An ever so slightly bemused looking day-glo green mummy adorned the cover of Pan9.
In the story "A Comedy of Terrors" a film producer reminds his colleagues at a story conference "No monsters. No gloomy castles, no mummies, no vampires. Right?"
And that is as close as we get to finding our cover star in print.
By Raymond Williams
Convicted (but deemed insane) rapist and murderer John Blandon has escaped from the secure unit he has been sent to, and is on the run. He thinks his luck is in when he forces entry to an isolated cottage tenanted only by an elderly woman and her pretty daughter. But in reality Blandon’s luck has just run out.
Pan9 appears to absolutely bristle with stories: a total of 24 spread over 241 pages with a fair few tiddlers. Man-Hunt is a short sharp shock opener to the collection which succeeds in fitting in rape, murder, dismemberment and castration into its five-and-a-half pages.
The one glaring flaw in the narrative is that it relies upon quite the most mind-boggling geographical coincidence to deliver Blandon into the clutches of the two individuals he would least like to meet up with. But it is a tolerable enough read, not untypical of Pan offerings around this time.
By Dulcie Gray
Rich Arthur and dowdy Maria have drifted into a marriage of mutual loathing, each wishing they were free of the other. But whilst Arthur has taken steps to alleviate the tedium by taking a young lover, Maria’s days are filled with fantasies of how she can kill off her tubby hubby.
The sight of a fly trying crawling up the tall window in their bedroom, and the memory of a hypnotist show she had attended recently initiates the germination of a plan.
This one began well with Gray’s typically prim prose setting the scene of marital disharmony. Maria is clearly not dealing with a full pack, whilst Arthur for all his faults, does appear to show an almost gallant regard towards his much younger mistress.
But once the narrative moves onto the frankly preposterous hypnotism scene things just get a bit silly, with the outcome all too predictable. Although as ever, Ms Gray dips her brush into the red palette at the end to paint the final scene to jarring effect.
THOU SHALT NOT SUFFER A WITCH…
By Dorothy K. Haynes
A young girl (Jinnot) is persuaded by older Beatrice to feign fits, in order to pretend she is being bewitched by Minty; the latter two girls vying for the affections of hunky Jack. Jinnot eventually comes out and directly accuses Jinty of witchcraft, which leads eventually to the latter's death at the hands of a mob.
Beatrice and Jack later marry, but when their new born child dies after Jinnot has visited, the young girl finds herself now being accused of witchcraft.
Ms Haynes in a mere fifteen pages succeeds in creating whole raft of credible three-dimensional characters - a veritable soap opera's worth it seems. From the scheming Beatrice, and the nice-but-dim Jack to the unfortunate Jinty. And all the main characters end up damaged in some way or other by the end, with three (if one counts the infant) dead by nasty means, and a further three left utterly bereft by loss.
Was Jinnot a witch? Her apparent killing of Beatrice's baby would certainly suggest so, although what occurred could have been just a coincidence. But it was her ability to float when hog-tied which sealed her date with the bonfire. I do not think it a coincidence though that Haynes used the name Jinnot - it is a derivation of Janet, with the name Janet Horne being a generic Scots name for a witch.
Dating the story represented a bit of a challenge. The last recorded prosecution for witchcraft in Scotland took place in 1727. And yet even as recently as the start of the 20th Century, a sixpence would appear to be an incongruously large amount to be giving a child to spend on sweets.
STRICTLY FOR THE BIRDS
By Lindsay Stewart
What could be more representative of idyllic domestic bliss than a family of four taking their regular Sunday stroll through Primrose Hill? The only blemish to the scene is the wizened, and apparently steadily shrinking, old man in the wheelchair, feeding “soft, green, fleshy crumbs” to the pigeons.
The blurb on Pan9 boasted of the contents “each now published for the first time”. Thus was the transformation complete from a compendium of the best horror writing of the previous 100 years, to a collection of ink-still-wet efforts by contemporary authors.
No bad thing in itself, but I do perhaps wonder if the contributors now began writing less what the muse inspired, than what they thought was most likely to appeal to Bertie and his by now extensive band of gore-hungry readers.
This yarn appears one such, with no back story or explanation as to why the old geezer was rotting away and feeding the sloughed off bits to the pigeons; the narrative seemingly naught but a memorably gross image only superficially explored.
By Martin Waddell
The Brain, it has been decided, "Must Go On". Consequently it is now being housed inside its third body. But this one is now worn out, so a fourth has been procured, even though no-one is quite sure where this body has come from. One of the few clues is a postcard from Transylvania found in one of its pockets. And what is it with those “long sharp fanglike” teeth?
