Friday, 23 May 2014

The Sixth Pan Book of Horror Stories (1965)



                         

Pan chose to retain W.F. Phillipps' rat perched on a skull cover illustration when they updated the font.  Both a large rat and a skull (two complete skeletons in fact) feature in Walter Winwards's tale Return to Devil's Tongues, but not in the same scene.


         ~

THE OLDEST STORY EVER TOLD
By Romain Gary

A Jewish concentration camp survivor rebuilding his life in Bolivia, rather improbably bumps into a fellow former-inmate leading a llama train (!)  This latter chap proves to be a rather skittish individual who still believes the Nazis are in power, and considers the notion of Israel to be little more than a plot to ensnare Jews.

However he is taking steps to ensure if he is retaken by his previous captors, he will be better treated second time around.

Bertie opened Pan6 with another low key yarn - although one should be thankful I suppose that we were not faced with William Sansom’s drab dribblings this time around.  Even so, nothing much really goes on here, with any bite to the story relying very heavily upon the final line revelation.

And whilst the holocaust provides the backdrop to the story, “Oldest” is really all about the way in which the threat of abuse can be used by one individual to wield power over another.  Although even this potent theme, is sadly underdeveloped by the author.


MAN SKIN
By M.S. Waddell

A serial killer is dispatching victims on order to obtain their skin.

And with this one we are pitched headlong into the sort of dispassionate, apparently motiveless murder and mayhem that would come to define the PBoHS collections.  There is no back story to the killer; he may be some sort of demon who having no skin of his own has to collect and wear others’, or he could just be an Ed Gein-type wacko plowing his own furrow.

He is initially described as “the thing”, then “the poor thing” before progressing to “the poor damp thing”, as Waddell substitutes his trademark macabre humour for any serious attempt at  characterisation.  We learn nothing of his/it’s background, nor of its motivations, whilst the victims are such two-dimensional characters we barely notice them leaving the pages.

But reading Man Skin is a pleasant enough way to waste ten minutes of one’s life.


CAMERA OBSCURA
By Basil Copper

Moneylender Mr. Sharsted comes a-calling on one of his clients (Gingold) looking for payment, but despite his best efforts to be firm, finds himself accepting a drink and an invite to view a camera obscura his host has installed.  The two discuss an eviction of a family Sharsted is pursuing, with Gingold asking his visitor if he would consider dropping the case.  Sharsted refuses, then is subsequently shown a second camera obscura built even higher within the house. 

This one is equally impressive, but isn’t that a long demolished building Sharsted can see down in the town?

For those of you unfamiliar with what exactly a camera obscura is and how it works, can I point you in the direction of:  
http://www.camera-obscura.co.uk/camera_obscura/camera_obscura.asp

Perhaps it is because we have a camera obscura here in Edinburgh, that I found (and still find) this one such an entertaining read.  For each time I have visited the attraction on the Royal Mile, I can almost imagine the puzzled and frightened Mr. Sharsted down there in the Edinburgh Old Town streets.

The one quibble I have with the tale is the faint whiff of anti-semitism going on, so I will get that out of the way first.  It is never explicitly mentioned, but I feel we are expected to assume Sharsted is Jewish: his “narrow lopsided face…under his hard hat”.  But just in case we are in any doubt, during the last few pages we learn the moneylender’s first name to be Mordecai.  But I can forgive Copper this piece of racial stereotyping, for “Camera” is such a well-written tale.

There is the little joke early in the yarn where Sharsted is described as looking “like someone long dead”.  His journey up through the various floors of Gingold’s house may represent some sort of climb to the gates of paradise, to where his soul may yet be saved.  But upon after rejecting a final entreat to repent, Sharsted is sent down into his own personal hell.

Except that it is not really so personal, as he finds it populated with deceased former acquaintances and business associates.  Usurers, Estate Agents and Undertakers rub shoulders with a War Profiteer and a Swindler; Copper clearly feeling these individuals are all deserving the same fate as a Moneylender.

