off the wall amongst others.  Is there a poltergeist at large?

A superb ghost story to open Pan22 and, as with the best of this particular genre, right until the climax of the narrative we are unsure if the goings-on are worldly or other-worldly. 

If I do have a criticism of the story it is that the author perhaps did not trust her readers to suss out exactly what had been happening so, rather intrusively, has the ghost of Lucinda popping into existence to explain things, before vanishing for good.

But I can forgive Ms. Karbacz this little indulgence.

By Roger Clarke

Sam is off fishing to the local pond where, as his mother warns him, “All too many people have drowned”.  The boy, when he arrives, is more concerned that what is making the occasional gentle splashing noises may spoil his fishing.  He is right to be concerned.

I think what the author was attempting to achieve here was a contrast between the serenity of the scene above water and the nastiness of what lay beneath the surface of the pond.  However, Clarke fails in my opinion because the Arcady painted is just too idealised, too beautiful; and the horror is really not horrible enough, if that makes any sense.

I did like the way the atmosphere cooled when he dropped in the line “There was a gentle plop as something entered the water”.  There existed a real sense of menace after this point.

However Sam’s characterisation is left sadly underdeveloped.  Consequently we readers end up as impartial observers in a struggle which barely causes an emotional ripple.

By Tony Richards

Jack and Celise’s first child is due, but has chosen to arrive a few weeks early - right in the middle of the worst blizzard southern Ontario has seen in sixteen years.  As the couple live on a farm five miles from the local hospital, there is no other option but to get into their car and drive through the white-out.

I really enjoyed this one.  After two beautifully-written scene-setting paragraphs, Richards hits us with the one word sentence “Night”, and the mood immediately darkens.  The pace also quickens as the couple set out on their journey with Celise, despite her fears, endearing herself to us with her humour.

The plot reminded me a touch of Stephen King’s One For The Road, but rather than vampires being on the loose, the couple here have to deal with sentient snow reluctant to die with the coming thaw.  This premise on the surface sounds more than a little preposterous, but the subtleties in Richards’ writing somehow overrides our logic and creates a menace real yet intangible.

And that final scene in the hospital is quite unforgettable. 

By Norman P. Kaufman

After being dead for twenty years Martin has risen to wreak revenge upon his wife Jay who poisoned him, and also his two brothers Thomas and Simon.  Thomas he frightens to death, but is disappointed to learn Simon (who replaced him in Jay’s bed) has also succumbed to her poisoning skills.  Which just leaves Jay.

I am not quite sure of the point of this one.  Quite how Martin has remained sentient whilst his body decomposed is never made clear, nor how he managed to dig his way up through six feet of presumably well-compacted earth. 

Our hero later succeeds in spitting onto Thomas’ body, even though one assumes his salivary glands would have rotted away decades previously, and then kicks down a door with muscle-tone which must be generously described as compromised.  Similarly, picking up and using a telephone utilising twenty-year dead vocal apparatus apparently poses no problems.

I could go on – but this one really is rubbish.

By Fay Woolf

The Hallowe’en Charity Fete is all going rather well.  Particularly the Sponge-Flinging Stall, where folks pay to throw sopping-wet sponges at volunteers locked into a set of home-made stocks.  But no-one has noticed the latest "victim" has slipped off the chair he was standing on, and is slowly throttling to death.

A rather innocuous little tale which although the poor unfortunate is an enemy of the boy running the stall, is not really a revenge story, as the incident is an accident.

The one curiosity of the narrative is the way on six occasions the author begins a paragraph with the line “The Hallowe’en Charity Fete had been Mr. Tenby’s idea”.  When in fact the aforementioned teacher is almost superfluous to the story, and it would work perfectly well without him.

By Jane Louie

It is 2020 and the US President Byfield Rochester is dying.  Before he goes he wishes to leave the free world a legacy of lasting peace, which he plans to deliver by causing an explosion in the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear power plant.  An event which will destroy pretty much all of Russia, Eastern Europe and China.

The above would sound all rather improbable had we not witnessed real-life trigger-happy numbskulls like Ronald Reagan and George Dubya in the White House in the years since this tale was published.  And, of course, the USA elected its very own Trump card in 2016.

