Saturday, 24 January 2015

The 29th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1988)



When I first scanned the titles of the stories contained within Pan29 I felt sure the cover star must be Florence from Alan Temperley’s Florence in the Garden.  But no.  It transpires the image was inspired by a scene from Temperley’s other contribution: Angel and Teacake.  Even then, there is more than a little artistic license going on, for the head in the picture is clearly female whilst that in the story was male.  

   

                                                                     ~

THE SURGEON'S TALE
By J. P. Dixon

The surgeon of the title is one Tobin, a usually taciturn chap, who surprises then shocks the members of his Gentlemens' Club by relating his encounter with Paulette, a young woman with a morbid obsession with self-mutilation.

Even though this one dove deep into the realms of silliness during the final four pages (of thirty-two), it is nevertheless a gripping rollercoaster, as the reader joins both Paulette and Tobin on their journey to ascertain just how much of the human body can be removed and yet life remain extant.

Thus limbs, internal organs, eyes, breasts, ears are all docked in a series of operations – the pair pausing only to consummate their mutual attraction before Tobin surgically excises Paulette’s playground.

And the author still finds room to squeeze one final twist from the narrative at the conclusion.

An excellent opener to Pan29, Clarence.


CRABS
By Jerome Preisler

Thirty years after the event, the now middle-aged narrator finally comes clean on what happened the day his girlfriend Janet died.

These days Jerome Preisler is quite a well-renowned author – perhaps having enjoyed most success with his Tom Clancy’s Power Plays series.  But back in 1988 I am guessing he was a bit of a rookie at his trade and still attempting to find his literary legs and, hence, still experimenting with genres.

For this one feels like an early attempt of someone trying to write a James Herbert – but failing; Janet, in particular, is a rather poorly painted figure.  The opening scene-setting paragraphs read like one long whiny self-pitying moan, and before long the reader is floundering in such verbosity as:

“I hadn’t been entirely successful in shaking a recurrent sense of despair-tinged anxiety that gnawed at the thin, frayed outer edges of my complacence like some needle-toothed monster that creeps on silent padded paws and attacks only the sleeping.”

There are a scattering of mixed metaphors (plants/candles) in the text, and animal similes abound as elephants, beavers, iguanas, seals, ants, crickets and fireflies are dragged in by Preisler to help to make his points.

And yet despite all of this, Crabs somehow works.  The beach scene is a real page-turner with some of the imagery delightfully disturbing; the crab mounting Janet scene particularly so.

The real puzzle though is why the narrator chose to lie to the police afterwards, and blame the attack upon a shark?  Unless, of course, he did the lady in himself and the whole yarn was naught but a great big fib.



THE CAVE
By Marcus Gold

Paul and Idris were business partners until Idris lost his sight in a car accident.  Paul has since not only bought his former partner out, but has begun an affair with his wife Mary.  Mary’s refusal to consider a divorce leads Paul to consider ways of eliminating his former colleague from the triangle.  

And a hike along a Pembrokeshire beach fords Paul just such an opportunity.

A fair-to-middling tale which maintains the reader’s interest by keeping alive the mystery of which of the pair will emerge alive from the fine mess Paul has gotten them into.  Or will it be both, or perhaps neither?

What lets this one down a touch is the rather weak and unrealistic dialogue, none of which really rings true; not least Mary’s straight-faced: “there is such a thing as loyalty”, as she lies naked post-coitally next to Paul in the cheap motel room they have hired.

Paul’s revelation towards the climax to the proceedings, that perhaps Idris had actually designed things to turn out as they did, does potentially trowel an additional layer of texture onto the story.  But there was nothing really in the preceding narrative to suggest this was the case.


PENNY DREADFUL
By Gee Williams

The narrator of this one is called Penny, and she is more than a little miffed that she is now having to share he whom she once had to herself.  So has decided to kill her rival.

The sting in the tail with this four-pager I suppose is the last-line revelation that the narrator is a cat.  Although I cannot imagine anyone failing to suss this fact out after the first few paragraphs.  Admitting to lying beneath a beech hedge in order to catch and devour birds really is a bit of a giveaway.

The other thing which irked me about the yarn was the author’s insistence upon capitalising those instances where the cat mentions either her owner or his new bride:  HIM, HIS, HER HERSELF, HE, SHE and the like.  Perhaps it is because in these days of email and texting upper-case generally denotes shouting, that I found reading this piece such a chore.


THE LEDGE
By Stephen King

Second-rate tennis coach Stan Norris has made the mistake of falling for Marcia, the wife of big-time hood Cressner.  Once Marcia has gone into hiding, Norris accepts an invitation to meet with Cressner in his penthouse apartment, whereupon he is offered a wager.

To wit: if he can successfully circumnavigate the outside of the building via a 5 inch ledge, he may “keep” Marcia and win himself $20,000 in the process.  Should he reject the wager, a trumped up narcotics charge awaits.