I always find myself feeling a modicum of sympathy for poor Sharsted – he was after all only doing his job, however distasteful some folks may feel his job to be.  His mounting panic as he keeps returning to the same square is almost tangible (a literal back to square one), and his eventual defeat is utter.


PARTY GAMES
By John Burke

Little Ronnie Jarman’s eighth birthday party is in full flow, when a knock on the door heralds the arrival of an uninvited and unwelcome guest; the unpopular and rather creepy Simon Potter.

Ronnie’s mother is just about managing to keep the twenty kids under control, but fails to notice Ronnie and another friend have locked Simon in a bedroom cupboard during a game of Postman’s Knock.  But a subsequent game of Murder fords Simon the opportunity to take his revenge upon Ronnie.

A psychopathic child running rings around befuddled adults had already been explored in The Pale Boy in Pan4.  But the theme would become recurring one over the coming volumes, with Party Games a rather typical example of the type.

Ronnie’s Mother’s mounting panic as she attempts (but fails) to keep events under her control is palpable in Burke’s writing, but otherwise this is a dull tale devoid of any real merit.


THE UNFORGIVEN
By Septimus Dale

In the eyes of The Reverend Lewis Alexander Rose, his daughter is a “lewd, bad, wicked girl” and must therefore be punished.

I recall my great hero Christopher Hitchens once saying something along the lines of “Good people will always do good things and bad people will always do bad things, but in order for a good person to perform a bad deed, you have to inject religion into the mix”.

And it is this concept I feel which is being, if rather superficially, explored in this tale, even if the Reverend is very clearly, as his daughter believes “quite mad”.


PUPPETMASTER
By Adobe James

Decarlo was once a popular and successful puppeteer, but old age – both his own and that of his puppetorium has led to his audiences drifting away.  But he has begun creating new puppets with which to forge his comeback.  His particular favourite is the beautiful Lilith, but the favours he is bestowing upon her are breeding envy within the hearts of the other puppets.

It is a disorientating journey this one, growing as it does arms and legs with the telling.  It begins as a tale of an old puppetmaster who, perhaps due to approaching senility, is imbuing his creations with rather more life than is actually the case.  But then the narrative moves to having some of the puppets clearly behaving outwith his control, so we begin to wonder if these puppets do in fact have some life of their own.

Then the whole business moves onto a different level again, as suddenly Decarlo morphs into some Gulliver-like giant in a land of his creation whereby:

“In his falling, he wiped out a small village….and created a deep crater on the plains”.

before

“His arms toppled whole forests of trees….levelled fountains and gardens”


By the end we are clearly expected to view the whole tale as some Fall from Eden parable with two of the puppets representing Adam and Eve, Decarlo, perhaps God himself, with Lilith as the apple??  Although I note Jewish folklore has Lilith as the name of Adam's first wife.

All rather confusing, and equally unsatisfying.


NO FLIES ON FRANK
By John Lennon

A chap called Frank, upon discovering he has put on some weight, violently murders his wife(!) and leaves her to decompose on the kitchen floor.  When the corpse not surprisingly begins to attract flies, he delivers it to his mother-in-law.  But she, equally unwilling to have flies in her house, slams the door in his face.

The rather sketchy outline of the surreal plotline fails to convey the unusual language employed by Lennon to tell the tale.  An example being:

“Tis nothing but wart I have gained but twelve inches more tall heavy that at the very clock of yesterday at this time”

This sort of gobbledygook was made popular in the sixties by Stanley Unwin (the comedian not the publisher), of whose style No Flies On Frank is clearly at best a homage, and at worst, plagiarism.  The short (two page) story is very much of its time, and does not really stand up to repeated reading.

One point of interest though is the way Lennon paints Frank as a wife-beater, something the author himself was accused of by his ex-wife Cynthia in her 2005 book, "John".


A HEART FOR A HEART
By Ron Holmes

A transplant surgeon takes revenge upon his wife, who has just shot his lover through the forehead.

A bit of a frantic suicide note this one, but this is not surprising I suppose given the hero has just seen his lover murdered before his eyes, then succeeded in performing a heart transplant all on his lonesome in his home laboratory.  Wow.

