Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The 26th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1985)

The cover of Pan26 has a chap (one assumes it to be Charles Morrow) being terrorised by a swarm of flies.  Credited to one Steve Crisp, the image has an odd quality to it with the insects and the human teeth being in perfect focus with the rest of the face rather fuzzy.


With Pan26 began Clarence Paget's reign as Selecter of The Pantheon, although the general belief these days is that Clarence had been taking an ever greater role in the production of the series throughout the Eighties.

The volume saw the presence of a number of familiar names: Rosemary Timperley, Harry E. Turner, Alan Temperley and, back for a final flourish, that little minx Alex White.  And yet Clarence chose to open his inaugural collection with a new name B. Seshadri.

By B. Seshadri

At the height of an Indian drought Thangi has to walk the twelve miles to her uncle’s farm to pick up seed rice for her husband to plant.  In order to shorten her journey, for she is also carrying their infant child, she cuts across a dry river bed.  But she underestimates just how hot the sands are, and soon Thangi's bare feet are burning intolerably.  

If only she had something to stand on to relieve the pain.

There is a (probably apocryphal) story relating a particularly cruel animal experiment conducted by Harry Harlow whereby a monkey with a babe in arms was placed in a cage and the floor somehow heated.  The mother in obvious distress attempted to keep her baby off the floor for as long as she could, but eventually the temperature became so hot she placed her baby on the floor and stood on it to relive her pain.

Now whether this experiment ever took place I do not know, but I cannot help but feel the author of The River Bed had at least heard the same story I had.  Consequently I found the horrific outcome to the story rather predictable, but even so, this is a beautifully and economically written tale which leaves the reader with a quite heartbreakingly unforgettable mental image.

By Rosemary Timperley

A young man sees a beautiful girl through a shop window, so enters with the pretence of making conversation.  He is astounded to discover she is actually a life-sized image, but delighted when the proprietor says he may have her for free.  He learns she is Mandragora the shopkeeper’s late wife expertly stuffed, and that now the old man is dying he is keen she is looked after by someone who will appreciate her.

But the young chap begins to (chastely) dote on her too much, to the detriment of his health, wealth and career.  But puzzlingly, as he deteriorates, Mandagora’s appearance appears to flourish.

This one reads like some Greek myth, or perhaps even the premise for an episode of Tales of the Unexpected.  And in Ms Timperley’s flawless hands the story is a short and sweet delight.

By Alex White

Financially secure following a divorce from her affluent husband, Merilee is now on the lookout for romance, which she believes she has found in the shape of businessman Abn–bin-Said.  But he turns out to be a really very possessive lover.

Given that Pan26 was the first to bear his name, it is perhaps not surprising Clarence chose to surround himself with familiar friends – and none more so than the ever-reliable Alex White (or whoever was using the name that week).

Chatterbox is unmistakeable White – so much so that it almost reads like a pastiche.  Indeed, today we may even label it a cut ‘n’ paste job, containing as it does recognisable elements from most of the author’s previous contributions.

And yet there are also a few differences which marks this out from her typical work; particularly the fact some time is spent providing us with an unusually detailed back-story to Merilee.  Goodness me, even the killer is given what looks suspiciously like motivation – he coming across like a cross between Romanian serial killer Vera Renczi (whom he namechecks in the tale) and Scheherezade’s Sultan.

By Harry E. Turner

Gaston and Charles Sallebert run a small vineyard in the Bordeaux region although, the younger brother Gaston is little more than a paid clerk and loathes his handsome elder sibling.

After being on the receiving end of a sound beating from Charles, after being discovered in flagrante delicto with a local “wench”, Gaston murders Charles and disposes of his body in one of the large grape presses.

A old fashioned revenge tale this one, even if a touch lazily plotted. 

Gaston, we are told, poisons Charles’ water carafe during the night and checking “at dawn’s first light” discovers his brother unconscious and cuts his throat.  The body is then dragged down to the cellars, dismembered and filleted and the soft stuff placed in a winepress. 

This act apparently takes some hours, yet Gaston is quoted as just cleaning up “as dawn lit the sky outside the chateau windows”.  Either dawn takes a long, long time to crack in southern France, or Gaston has had the place to himself for 24 hours.  Either appears equally unlikely.

There is also something not quite believable about the ease with which Gaston is able to effortlessly explain away his brother’s disappearance.

All very unsatisfactory.