Norris feels he has little choice but to clamber over the apartment balcony and onto the ledge some forty-three storeys up.

Writing in the Pan1 page, I think I called this story a re-write of Jack Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.  Re-visiting both recently, I have to acknowledge there are sufficient plot diversions for this not really to be a complete re-write, but I should nevertheless be extremely sceptical were I to be told that Stephen King had never read “Contents”.

But whereas both stories succeed in drawing the reader into the gripping vertigo of their respective protagonist's situation, it is rather surprisingly King who fails with characterisation; Norris coming across as a far less believable character than Finney’s Benecke.  And Cressner is drawn as such a boo-hiss panto-villain, that it is clear early on his comeuppance is in the post.

But it is the plot-holes and contrivances with The Ledge which irk:

Why on earth would Norris possibly accept an invitation from Cressner particularly in the light of Marcia's warnings?  And the ease with which Norris flummoxes Cressner’s thug Tony (presumably an experienced and capable henchman) is laughable.

Also laughable but for rather better reasons is King's assertion that “pigeons in the city; they’re as common as cab drivers who cannot change a ten.”  I can attest from recent experience, that London also abounds with both species.


THE JOONKA JUNKA
By Murray Pickles

Set in a rural Indian province between the wars, this one tells the tale of Amy a naïve and impressionable young woman who has married Hugo, an older English engineer.  Amy, raised in England and who knows nothing of India beyond the bustling city of Calcutta, does not take well to village life, often breaking out in a stress-induced rash whenever her husband has to work away from home. 

She befriends Umna, a native servant-girl who is a wonderful repository of all manner of local superstitions.  And, following a stay at a small local hospital, Amy believes herself to be haunted by an evil spirit from one of Umna’s stories: The Joonka Junka of the title.

I found this to be a rather frustrating and confused yarn.  Although there is a non-linear narrative which does not really help a simple soul like myself.  The story opens with a distressed Amy anticipating another of the regular visits she has been receiving from the Joonka Junka, and dreading the “agony of the time it spends with her” – a phrase which raises all manner of salacious possibilities.

There then follows twenty-odd pages of slightly unfocussed back story exposition, before the JJ pitches up once more, whereupon we learn the rather preposterous nature of the “torture” it inflicts.

The story’s one strength is the unresolved and unresolvable question it leaves – was the supernatural at play, or did everything take place inside the young woman’s impressionable mind?  For beyond Amy’s barely reliable assertions, and the superstitious ramblings of Umna (who undoubtedly planted the seed in her mistress’s consciousness in the first place) there is no real evidence of the JJ’s existence.

There are however abundant indications that Amy is a skittish, highly-strung and impressionable woman.  She laps up the superstitious nonsense fed to her by Umna, and her reactions to encounters with various wild creatures (jackals, scorpions, hornets, monkeys and red-ants – even a suicidal blue-bottle) all serve to jack up her paranoia quotient.

My interpretation for what it is worth is that the whole business was naught but a figment of Amy’s over-active imagination – exacerbated by the depression caused by the loss of her child – an impression reinforced by the pose in which Umna found her mistress’s corpse.


ANGEL AND TEACAKE
By Alan Temperley

Mary has recently opened a rather genteel coffee-shop in an English cathedral town.  The business is thriving, but then human body parts begin turning up on the premises: a finger in an éclair, a toe in the sugar jar; that sort of thing.

Who could possibly be responsible?  Surely not one of the delightful girls Mary employs in the shop.  Her prime suspect is the sinister Mrs. Frascati who runs a similar establishment up the road, and from whom Mary has taken most of the business.  But then there is also the taciturn Scots Detective-Sergeant Wilson, who appears to be taking a disconcertingly laissez-faire approach to any investigation.  Not to mention his Constable Tallis with whom Mary begins an affair.

Or, god forbid, some combination thereof.

A surprisingly light-hearted contribution from Mr. Temperley -is this really the same author who gave us Kowlongo Plaything in Pan23? - which put me in mind of Colin Watson’s wonderful tongue-in-cheek Flaxborough whodunits.

High praise indeed.


FLESH
By Norman P. Kaufman

A condemned murderer asks for and is granted a final request.

There have been some quite dexterous twists to the plots of Kaufman’s contributions over the years, but there are no surprises here.

If a killer with cannibalistic tendencies is allowed to spend some time with a prostitute on his final evening on earth, you can be sure things are not going to end well for the unfortunate lady.  The clue is in the title.


THE HEAVEN MAKER
By Craig Herbertson

Elderly Morden has been called to the hospital in the middle of the night after his daughter Cathy and her husband John have been killed in a car accident.  Asked to formally identify his son-in-law, he is in the process of doing so when John rises from the trolley and vomits blood, with a look upon his face which suggests he has just been to hell and back. 

Which, non-coincidentally, is exactly what he later claims.