The surgeon is clearly off his gurney, but at least he recognises the fact and is keen to get all his mad stuff over with before “before my sanity returns”.  His note is written in blood no less, and one would have thought Bertie could have pulled out all the stops to get Pan to publish the text of this story in red.


A REAL NEED
By William Sansom

Obsesssed with a desire to see the colour red, a man slices his uncle’s head open with a bread-knife.  But because the result was not red enough, he moves onto his own throat.

A Real Need is the third in a sequence of three short internal monologue stories in Pan6; each boasting a narrator madder than the last.

It is actually an Berenice-type exploration of the nature of obsession.  Right down to the narrator’s attempts to rationally explain away his irrational train of thought, although Sansom’s prose (as ever) is at times hard going. 


GREEN THOUGHTS
By John Collier

Mannering, a keen amateur botanist, has received an unusual looking orchid bulb from…..where, he cannot quite recall.  He plants the thing in his hothouse, and before long it has grown to the extent that is has pretty much taken over the place.  He notes it has produced small buds which look remarkably like flies’ heads, then, a few days after his cousin's cat had disappeared, a flower bud in the shape of a cat’s head grows.

(I think you can guess where we are going with this).

One day Cousin Jane is nowhere to be found, and lo and behold there is a human head-sized bud developing on the plant.  Perhaps inevitably, it is not long before a flower resembling Mannering's face is next to develop, after he rather unwisely gets just a little bit too close to the plant.

Ever the scientist, Mannering is initially rather interested by the whole business of being part of a plant, but soon begins to worry about a few things – not least his now being at the mercy of his rather feckless nephew.

The PBoHS series hosted a fair selection of aggressive plant stories (Meshes of Doom, Amanda Excrescens and Dr Fawcett’s Experiment, to name but three).  But where all of the aforementioned had flora rampaging through the house like an irked triffid, Green Thoughts was a rather more cerebral yarn.

Part of this is down to Collier’s slightly dated language (the tale was first published in 1931), but mainly due to the fact the author, as if acknowledging the preposterousness of the narrative, plays it all with a deft humorous touch.  Mannering after being absorbed into the plant is referred to as the “vegetable gentleman”; whilst the methods by which the author deftly skips around the niceties of both how Cousin Jane found herself naked in the greenhouse, and also the slightly incestuous pollination episode are a delight.

My sole criticism of the story is that having set up such an intriguing premise as having a fully conscious and sentient Mannering subsumed into the plant, it is almost as if Collier ran out of ideas, and the story is rather abruptly secateured to a close.


GIVE ME YOUR COLD HAND
By John D. Keefauver

A California school teacher embarks upon an affair, and then moves in with, a neurotic Scandinavia sexpot he met on a beach.  She is fascinated by and strongly attracted to his large hands, although she has learned from experience that such hands can bring pain as well as pleasure.

Consequently she always keeps a large darning needle about her person as a weapon, but there are some things against which the needle offers no defence.

There is a rather Chandler-esque feel to this one, opening as it does with the protagonist standing in the rain handcuffed to a murderer; one corpse at his feet and a second in the process of being exhumed by the police.

The author leaves just enough of a doubt in our minds that there may in fact have been some supernatural element to the events, with perhaps the departed Nelson actually controlling events from his shallow grave amongst the petunias.  But more likely this is just your average tale of an ordinary chap caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong girl.


MY LITTLE MAN
By Abraham Ridley

A mentally ill young woman being cared for at home murders her live-in nurse.

The internal monologue of a deranged individual is a horror short story stock in trade.  Generally speaking the fun is picking out the madness clues from the largely sane musings of the narrator, but occasionally (like this one) the streams of consciousness ramblings are so obviously off the scale, that the trick is to winkle out any little grains of truth from all the psychobabble.

With this tale it is the nature of the Little Man of the title that we are asked to try to ascertain as we travel through it.  We are led to think he may be anything from a pet, a treasured toy or doll, some demon or familiar, or even just a complete figment of the girl’s imagination. 

