Sunday, 16 November 2014

The 23rd Pan Book of Horror Stories (1982)


One cannot be sure, of course, but I feel the blood-spattered individual with the blacked-up face must be some representation of Stephen Gresham enduring the worst of General Ngwami's retribution.
                                                                        ~

THE SLEEPING PRINCE
By Angus Gellatly

Gwyneth, a physiotherapist, falls in love with one of the patients she is treating on the coma ward.  When a surreptitious kiss appears to initiate the start of his recovery, she assumes this to be a sign of his reciprocal love.

She is delighted therefore when, post recovery, he drops in to the ward – but in reality he is actually looking to trace one of the other nurses on the ward.  For it becomes apparent he had been able to hear what was going on around him even during the depths of his coma – and had delighted in the nurse regaling her sexual exploits to a colleague, so was looking to meet her.

Gwyneth is a touch put out by this, so takes out her ire on poor Mr. Barlas, one of the remaining coma patients. 

A delightful fruit-loop is Gwyneth, although her over-sexed colleague Sally-Anne is perhaps the character I should liked to have heard more from.

The author’s choice of name for Gwyneth’s Sleeping Prince, Philip Charles, is of course, not accidental.


DENGUE FEVER
By Paul Theroux

An American Consul to Malaysia relates a tale of an English teacher struck down by an hallucination-inducing bout of the mosquito-borne disease Dengue Fever. 

A might be expected from such a literary heavyweight as Paul Theroux, this is a cut above the usual PBoHS entries.  As well as providing us with an intelligently written and entertaining ghost story, Theroux sneaks into the narrative an extensive and really rather informative botany lesson.

The actual nuts’n’bolts of what has been going on is all left a touch vague.  But my reading of things is that the ghosts of the two murdered old women are haunting the place where they were buried, and that Ladysmith’s fever has rendered him particularly receptive to their presence.


YOU CAN’T BE TOO CAREFUL
By Ruth Rendell

Upwardly mobile Della is single-mindedly climbing the professional ladder with a view to become her “company’s first women director”   The one fly in the ointment is her all-consuming fear of intruders; believing burglars, rapist and murderers to be lurking around every corner.

Unfortunately her diligence in locking doors and gates is not matched by her feckless, key-losing, dirty-little-stop-out flatmate Rosamund, so Della takes to sleeping with a large breadknife beneath her pillow.  Which does not bode well for Rosamund’s boyfriend Chris when she sneaks him home in the small hours.

Ruth Rendell (or Baroness Rendell of Babergh, as she is presently known) made a successful career out of cataloguing the lives of troubled souls, the OCD suffering Della being a not untypical archetype.

As soon as we learn about the breadknife and the cough she hears in the night, we believe we can guess the outcome.  But the ever dexterous Baroness Rendell successfully slips in a further twist of the blade.


A RHYME
By Elizabeth Nadan-Borland

A young woman meets her end in a train carriage at the hands of a rhyme-spouting serial killer.

It had been some time since Bertie last inflicted poetry upon us.  I think he (or perhaps the author, or even both!) were aware that such Pantheon entries were probably just skipped over by readers, for this particular attempt opens with the line:

“Don’t shun this tale because it rhymes”

But the reader would probably do well to ignore this advice for this is dull fare indeed.  The sole element of interest being here we have a twelve verse poem about a killer who himself converses in rhyme.  Sleep inducing.


FAT OLD WOMEN WHO WEAR FUR COATS
By Harry E. Turner

An Englishman visiting Brussels on holiday finds himself patronising a patisserie populated by overweight locals overindulging.  He is particularly taken by one singularly gross specimen being hand-fed slices of cake by her pencil-thin husband.  Her calorific consumption is so prodigious neither her spouse nor the narrator appear remotely put out when she expires face-down into her food.

It is an oddly surreal tale this one, the point of which I cannot really fathom.  Perhaps it was a particularly lucid dream Turner once had, which he decided to put down on paper for the fun of it.

I think we are supposed to take from the narrative that the husband was systematically feeding to death his obese wife, with the aim of cashing in her insurance policies.
Quite why the tale is set in Brussels I am unsure, as I am sure there are just as many tubbies this side of the Channel.


DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE
By Heather Vineham

After his car becomes stuck in a remote and muddy farm track, Ted Baxter makes his way towards the lights coming from a nearby house.  He is invited to stay the night by Louise, the middle-aged woman who answers the door; she informing him the only other occupant is her daughter.  Why then does Baxter, at a point when he knows Louise is still downstairs, clearly hear two female voices arguing in the bedroom upstairs?

The scenario of a lone traveller compelled to spend a night in a house which holds a secret, is such a gothic staple as to almost be a cliché.  And Vineham’s attempt to contemporise her tale with references to “the M40”, “the Athletic Club Conference” and the like, alters things not a jot.  Although at least this abode does house a working telephone.

Where this interesting little tale does work is repeatedly having the narrator (Baxter) pretty much reaching the same possible solution to the mystery at the same time as the reader, and to immediately address and dismiss them.  Forcing the reader to continually reassess their own assumptions.

That Baxter is never really in any danger and that he only ascertains the facts of the matter some weeks afterwards in a newspaper article, does lead to a rather flabby climax to the tale.  And when we do discover the truth, our reaction is almost “So what?”.  Such unfortunate instances of nature misbehaving are given their own reality TV show these days.
Nevertheless, it was a bit of a disappointment for me to discover the original image of Anna Belle Grey (which I am sure inspired this yarn) was naught but a rather clumsy fake.


Dr DICHTER AND THE TERMINAL COSMETIC
By Jane Louie

Renowned plastic surgeon Dr Richter, after taking plain-jane Olga for his bride has converted her into “one of the most beautiful women in Beverly Hills”.  Unfortunately for the good doctor, his wife’s new found self-assurance manifests itself in volubility.  In other words, she will not stop talking, not even when asleep. 

Never mind, finding a solution should pose little problem to someone so accomplished and imaginative with a scalpel as Dr Dichter.

A sort of a Pygmalion-gone awry fable this one, but once we learn of Olga’s incessant and infernal chattering it is fairly obvious where we are going to go with this one – even if one had not already read the blurb on the rear of the book, which succeeds in giving the game away completely. 

I hadn’t really noticed until I read this one how little humour had been included in the recent collections, so the light-hearted touch here makes for a welcome change.  The po-faced silliness of Richter’s proposal to Olga within minutes of their first meeting shows this to be a tale not to be taken at all seriously:

“Too many women in this overblown town are ready, nay even willing, to succumb to the predatory blandishments of the first jack-adventurer who chances across their path.  I, however, am not importuning you with a view to instant fornication.  Not for me the limpid clasp of mindless lust.  I reach more for esoteric goals.  Will you, if I may so phrase it, consider marrying me?”

That, dear readers, is what I call a chat-up line.


FOSTER PARENTS
By Gregory Alexander

Ned and Daisy Lou, a couple of Jed Clampett’s even more inbred relatives, eke out a precarious mountain existence, supplementing their mainly vegetable diet with snakes, beetles and the occasional sheep's head.

That is until into their lives arrives a child who, after sprouting a pair of impressive wings, is able to hunt rabbits for them.  But upon reaching adulthood, the boy-eagle desires a mate. 

An extremely entertaining fairy-tale this one, which opens with the attention grabbing line:

“Old Ned Sanderson gouged his finger into the eye socket of the sheep’s skull and tested the tenderness of its brain.”

If there is any moral to the fable it is utterly lost on me.  Although, I would rather like to have explained quite how Miss Betty succeeded in laying an egg the size of a football without suffering an expansive perineal tear.


A BACKWARD SHADOW
By Rosemary Temperley

Recently widowed Mrs. Murray resides alone in a ground floor flat, and is sure there is a small child living in the flat upstairs, which is being left to fend for itself each day when it's parents go out to work.

After hearing the child scurrying around clearly in some distress one afternoon, she confronts the mother upon her return from work.  But the couple upstairs have no child, even going so far as to let Mrs. Murray check out each room.

Concerned she may either be losing her mind, or perhaps even experiencing some psychic echo from a past tragedy in the abode, Mrs Murray moves out.

But a chance return to the area some five years later brings a shock.

An expertly crafted little ghost story, which succeeds in turning the usual notion of a haunting on its head.  It just lets itself down a touch by the final line, which reads like some summation Rod Serling may have spouted to camera at the end of a Twilight Zone episode.  In the context of the short story it just appears both clumsy and unnecessary.


CHANCE GOVERNS ALL
By W.S. Rearden

In order to attend a funeral, a retired army Colonel returns to the Irish village where he encountered a ghost some twenty-five years earlier.