I really enjoyed this dark fable even though I felt it lost its way a touch towards the conclusion – the Hong Kong interlude in particular appeared rather superfluous.  The main protagonist Morden puts up with his lot with such stoicism and occasional black humour that I really warmed to him.  Plus, a deal of the author’s descriptive prose is an evocative delight; I particularly enjoyed:

“Morden watched the sun sink like a suppurating wound into the swollen dark belly of the sky.”

There are three separate occasions where the action jumps almost mid-sentence, with Morden suddenly transported to the cemetery, whereupon the narrative continues without a pause.  All very disorientating for the reader, but I guess the author intended it to be so.

I did rather like John’s assertion that god has become so annoyed with the human race that he has pissed off and taken heaven with him, leaving both the good and the bad to wind up in the other place.

Which is OK by me.  Being fried forever in hot oil with a red hot poker thrust up one’s anus always struck me as only marginally less preferable to an eternity spent spouting unstinting and unquestioning praise.


FLORENCE IN THE GARDEN
By Alan Temperley

Fifty-something Eddie has been made redundant from the local steel mill, which had forded him plenty of time to indulge in his hobby of gardening.  Unfortunately sour-faced and sharp-tongued wife Florence cannot abide to have a husband under her feet all day, particularly one who occasionally trails dirt from the garden into her spotless domain.

To help placate her, Eddie presents her with a reconditioned laundrette-sized tumble-drier to help cope with all the additional laundry.  But Florence is still not happy, so one day……

Which one of us in all honestly has never looked at one of those huge washer/drier thingies in a laundrette and wondered what it would be like to toss someone in there.  To see them toss and tumble around as they are washed and dried.

Well, upon reflection, perhaps it is not a thought which would pass through the heads of many of us. But I am willing to bet that same “What if…” occurred to our good friend Mr Temperley.  And it is around this very proposition that this entertaining story revolves (if you see what I mean)
.
I am guessing that in reality the desiccation process would probably not be so successful.  The human body is after all naught but a fragile bag of fluids of various types, and I think the bag would soon burst spilling the contents into the innards of the drier.

But, hey, where is the fun in that?


BEASTIE
By Gee Williams

Dr. Tony Maddox runs The Farm; an animal research establishment in the Oxfordshire countryside, investigating the use of genetic modification to “improve” the yield from domestic animals.  

However, following on from a recent experimental failure, the last thing he needs is the distraction of a visit from his selfish, self-obsessed sister. 

A rather more welcome distraction though comes in the form of his well-developed 15-year old niece Jane who accompanies her mum.  In attempt to win over his anti-vivisectionist niece (for reasons which are slightly less than wholesome), Maddox shows her around The Farm, whereupon she is entranced by a pair of recently arrived white ponies.

And what, wonders Maddox, would impress a teenage girl even more than a white pony?  Why, a white unicorn of course.

What a remarkably silly tale this is.  It's only real point of interest is Maddox’s Humbert-esque obsession which ultimately leads to his destruction, but even this theme is swept away in the blood and carnage.

Whilst the author does touch upon the mechanics of genetic modification in the most general of terms, she body-swerves away from offering even the barest explanation of how Maddox manages to create his unicorn.  I would have thought she could at least have shown willing, by perhaps dropping in some waffle about the splicing of a chunk of narwhal DNA into that of the pony. 

But no.  Instead we learn that Maddox goes about things by working out in his head “a complete series of patterns and progressions”.  And that he achieves success first time around is all the more remarkable given his apparent inability to ensure calves are born with legs.

Having said that if Maddox can (as Williams’ text states) succeed in getting a doe to give birth to a faun as opposed to a fawn, that is some going.


LISTEN
By Terence Merchant

A gravedigger is sitting beside a freshly filled-in grave, talking to the individual recently buried who we learn is his thirty-year old daughter.  Nothing so odd about that – cemetery visitors regularly chatter to the departed.  But this internee can hear all that is being said.

A pleasingly morbid tale of familial revenge this one.  Unfortunately the title together with the line “If I’d allowed you another fifty years on this earth….” pretty much telegraphs the reader where this it is going.


THE MISSIONARY
By Jonathan Cruise

Precocious Annabel, even at the age of nine, knows when she grows up she wants to “carry the word of God to tribes of heathens”.  In the meantime she has only her collection of toy monkeys and her younger brother Gabriel to practice her conversion skills upon.

I do so enjoy being wrong-footed by an author, and the rather dextrous Cruise (yes, I know I am mixing my limb metaphors) succeeds in achieving just such a thing, not once but twice in just the opening few pages.

This story is divided up into five sections, and after the first I was sure we were going down the road of Annabel executing her younger brother for some religious-based misdemeanour.  But by the end of section two it appeared to me inevitable that the roles were going in some way to be reversed.

But then with section three the narrative jumped to having newly-wed Annabel and her simpering wimp of a husband arriving in Ghana (or Gold Coast as was) to set up a Christian mission in the country’s interior.  What follows is an entertaining and engrossing family melodrama which stretches on for a further twenty years before the business reaches its gory conclusion.

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