The author is clearly a lady who back in 1981 was deeply in love with Margaret Thatcher.  She has, in the tale, the UK now named the The Socialist Republic of Britain  – with rampant socialism clearly responsible for the once great nation’s reduction to a “little, strike-torn, bitter, shabby, proletarian slum”.

But ultimately The Trump Card is a rather silly tale.  Why send Mr. President with the destructive device implanted in his chest, when there would be a long queue of willing patriotic doughboys delighted to perform the trick?  And much less likely to balls it up.

Additionally, the way the Kremlin gets wind of the plot – by the simple expedient of having one of their spies starting up a conversation on a Washington train with the American nuclear scientist responsible just reeks of lazy plotting.  As does the fact Rochester has to rely upon the effects of a tranquilizer drug wearing off too soon to get the job done.

By Bessie Jay

Mr Salaman’s wife is a serial philanderer, but each of his attempts to murder the latest in her series of lovers ends in humiliating failure – the final endeavour (which takes place inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops) terminally so.

Although Bessie Jay’s tale has something to say about the conflicting interests of ancient and modern Egypt, ultimately this one is played for laughs.  And quite what it is doing in this collection I have no idea.

By Carolyn L. Bird

Gothric O’Hooligan-Dante’s great passion is cooking.  And his bistro builds a reputation for serving up the most exotic dishes imaginable.  But he finds each new menu has to be just that touch more exotic than the last, especially so when he opens a second eating house in Hollywood.

This never-ending search for the ultimate dish eventually leads to Dante’s demise, both professionally and personally.

Whilst it may at first glance appear to younger readers that some of the Dante’s dishes (Deep-fried Rhinoceros Testicles and Chips or Giraffe Throat Soup for example) sound like the sort of nonsense Heston Blumenthal may come up with on a bad hair day, this particular vein of gastronomic humour had already been mined by Monty Python in 1979’s Life of Brian.  Witness the delicacies offered for sale by Brian at The Coliseum.  
The running joke in this yarn, of course, is that Dante has to keep developing more and more outrageous dishes to keep ahead of the competition.  Then, having exhausted all of the obscure delights to be found within the animal kingdom, is compelled to move onto the species Homo Sapiens; or important pieces thereof.  I do so hope the gynaecologist’s finger joke was not lost on anyone.

Whilst “Bistro" is an extremely palatable slice of silliness, I have to say it really has no real place in the menu of The Pantheon, where it sticks out like the proverbial (lightly braised) sore thumb.

By Edwin Brown

Nine-year old Elizabeth longs to grow-up and, on the advice of a creepy yet persuasive stranger she meets on the street, persuades her father to buy her a particular clock for her room.

And the clock actually does its job, but rather too well.

A grim (as opposed to Grimm, I suppose) fairy-tale this one and, on the surface at least, a warning of the Careful-what-you-wish-for type.  But I cannot help but wonder if underneath it all there is something even more sinister going on, with Elizabeth’s premature ageing perhaps being a metaphor for loss of childhood innocence consequent to unstated sexual abuse by her father.

An impression reinforced I feel by that chilling “But first, Elizabeth…” interlude.

By Gregory Alexander

The Singer is in town for a concert at the Albert Hall.  Surrounded by his five minders he can be as rude and demanding as he chooses.  But sneaking out the back entrance after the gig, he encounters a group of rather determined autograph hunters.

A pointless, meritless yawn of a yarn built around a not particularly witty pun.

By Harry E. Turner

Adventurer and explorer Captain “Mad Jack” McAlpine crash lands his crippled Tiger Moth aeroplane in the midst of the Amazon jungle.  He is in the vicinity ostensibly searching for “a lost tribe of superwomen”.  Which by chance is exactly what he finds.  Sexually voracious and brutally cruel in equal measure, these women make it clear to Jack once he can no longer provide satisfaction he will be summarily dispatched. 

Will Jack make it back home to the “wurlitzer thighs and ballooning bosom” of Lady Fiona Seltson-Bunter (Billy’s cousin?), or is he doomed to be rodgered to death?

