Saturday, 27 December 2014

The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1986)



I had hoped that after the flies picture on the cover of Pan26 that perhaps Clarence was going to insist cover pic from here on would represent something from within.  But regretfully no.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the cleaver/neck interface image (credited to Stuart Bodek) certainly represents one of the more arresting from the PBoHS collection.  Indeed so much so, it may even have prevented shy souls such as myself from purchasing the volume in a shop - being reluctant to be seen taking a book with such a cover to the pretty young sales-girl at the counter.

                                                                      ~

ON THE FISHERMAN’S PATH
By Chris Barnham

Student Chris is enjoying a summer hitching around Europe.  He is mildly intrigued to learn there has been series of brutal murders across the continent, each occurring in a city – Brussels, Amsterdam, Bremen, Berlin – just days after his departure.

Any ruminations on the nature of these coincidences – for he views them as nothing more – are forgotten when he meets a mysterious dark-haired English girl Julie, with whom he enjoys a day sightseeing in Cologne.  The pair, remarkably, bump into one another a few weeks later in the Italian town of Sorrento and begin an affair, but then Chris notes a newspaper reporting on a murder which recently occurred in Cologne. 

A very strong opening to Pan27 this one.  Barnham begins the story with a short anecdote on the perils of pronunciation.  This adds nothing to the narrative, but is nevertheless a rather entertaining prelude.  Indeed, I felt the opening half-page down to and including the line ”But nothing ever ‘deteriated’ again” could almost stand as a very short story in its own right.

Some of the descriptive prose once the action reaches Italy is a delight, but the author never quite nails Chris himself, for we fail to make an emotional investment in the outcome of his journey.  His fate is a point of interest, but little more.  The story’s great strength lies in the trail of clues scattered in Chris’ wake, and the fact what is truly going on is never clearly explained, rather the reader is left to attempt to come to their own conclusions.

Is Julie supernatural?  One has to assume so, given her uncanny ability to track Chris down, when even he is not sure where he is going next.  And the author with his shadows motif presents us enough suggestions to make us suspect so.

And who was the poor unfortunate who did get done in at Sorrento?  Another lover of Julie’s, or some poor sod unlucky enough to be in the vicinity?

Why has she chosen to follow Chris, and to slaughter her way across Europe in the process?  It is noted that she is three weeks behind him at the start of the killings, this lag dropping with each murder until the Cologne one occurs the day after Chris leaves. 

Is she actually some part of Chris himself, a time-lagging alter-ego of some sort?  And that Chris, however unwittingly, is actually the killer?

You sort it out.


Ms RITA AND THE PROFESSOR
By Harry E. Turner

Stewart McAlpine is a hack looking for an angle on a story he has been asked to write on rabid feminist author Ms Rita.  He finds her relationship with elderly psychiatrist Professor Deighton fascinating, particularly so when he notes that each time he sees the pair together, the Prof appears to have lost another part of his anatomy.

Contriving to bump into the duo out taking a stroll, he persuades Ms Rita to grant him an interview at her Wimbledon mansion when she promises him “the story of your lifetime”.

This was (unless he was into the pseudonym thing) Harry E. Turner’s thirteenth and final entry into The Pantheon and, regretfully, one of his weakest.  Things begin well enough with journo McAlpine (a relative of Mad Jack from Love Bites in Pan22, perhaps?) determined to get to the bottom of the baffling Rita/Professor relationship.

But once he arrives for the interview things get more than a little silly.  Ms Rita morphs into some sort of gender-war avenging Bond-villainess, and we encounter a fully equipped operating theatre where males have their organs removed and replaced by those of pigs....and there is also a gaggle of naked cannibalistic amazons living in the cellar.

The hackneyed dialogue between Ms Rita and McAlpine is bad enough, but Turner’s prose drifts into the sort of language Vivien Meik would have discarded as too clichéd:

“The wave of foreboding I had sensed upon entering the house now overwhelmed me with the force of a physical blow.  I felt my blood run to ice in my veins and the naked claw of terror jabbing at my heart."

McAlpine’s escape from the house, where he basically punches his way through fifteen or so angry women, before leaving them all to immolate in the convenient fire which wipes out all trace of the madness, takes male chauvinism to new heights.

But then perhaps Turner is being more subtle that I gave him credit for, and the whole yarn was naught but a subtle parody.

  
MEDIUM RARE
By Samatha Lee

It is Spanish Civil War time, and suspected Communist Jose Ferrera is the involuntary guest of the Fascist Guarda Civil as they attempt to winkle out from him a few important names, utilising that range of time-honoured methods of “lighted matches under the fingernails to the cigarette burns on the scrotum”.

Jose has thus far resisted, but the Guarda Captain is a resourceful and imaginative individual.

