The Pan Book Of Horror Stories selected by Herbert van Thal (book review).

October 8, 2019 | By | Reply More

‘The Pan Book Of Horror Stories’ is a diverse collection of old-fashioned horror fiction. There is implied racism in certain stories but that has to be taken in the context of the time when they were written. For example, in ‘His Beautiful Hands’ by Oscar Cook, the manicurist is vengeful partly because of her Javanese blood.

‘The Copper Bowl’ by George Fielding Eliot features Yuan Li, an evil Chinese mandarin bent on torture to get the location and strength of French Foreign Legion forces in his way. Sax Rohmer’s books about Fu Manchu were all the rage back in 1928 when this was written. Perhaps the fiendish torture gave George Orwell the idea for Room 101.

Perhaps ‘Contents Of The Dead Man’s Pocket’ by Jack Finney inspired ‘The Ledge’ by Stephen King. Tom Benecke is ambitious to be the Wizard of Wholesale Groceries but his careful study of shop display tactics, months of research written in shorthand on a single piece of yellow paper, blows out through the window of his eleventh-floor apartment and gets stuck along a ledge. Finney racks up the tension as Tom goes to fetch it.

‘The Physiology Of Fear’ by C.S. Forester of ‘Hornblower’ fame features Nazis. Dr. Georg Schmidt had the bad luck to finish his studies just as they took over Germany and is now employed in a concentration camp. If he fails to perform his unpleasant duties, he will join the inmates. His nephew, Heinz, also works for the SS and is studying fear. This works because Forester keeps it low key throughout.

Next up is a 1933 story from ‘Weird Tales’. When Stephen Jones goes to Rogers Museum he is deeply impressed by the horrible wax figurines. Artist George Rogers had been sacked from Madame Tussaud’s because of doubts about his sanity. ‘The Horror In The Museum’ by Hazel Heald is a riff on ‘Pickford’s Model’ and I was impressed by the vocabulary, the slow build-up of mysterious, unseen, ghastly creatures lurking in the background, the hints of cosmic terror.

Why it could have been written by Lovecraft himself! I researched on-line and found…it was written by Lovecraft himself! It was either a collaboration or simply ghost written by Lovecraft and I’d put my money on the latter. In any case, it’s a great horror story.

Seabury Quinn was another big name author in ‘Weird Tales’ with his stories of Dr. Jules de Grandin. ‘The House Of Horror’ (1926) features that Frenchman in an adventure with his good friend Dr. Samuel Trowbridge. En route to a medical emergency, they are forced by bad weather to stop at a large, mysterious house where a handsome man asks for their help treating a beautiful young girl who seems ill. They soon realise they are prisoners of an evil doctor.

Based on this sample, I must agree with Brian Stableford who said that the Grandin stories were marred by stereotyped characters and poorly resolved plots. Having a tree fall on the villain at just the right moment is hardly fair play. De Grandin is really a poor man’s Poirot. Still, it’s kind of fun and if you’re reluctant to use crude anglo-saxon swear words it will provide you with a fine alternative vocabulary. Marbleu! Parbleu! cordieu! Par la moustache du diable! N’om d’un chat rouge! The latter phrases can be translated into English.

There’s another evil surgeon ‘Behind The Yellow Door’ in a low key tale from Flavia Richardson. Marcia Miles goes to be a companion to an eminent doctor and her daughter and gets an unpleasant surprise. All in all, medical reputations are not enhanced by this book.

I’m vaguely aware of Muriel Spark as a literary author so was interested to read ‘The Portobello Road’. It follows the life of a girl nicknamed Needle after she stabs herself on one in a haystack. The friends with her at the time, especially George, are determined that they will stay in touch, whatever life brings. It starts with Needle watching two friends shopping on the Portobello Road which prompts her to narrate the tale of their lives. There are autobiographical elements to this and it gives you a glimpse of the bygone age of British colonialism.

Another literary type is Angus Wilson who contributed ‘Raspberry Jam’ to this volume. Little Johnnie, aged eleven, is an imaginative single child who tolerates his straitlaced parents but spends a lot of time with two mad old sisters down the road. Maria seems stern at first but has a sense of humour and Dolly, once beautiful, is wildly romantic. This is a penetrating look at English village life and ends on a distinctly chilling note.

Perhaps due to early conditioning with Stephen King’s popular novels, my notions of horror are usually of something supernatural. This diverse collection ranges from the lowbrow, entertaining pulp of Seabury Quinn through the able, clever words of Jack Finney to the literate, sober prose of Spark and Wilson.

Each style works its magic in different ways and I enjoyed them all but the most horrific for me were those where man inflicted horror on man. The evil of Lovecraftian monsters pales into insignificance beside the mundane terror of Nazi doctors and the like because, God help us, they really exist.

This fine collection is out of print now but can be picked up very cheap second-hand and is well worth the pennies.

Eamonn Murphy

October 2019

(pub: Pan Macmillan, 2010. 296 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-330-51868-0)

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Category: Books, Horror

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