Another ghost story, but this one lacking Rosemary Temperley's deft touch, for our spectre here is a hulking angler seemingly cursed to catch and club to death the same whopping one-eyed salmon for all eternity.  With each sighting, a harbinger to the death of a watching Englishman; the ghost bearing some ill-defined grudge against all the English apparently.

The author attempts to lend a measure of gravitas to this yarn by prefacing it with a quote from Ovid, but this in reality just stirs up further the already muddy waters.


THE DOGS
By Alex White

Reclusive writer Ian has hidden himself away in the Scottish Highlands, primarily so he can work in peace, but mainly because he is aware he is prone to “fits”, during which he has a tendency to murder those close to him in particularly nasty ways.

When his younger gay lover Jamie finds himself on the receiving end of a severe beating, the lad, perhaps not surprisingly, decides to up sticks for an uncle's farm twenty miles away.  This leaves Ian a problem, for he has a number* of dogs who require to be looked after, and he is planning a book promotion trip to the States soon.

Fortunately into his life drops Martha, a middle-aged woman on the run following a bout of spousicide of her own.  This goes well for a spell (she just loves housework), until Ian returns early from his stateside trip to find Martha in the process of dumping his favourite dog in the nearby loch after poisoning it.

Ian feels one of his turns coming on.

Rather unusually for Alex White’s tales there is pretty much no sexual element to the sadism occurring here.  Rather plain old revenge in the motive.  But the characters are all such two-dimension cardboard cut-outs that we really do not care terribly much who is doing what to whom. 

*The actual number of dogs is a bit unclear, for Ian believes himself to have “Five Alsatians”, yet Martha later suggests “Six dogs is a lot all my myself”.  Perhaps neither was any good at arithmetic.  Or, more likely, Ms. White’s proof-reader suffered an off-day.


RIGHTFULLY MINE
By Norman P. Kaufman

Gregory Raikes in a former life was a Nazi concentration camp officer, responsible for the torture and death of hundreds of inmates – mainly young girls.  He had slipped off to South America after the war, but was now in Britain awaiting a heart transplant.

When a donor heart becomes available the operation goes ahead, apparently successfully.  But the donor does not feel Raikes to be a suitable recipient and wants her property returned.

I suppose what we are intended to be left to ponder with this one was whether all the scary stuff occurred in Raikes' guilty subconscious, or if he truly was visited by some supernatural entity able to scare him to death by the suggestion of a heart transplant in reverse.  Kaufman should probably have left the ending ambiguous, but clearly could not resist tossing in the sprinkling of soil.

But the main problem here is the fact we know from fairly early on that Raikes is going to get what is coming to him, and Kaufman’s attempt to build up the tension during his bedside encounter just has us imploring in desperation for him to get on with it. 

And I cannot not take seriously any conversation with a corpse which quotes Eighties pop song titles – Yes, the ghost of Miranda really did say “give me back my heart”.


KOWLONGO PLAYTHING
By Alan Temperley

General Ngwami rules the central African state of Kowlongo with an iron fist, his cruelty and excesses well known to all.  When he rapes British nurse Mary Gresham, her brother Stephen subsequently confronts the General, who dismisses the whole incident with “This is Kowlongo, not London”.  And as Ngwami correctly points out, Mary appears to have rather enjoyed their subsequent trysts. 

Stephen indignantly rejects Ngwami’s suggestion he take an African woman or boy to himself, so Ngwami sends him a blow-up sex doll instead.  Stephen, gin-fuelled. then paints the doll black, sticks an aubergine between its legs, sellotapes a sign to it saying “General Elisha Ngwami", and plants the thing at the entrance to military HQ.

A furious Ngwami then exacts a terrible revenge upon both brother and sister.

Clearly based upon Ugandan despot Idi Amin, whose deposal in 1979 would still have been fresh in the memory of readers back when this was first published, Ngwami is painted as a vicious thug lurking beneath a very thin veneer of sophistication.

For all the dictator's brutality, one cannot help but feel Stephen to have been a rather silly boy, and it is Mary with whom our sympathies lie.  For once Stephen makes that decision to get busy with the shellac, he cues up fourteen pages of unforgettably, unremitting grimness and cruelty which makes Alex White’s The Clinic in Pan 14 read like a chapter from The Faraway Tree.

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