But by the end we are asked, I think anyway, to believe the Little Man is the corpse of a baby; the death of whom probably drove the woman over the edge.  And, even more improbably, that both the husband and nurse have allowed her to keep the decomposing little mite in her room.

But of course, I could be well wide of the mark.


CRACK O’ WHIPS
By H.A. Manhood

Squaler Adams makes his living showing his troup of performing poodles, which he trains with a thuggish combination of brutality and the occasional whipping.  But he makes the mistake of trying to use the same method to bring to heel a cheeky street urchin. 

Rather Dickensian this one, set as it is in London’s East End sometime early in the last century.  Indeed, with a bit of tweaking it could almost serve as an alternative ending to Oliver Twist.  Had Bill Sikes a collection of dogs rather than just old Bulls Eye, and had The Artful Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s band of thieves taken on and punished him for one piece of cruelty too far………you'd have Crack o’ Whips.  Sort of.

Manhood’s characterization is, inevitably not quite up to Charles’ standard though (but whose is?), yet both the publican and Jimmy The Dose are such well-rounded entertaining characters we are rather sorry to be saying farewell to them at the end of the yarn.  Squaler, by contrast we are quite glad to see the back of. 


THE INMATE
By Richard Davis

A successful businessman decides to set up a private zoo on his estate in the Scottish Highlands.  His wife, generally indifferent and occasionally hostile towards the project, suddenly develops an interest in the venture when a large gorilla is added to the collection.

Over its thirty-year lifespan, it is fairly safe to suggest the PBoHS series tackled (often unflinchingly) every one of Western civilisation’s taboo subjects.  And thus it was with The Inmate that Bertie ticked the Bestiality box.  Thankfully we are spared the details of exactly who did what with what, but are nevertheless left in no doubt by the end of the story that there has certainly been some monkey business going on.

Pan6 seemed to contain more that its fair share of asylum based stories, and this is one such, taking the format of a clinician relating an inmate’s history to a visitor.  (So much for patient confidentiality then).

Consequently, apart from a few vague comments about reincarnation, we never really get to hear much of the female protagonist’s views on proceedings.  Which is a shame really, as I think I really rather would have liked to hear what she had to say. 


RETURN TO DEVIL'S TONGUES
By Walter Winward

Peter Morley invites his old army buddy Ben Lawson to stay with him for a few weeks at his Dorset home.  But he notes his guest has taken to wandering the countryside at night.  Visions within a dream warn Morley that his friend is in danger, so he sets out to find Lawson, discovering him at local landmark Devil's Tongues in the company of a beautiful woman, and her axe-wielding husband.

A bit muddy this one, with what is going on not totally clear.  Morley has clearly been lured out to the Devil's Tongues of the title – three standing stones - to play the role of the other man in a ghostly re-enactment of a blood-soaked encounter between a husband, his wife and her lover.  An encounter which actually took place fifty-years earlier.  To what ends is not made apparent.

I wondered if Lawson was perhaps the reincarnation of the lover.  Note his lightening mood as he approaches Dorset, his ability to find Morley's house without any directions, and his statement “I feel so much at home here”.  And of course, the title of the story may also suggest so.

The clichéd protagonist-driven-incurably-insane-by-their-experience ending, although providing a further link between Lawson and the lover does seem a bit of a rather too convenient cop-out by Winward, though.  And the skeletons business make no sense at all.

The shaky plotline apart, "Tongues" is a well-written yarn.  The dream sequence is particularly horrific, and I did like the author’s description of clouds flitting across the moon “like gigantic mice milling around the piece of cheese”. 
   

PUTZ DIES
By Septimus Dale

Jacob Putz is a convicted war criminal, responsible for some particularly nasty surgical experiments in his prison hospital.  Now a quadriplegic he is another prison hospital awaiting execution.  But when on the appointed morning, news comes through of a reprieve, one of Putz’ attendants decides to take things into his own hands.

The first time of reading this story forty-odd years ago, I thought it a dull tale with little to commend it.  Re-reading it for these scribbles, I do still feel it to be one of the weakest entries in Pan6, but acknowledge there is some mildly diverting stuff going on.  But not much.