A short and shocking tale, which just serves to underline what the more successful inquisitors down through the centuries have long appreciated; that torturing a prisoner's loved ones rather than the individual themselves will generally produce the required results.


SPIDERS
By Buzz Dixon

Marvin has been terrified of spiders since being bitten by one on the lip as a three-year old.  His phobia has not abated in the thirty-odd years since – in fact, gotten worse since he keeps encountering the little blighters around the house.  His girlfriend shows no sympathy, and the cowboy father and son extermination company he brings in are totally unimpressed.

Which is rather unfortunate, as the source of these annoying little tiddlers is a large mutated form of black widow spider which has taken up residence beneath his house.  

With you have an author by the name of Buzz, you can be sure some fun is in the offing.  As it most assuredly is.  Dixon creates a quartet of funny yet believable characters and draws out a yarn which, whilst we know from the outset ain’t gonna have a happy ending for Marv, is never anything less than entertaining. 

Who could possibly resist a story which contains the sentence: “The spiders charged”?


A WEIRD DAY FOR AGRO
By J. Yen

Agro relates the tale of his weird day to an acquaintance in the pub; of how he was interrupted playing his guitar in his room by the old geezer downstairs complaining.  The neighbour became more and more irate as Agro refused to stop playing until he eventually burst, or deflated or something, leaving Agro to sweep up the remains into a polythene bag which he dropped off at the old man’s flat.

Yes folks, this short two-and-a-half pager truly is, as the title suggests, weird.  Not quite sure what the point Lee is attempting to make, other than perhaps to write the short story with the most dropped vowels and consonants in the history of literature.

“ But ‘e just stood there, right, an’ ‘e was shakin’ an’ all red in the face, an’ I fought ‘e was gonna cry or somefin’ ”


You get the picture?


PEBBLEDENE
By Alan Temperley

Danny is about to be relased from prison but, as he has nowhere to stay lined up, his rehabilitation officer gets him a job on a farm.  A farm populated solely by women - apart from the “full strength” quota of three male ex-cons.  When the females (mainly teenaged girls) begin dropping into his room of a night, Danny begins to wonder why anyone would possibly wish to leave the place. 

Which makes the steady and regular turnover of ex-cons quite baffling.

I am not quite sure where from, but as I was reading this story, I was sure I had read it somewhere before.  Perhaps at some point in the dim and distant past I had owned or borrowed a copy of Pan27. 

I could not recall the entire plot, but as early as when the aptly named Ms. Savidge referred to Danny (in her head) as "a fine figure", I recalled where it was headed.  A destination reinforced by Danny’s experiences at the hands (and teeth) of the third nocturnal visitor of his first night on the farm.
As the every-males'-fantasy (?Temperley’s fantasy) visitors flowed thick and fast, I could not help but be put in mind of that Jake Thackray song The Lodger – with Danny sharing Jake’s disquiet at the prospect of Grandma being next.


WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE
By Norman P. Kaufman

After Narrator’s Father-in-Law expires whilst perched atop “some teenage strumpet”, Mother-in-Law Marie chooses to move in with Narrator and his teenaged bedridden waif of a wife Ann.  Narrator presently finds Marie’s curves irresistible, and soon the pair are plotting the demise of poor Ann, in order that they may get their lustful hands upon her trust fund.

But Marie gets cold feet, decides Narrator is a bore so wants out.  Cue argument, violence and Marie fatally cracking her head on the corner of the TV.  Narrator is distraught at facing the loss of Marie’s charms so calls up old Michael, an acquaintance with some quite imaginative taxidermy skills.

The narrative of this one leads us inescapably to the question which has vexed philosophers for centuries:  Is sex with a stuffed body necrophilia, given what remains of the person is naught but a bag of skin stuffed with whatever stuff such things are stuffed with?

Kaufman does not answer this conundrum, but he does provide us with an entertaining and diverting entry featuring his trademark blend of light humour and dark imaginings.


I KNOW WHAT YOU NEED
By Stephen King

Attractive student Elizabeth meets nerdy Ed in the college library.  He, she learns over the following months, is apparently able to predict and fulfil her every need from a strawberry double-dip cone and the questions in her upcoming sociology exam paper through to knowing exactly when to make contact following the death of her boyfriend.

She convinces herself she is in love with Ed, but her flatmate Susan has been doing a bit of digging and he is not quite as he seems.

Another well-known King short story is entered into The Pantheon, but, rather in the same manner as the familiar Poe entries scattered around the early volumes I really did not mind this one, for it is such a creepy read.  From that opening dialogue between Elizabeth and Ed in the library we are hooked.