As with Dante’s Bistro earlier in Pan22 this tale, whilst being an enjoyable enough read – sort of a re-write of Rider Haggard’s She, but with loads of shagging – it really belongs elsewhere.  One has to wonder if Bertie’s heart, he must have been well into his seventies by this point, was really still in it.

By Ian McEwan

O’Byrne is a bit of a lad – working in his brother’s adult book store by day, and juggling the pair of nurses he is dating, by night.  However, when he succeeds in passing on an STD to both women, they each become aware of the other’s presence and join forces to teach O’Byrne a lesson.

Unfortunately for the poor chap, both of his paramours appear to have a fairly robust grounding in the basics of surgery.

Ian McEwan was a rising star of British literature around the time Pan22 was published, and to have been able to include one of his stories would have been a major coup for Bertie.  Although, Pornography was first published in McEwan’s second collection of short stories In Between The Sheets back in 1978, so like the Stephen Kings in Pan21, it was hardly new.

Whilst on the surface the story comes across as a PBoHS archetypical “Hell Hath No Fury…” revenge tale, there are a clutch of subtler themes being explored.  In particular the potential that probably exists within even the most caring individuals in our society to turn into avenging angels if sufficiently provoked. 

The sexually domineering character of Lucy (explicitly named a Sister, with all the additional religious overtones that brings) one could argue would probably have ended up castrating O’Byrne irrespective of the STD issue – emasculation appearing to be at the heart of the peculiar sexual relationship she and O’Byrne enjoyed.

I could bang on about various other complexities within the narrative forever, but such in-depth digging is beyond the scope of my superficial scribblings, and anyway has already been done far more articulately by a number of others on the web.

By Ken Johns

A girl – thereafter referred to in the prose simply as Girl – gets lost somewhere in deepest darkest Devon after driving off the main road in search of petrol.  She is kidnapped by a backward family of local yokels who plan to dismember her and use the bits to replace a number of their own body parts which are wearing out.

Whilst perhaps harking back to those lady-killing stories which abounded in the Seventies' PBoHS collections, this entry adds an additional layer of cruelty which may have been influenced by the so-called video nasties which became prevalent in the early Eighties.  There is a definite element of The Hills Have Eyes here, I feel.

Relying on the dubious premise that these inbred hicks, through the use of herbs, bandages and a cheese cutter have somehow perfected the technique of limb transplantation, it is nevertheless a disturbing read.

The language used by Johns throughout is rather odd; the characters are referred to by both the author and each other in the dialogue as Son, Father, Mother, and Brother etc.  For example:

“Son laid her to rest and obeyed Mother’s bidding with syrup past Girl’s lips”.

It makes for a disorientating experience at times, particularly the confusing line: 

"Brother watched her scrape past with content on his face, as he smoothed brake fluid around her herb-bedded parts”. 

OK, we may assume he has been fiddling with the brakes in Girl’s car, but what the "herb-bedded parts" are I have no idea.

The nasty joke Johns put into the mouth of Mother though, when Father enquires about Girl's breasts is, by way of contrast, pleasingly unambiguous.

By David Case

Three elderly chaps who enjoy meeting up in the local park from time to time take turns at telling a story.  The first spouts a ditchwater dull anecdote on the perils of academic publishing, before the second relates a slightly surreal yarn about the time he had to break into a Spanish morgue to recover a passport from the pockets of a recently deceased corpse.

The third chap then trumps them both with a lengthy tale of the culture clash played out between a primitive Amazonian tribe and an arrogantly pompous missionary.

This was David Case’s final contribution to the PBoHS series, and certainly one of his strongest. 

The three chaps in the narrative form an ABC of Andrews, Barlow and Carter; the first initial of their surnames also representing their position on the NRS Social Grading System.  I may be wrong, but I cannot imagine this is coincidental.

What I am sure is not a coincidence is that the three bear more than a passing resemblance to Foggy, Clegg and Compo from the BBC television series Last of the Summer Wine.  Case, I am guessing was living in London when we wrote this one.

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