Putz’ relentless goading of his attendants is moderately entertaining, right down to the gross “eye-balls in a strawberry jelly” quote which made the rear cover of Pan6. The mild twist to the tale is that it is the senior attendant who finally snaps, and not the junior who had in fact more reason to inflict retribution upon his charge. 

And that, regretfully, is about as interesting as Putz Dies gets.


THE ROAD TO MICTLANTECULTI
By Adobe James

A murderer on the run attempting to reach the town of Linaculan on the Mexican east coast, crashes his car some 30 miles from his destination, so sets out on foot.  Along the way he encounters first a creepy old priest, then a beautiful woman riding a black horse.

At a fork in the road he has to choose between the two and decides “only an idiot would continue to walk…when there was a chance to ride”.  But following the anticipated shag beneath the stars, he awakes to find himself cuddling a decomposed corpse, and begins to harbour second thoughts over the wisdom of his choice.

An entertaining, if hardly unpredictable, morality tale this one.  What I should have liked the story to have explored is: if God wants us all to choose the path of righteousness, why does the option often appear so dull?  Why should the Devil have all the good music?


THE DOLL OF DEATH
By Vivian Meik

An African planter’s wife has left him for one her old flames, so he enlists the magic of the local Ch’anguru tribe in order to punish the lovers.

A bit of a White Mischief meets Trilogy of Terror thing going on with this one, with lots of stiff upper lip dialogue laced with tantalisingly vague references to “obscene initiation ceremonies” and a “bestial, lewd, sadistic dance”. 

Meik also peppers the narrative with such pleasingly offbeat dialogue as “Now shut that door and go and play with the puppies until I call you”, which sounds equally salacious.   And as for what is meant by “consigned to the limbo of the lying jade”, well, who knows?

The climax I found a touch confusing, unable to work out exactly what jiggery-pokery had been performed to change the target of the doll’s ire.  But I love a happy ending (so rare in the PBoHS series) that I didn’t really mind.


LOVE ME, LOVE ME, LOVE ME
By M.S. Waddell

A man is first haunted by, and then falls in love with some ethereal spirit-like creature which takes the form a young woman.  Yearning to touch her, when he finally does so he soon realises she is bad for the complexion.

A rather more subtle tale from Mr Waddell, and one he plays straight.  I found the streams of consciousness/present tense format a bit irritating at times, but the yarn did retain my interest right to the end.  Even if the exact nature of the spirit, and that of the almost equally enigmatic Mr Harcourt remained tantalisingly unresolved.


THE SHED
By Richard Stapley

Much of The Shed has an unnamed narrator relating a tale of a lengthy train journey under guard, (during which he succeeds in sneaking off for an hour’s sex with a circus performer in the toilets!).  There then follows a rather confused interrogation/examination in The Shed of the title, during which he endures force-feeding and loses his sight.  After the ordeal he is told he is to be released, with the hope his “own kind” may help him recuperate.

The final few pages take the form of a dialogue between one of his guards and the girl on the train, as the author attempts to clarify some of what has gone before.

Although The Shed would fit more comfortably within the science fiction genre than horror, it is an intriguing read; particularly so second time around when one can retrospectively make a bit of sense of the narrative.

Clues abound, such as when the narrator tells us when he “awoke for the first time my belongings were neatly set beside me”, and the fact he is unable to tolerate any food other than rice and water.  He refers to a snake as an “alien”, and perhaps most tellingly states he feels “humans must be the cruellest of the universal beings”. 

Stapley also enjoys scattering not a few red herrings around as well, though - and the neither the war with China, nor the scene with the gas shell progress the storyline at all; but appear present merely to mischievously muddy the waters further.

The business of the “truth-paste” however, is both literally and figuratively messy.  One would have thought that being advanced enough to develop such a potent drug, the scientists could have come up with a more effective method of getting the stuff into a prisoner’s system than simply ramming it down his throat a la Sylvia Pankhurst.

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