By Rosemary Timperley

A young woman walking home after visiting friends notices a warehouse on fire, from which she can clearly hear screaming voices.  Voices which have died down by the time the fire brigade arrive.  The blaze is swiftly extinguished, but the fire–fighters report no-one was in the building, and it had housed only dress material……..and a collection of puppets and dolls.

In these short two and a bit pages our Rosemary presents a master class in the art of short story telling: into a (relatively) common place situation is slipped a little mystery, the resolution of which is both jarring and ambiguous.

The author had done dolls twice before in the collection - The Peg Doll in Pan12 and Dolly (under pseudonym Ruth Cameron) in Pan21 - but neither were as good as this.  My only gripe with this one is that I should so have loved the puppet collector to have been the delightful Miss Letherington from Peg Doll.

By John H. Snellings

Depressive Kathryn loathes her bully of a husband Charles; she deriving small victories by exploiting his phobia of flies.  She hatches a plan to attempt to scare him to death (he has a dodgy ticker) by exposing him to thousands of the blighters she has secretly been breeding in jars in the cellar.

Once we learn of Kathryn’s plot our interest is maintained by the questions; is she going to pull it off? Or will it somehow backfire in her face?  With a neat (if biologically implausible) twist, Snellings contrives to answer yes to both.

But the biggest mystery with this one is how such an oddly mismatched pair as Kathryn and Charles ever got together in the first place.

By J. J. Cromby

A serial killer picks up a victim girl in a bar.

Just your average PBoHS yarn of murder and cannibalism this one, but with the tables turned.

By Trustin Fortune

'Tis James and Melita’s second wedding anniversary, and she is soaking in the bath prior to getting ready for the party when the doorbell rings.  James has apparently forgotten his key.  Letting him in she notes her husband is not quite himself; requesting brandy rather than his usual tipple, and then brusquely ordering her back into the bath. 

Alarm bells really begin the chime when he pulls out a surgeon’s scalpel.

I recall Stephen King once telling an audience that the way to become a writer is to read and read and read, until eventually you will come across something published which is so shit, you will say to yourself “I could do better that that”.  That being the case I am sure this entry would have inspired a whole raft of wannabe writers back in the mid-Eighties, for it is by some way I feel the poorest tale I have encountered within the Pantheon thus far.

I can live with the premise that Melita has been married for two years without knowing her husband has a psychotic twin.  And I can also just about swallow the fact she may not have been immediately able to detect the deception.  But what irks me so much about this one is the dreadful phrasing the reader has to ensure:

“Never having seen him like this before she knew she must return to the bathroom”

And later

“She knew escape was impossible, the devil that had possessed him was ten times stronger than a delicate, female form.”

Then, upon James discovering Melita’s body:

“The loathsome scene was too great even for his fine physique.”

No, Mr. Author I should not trust in fortune if I were you; rather Trustin Thedayjob.

By Nicholas Royle

Brian has never been much of a morning person.  He is prone to vivid and disturbing dreams into which the sound of his early-morning alarm is invariably incorporated.  With the result he finds himself compelled upon waking to shut the darned thing up swiftly and violently.

Not only is this an expensive business (for he keeps having to replace the items), but his behaviour does not really bode terribly well for the mousy little one-night-stand he has picked up.

A fine piece of hokum this one – I had a great time attempting to unearth any hidden meanings lurking within the dream sequences described, but concluded they were all just the author having a little fun.

By B. Seshadri

Although outwardly a devout Hindu, Bansilal is not above the occasional flutter or trip to a “pleasure house” on his fortnightly trips to the big city.  Unfortunately both of these vices cost, and he is now heavily in debt.  If he could somehow arrange to have his son’s marriage annulled then a second dowry would be a possibility.  But he has earlier shot himself in the foot with this notion, as he has already paid to have his daughter-in-law impregnated by god after feckless son has not proved up to the task.

Perhaps a backhander to the midwife is what is required.

I cannot really say of any of the weird religious nonsense which goes on in this yarn is commonplace in India or is the fruit of some clichéd borderline-racist scribblings.  Either scenario would not surprise me in the slightest.  Although the tale did serve to provide a welcome and informative insight into the Indian caste system for an ill-informed westerner like myself.

As a work of fiction it works well I feel, without carrying quite the same bite as the author’s other contribution to this volume The River Bed.  I think this is due to the victim, Banishal’s daughter-in-law, appearing almost peripheral to the narrative.

We do not even learn the poor girl's name.