King’s pacing throughout is exemplary from the first-half where he drops a selection of mysteries and clues, to Susan’s almost breathless flow relating the results of her digging.  Her final statement “that’s not love at all.  That’s rape.” being a real conversation stopper.

Then the tension is racked up a notch or two - as Susan is searches Ed’s room - even tho’, we all know Ed is going to catch her unawares.

If I do have a criticism, and it is one I feel applies to so much of King’s work, is that the ending fails to live up to what has gone before.  Ed’s excuse that he is as he is because Mom and Dad didn’t love him enough is rather too clichéd, and he does appear to accept defeat (with the crushing of the Elizabeth doll) just a touch too easily.

Although I should imagine, there are probably rather a lot of other spells inside that Necronomicon for him to use to help get his way.


RED RECIPE
By Ray Askey

Sharon Taylor has gotten lost whilst out hiking, but is relieved to discover a sign pointing to a Bed & Breakfast.  Upon reaching the place she is met by owner Mrs Trady who informs her:

“We don’t do bed and breakfast really (except) when we’re short of meat.” before whispering soto voce ”I wish you hadn’t come here”.

Ignoring these warning signs, she accepts an invitation to stay for a cup of tea.  But her beverage is, rather inevitably, drugged and soon she is helping the Tradys produce their famed sausages and pies.

Run-of-the-mill PBoHS fare this one, with the sole aspect of interest left sadly unexplored by the author: to whit the fact Mrs Trady is clearly an unwilling participant in the whole business, and terrified by her potty husband.  Instead Askey concentrates upon Mr Trady, painting him as some sort of wild-eyed cannibal-wurzel by having his spout such pap as:
“thee ‘old ‘er head tight while I get cuttin’.  And her nose, ‘ers got to open ‘er chops then.”


JOINT FAMILY
By B. Seshadri

The head of an extended Calcutta family takes radical steps to prevent his cousin leaving and taking with him a half of the family assets.

After enjoying both of Seshadri’s contributions to Pan26, I was sorely disappointed by this rambling and rather unfocused piece.  I am all for characterisation and scene-setting, but we were six or so pages into this one before the author had even finished clearing his throat. 

We were then asked to believe that the best plan Amitabi the family head, could come up with to keep the family together was to introduce bubonic plague into the household.  And only once cousin Sisir had taken to his bed did the drawbacks and dangers inherent in the scheme dawn upon him.

I did smile, however, at the author’s (hopefully intended) joke that “People avoided the house like the plague.”


THE HOUSE THAT REMEMBERED
By Jonathan Cruise

Toby is a successful American architect moving to work in Dublin, and has decided to build for himself and his new wife a country retreat.  And where better than on the site of a ruined house once owned by his ancestors.  But memories run deep in this part of the word, particularly where the potato famine is concerned.

A wonderfully tense yarn this one, the author using the split narrative tool to fine effect as Toby and his wife set off different tasks for the day.

It boasts two casts of characters based a century apart, meaning I had to keep notes to remind myself who was who – with one character in particular (Sean Clancy) seemingly parachuted into the narrative from nowhere.

And there is also something not quite right about the genealogy.  Toby claims to have inherited the house through his great-grandfather Tobias who once owned the land.  But Tobias died when the house was burned down in 1847, his only child being an illegitimate daughter.  Is Toby claiming lineage through this daughter?  If so that would mean both he and Kate Cormac share a grandmother.  And yet Toby is described as a young man, with Kate as an old crone?

All eminently possible of course, but rural Ireland was not a place known for girls waiting long to have their families.  Even then, the arithmetic only works if the tale is set earlier than 1950 or so, yet the ironmonger’s shop charges post-decimalisation prices.

But I am being picky with what really is an excellent ghost story.


ROTHCHILD’S REVENGE
By Jay Wilde

Generally mild-mannered accountant Hugh Rothschild has found himself progressively annoyed, angry then furious as what he sees as a deliberate ploy by goods producers to defraud him: by means of tea-bags which burst, orange-juice cartons which cannot be opened without spilling contents and the like.

When his written complaints are either fobbed off or ignored, he decides the only appropriate course of action left to him is to track down and murder in particularly nasty and (as he sees things, apposite) ways, the senior executives of the companies producing these faulty goods.

But fate has a final card to play.

I suppose what the author was aiming for here was black comedy, whilst at the same time indulging in a personal swipe at products which had probably irked him over the years.  But the yarn falls rather wide of the mark I feel, for not only does Wilde lack the light touch of Martin Waddell or Conrad Hill say, but his murders are just too horrific – if such a thing is possible within The Pantheon.

Each of Rothschild’s victims are suffocated in such an appalling (if imaginative) manner, the killings somehow jar against the elements of humour the author has attempted to inject.

All in all, a rather disappointing close to what had been a surprisingly enjoyable volume.

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