By Ian C. Strachan

Inoffensive middle-aged Raymond is employed by the local Parks and Highways Dept.  Glitches when setting up the council’s new computer results first in him being allocated the work of four men each day, and then being tossed out of his house due to non-existent rent arrears.

Homeless over the weekend until he can hopefully get the situation resolved,  Raymond dosses down in the only warm place he has access to – the basement of the local crematorium.  However he makes a terrible mistake after getting drunk for the first – and last – time.

I suppose back in 1985 this tongue-in-cheek tale may have been labelled Kafka-esque, although these days a far more apposite chronicler of the nameless individual being chewed up and spat out by faceless bureaucracy may be Terry Gilliam.  So Gilliam-esque anyone?

By Ralph Norton Noyes

Confirmed bachelor Bailey is persuaded by his friend Delgado to purchase Model 12, an extremely lifelike male humanoid robot.  He, rather inevitably, christens it Adam and soon is enjoying having his bedroom tidied, flat cleaned and meals prepared by the android.

But then arrives a package containing software designated as “Additional Bedroom Routine”.  Bailey, knowing Adam to have been designed with impressive male genitalia, guesses this may be something salacious and (after overcoming an initial bout of prurience) invites a prostitute back to his flat to witness exactly what this “Routine” entails. 

But things do not go quite as planned.

A well-written Ben Travers meets Isaac Asimov meets Roald Dahl science fiction sex-farce this one.  It is entertaining enough, but has no place in a horror collection really.

By John H. Snellings

Linda has decided Gary is the one – the one to surrender her virginity to that is.  But there can be no long term relationship, as her family is moving to Detroit in a few days.  Gary is not best pleased to hear this and decides Linda, like the others, cannot be allowed to leave him.

A touch of the Abn-bin-Said kleptomania from Chatterbox going on here with our Gary, although I am a touch puzzled why he does not give Linda what she desires before sticking the knife in.

By Oscar Holmes

Preening peacock Mike has been rogering his boss’s wife Celia on a regular basis.  But unbeknownst to him his philandering has been discovered, and boss Joe has designed retribution which will be indelibly etched upon Mike’s memory for life.

Ah, the good old revenge story.  Where would the PBoHS series have been without it?  The problem with this one, apart from being too long, is that given some of the punishments which have been meted out in myriad tales over the previous 25 volumes, one could argue Mike got off extremely lightly here.  For he has not been castrated, infected with leprosy, dipped in acid or even killed at the end of proceedings.

One does wonder if anything happened to Celia though.

By St John Bird

P.C. Wallace attends a call from an elderly woman complaining about children taking wood from an old barn for their 5th of November bonfire.  Aware that reasoning with the children about safety and/or trespass will do no good, the policemen attempts to frighten them off by telling them the old woman is a witch.

And what generally happens with witches?

One knows exactly where this one is going pretty much from a few paragraphs in, but that is OK.  I know I really shouldn’t have, but I just ended up with a silly grin on my face at the conclusion.

By Jessica Amanda Salmonson

‘Nam vet Joe, having lost both legs and an arm to a landmine lives with his brother Teddy in their country home.  One evening Mr. Psycho visits and, after gutting Teddy with a switch-blade, settles down to a staring match with the other brother.  The visitor is clearly in no hurry.  After all what can a one-limbed cripple do to protect himself?

The silliness of this one is offset slightly by the presence of some well-written flashbacks interspersed amongst the violence.  But there are no winners come the end of the encounter.  

By Alan Temperley

Poor Henry Coker has little going for him: his wife has left him for an older man, and he is stuck in a dead-end job as a porter for a successful London modeling agency where he is bullied by his gruesome female boss into wearing a glove over his withered hand.  And if that were not enough, he has just been told he has inoperable cancer. 

A chance meeting with an old friend who works in a hospital laboratory researching tropical diseases, however, fords Henry the opportunity to go out in style.

Leprosy has such a horrific reputation that horror writers appear drawn to it inexorably, this being at least the third tale in the PBoHS collection to feature the disease.  The details in Henry’s dialogue with his lab tech friend clearly shows the author to have carried out a deal of research into the causative bacterium, even if he chose to ignore the fact Mycobacterium leprae cannot actually be cultured outside of the human body.

Still I can live with that.

Another aspect to the story which may be worth pointing out is that Henry actually checks out at the end of the tale when he steps “out onto Regent Street” - something the reader may only realise if they remember that the party was taking place up on the fourth floor.

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