However else one describes Martin Waddell’s contributions, they are not really horror stories. Not really. Perhaps they are best put into a genre of their own: Gore-comedy, perhaps. Not that I minded his presence in the collections, for his eye for the absurd and ear for a well-turned phrase always made his stories a first port of call with each new volume.
And he does not fail to deliver here. We are not told why this particular brain is being kept alive in a succession of bodies other than “for the Greater Good of Mankind”, but I don’t suppose we really need to. It is, as ever, Waddell’s writing style which delights.
My one disappointment is that the tale is too short, Waddell bringing the narrative to a close just as all manner of intriguing possibilities had opened up.
AN APPARITION AT NOON
By Adobe James
An alcoholic white farmer in post-independence Kenya finds his two dogs and all of his chickens dead……but his long deceased wife apparently up and about.
Adobe James had been a regular Pan contributor, but this entry to Pan9 was his last, and I feel by far his weakest. Although he had not been afraid to inject an element of the supernatural into some of his stories, here he, rather unwisely in my opinion, chose to dip a toe into the realm of Science Fiction.
The introduction towards the end of the tale of some mind-reading, shape-shifting alien creature hell bent on killing, purposelessly it appears, all life forms it come into contact with, does seem so far removed from James’ other stories that it jars. And the narrative pacing judders to a halt as the author is forced to toss in a couple of clumsy expositional paragraphs to explain the above.
But even then, the whole extra-terrestrial business is naught but a contrived plot villain to facilitate James hitting us with another of his extremely un-PC last lines.
THE BABY MACHINE
By Rene Morris
Peter is an engineer who has been involved in the development of a machine designed to look after a baby, and has not surprisingly bought his wife Malinda one now that little Paul has arrived. Not that Malinda minds, for having all the tedious aspects of motherhood taken care of frees her up to spend time with her lover.
But, when she decides to leave Peter and take the child with her, she finds the Baby Machine stubbornly reluctant to give up its charge.
As with her Pan8 contribution The Computer, Morris similarly has us in a future where an aspect of human activity, in this case parenting, has been handed over to technology. And again, she toils to come up with a credible description of the technology; the Baby Machine being described as having a single pale-green eye, thick rubbery arms each boasting a pincer-like hand plus, most incongruously, some large soft rubber breast, with which it suffocates Malinda when she attempts to remove the child.
It is unclear whether Malinda met her end as a consequence of how the Machine has been programmed, or if there has been some malfunction – there are clues suggesting either in the text – but ultimately, I suppose, for Malinda it was a bit of a moot issue.
THE BEST TEACHER
By Colin Graham
Gareth Gwynne, a horror fiction author, after attending a Writers’ Circle dinner, accepts a lift from club member who detours home ostensibly to pick up some copies of his own attempts at writing for his passenger to take away and read. But there are ulterior motives at play, and blood soon begins to flow.
It is fairly safe to assume that, certainly during the late Sixties and early Seventies, the PBoHS collections proved to be quite a lucrative earner for Herbert Van Thal. But I have often wondered quite what the bookish Bertie, with his extensive background in “serious” publishing really thought of the series. In his rather dull autobiography "The Tops of the Mulberry Trees", he barely even mentions the series, almost as if he was (whisper it) ashamed of his involvement.
And I wonder if, in choosing this particular story Bertie was subtly voicing his true opinion of the monster he had created.
For in The Best Teacher we have a character (Sadelim) on a one-man crusade to rid the world of authors who “produce work calculated to undermine public morality and create sadistic ideas” i.e. those very folk presently enjoying Pan (and Bertie’s patronage). Sadelin further castigates Gwynne for writing horror stories “for one reason only – money”. The link with prostitution is clear. Was this how Bertie viewed these authors?
The killer’s name Sadelim is an unusual one, with the first four letters reflecting the famous Marquis. Although it is probably over-egging the pudding to mention it is also an anagram of “mislead”.
STICK WITH ME, KID, AND YOU’LL WEAR DIAMONDS
By Walter Winward
A jeweler’s assistant murders then robs his employer in order to present his wife with the diamonds he had promised her when they were first wed thirty years before.
A competent enough yarn with the long-telegraphed twist being that the wife, upon finally receiving the multitude of diamonds she has long yearned for, is in no fit state to appreciate them. The mystery really is how she lasted as long as she did, giving the unstinting viciousness of her nagging.
THE HAPPY RETURN
By Dulcie Gray
A young girl, abandoned by her lover when she falls pregnant, gains her revenge upon him by disfiguring their child.
The concept of punishment by proxy is not a new one to the PBoHS series: There is, of course, a tale of that name in Pan10, and I always felt there was at least an element of it in A Poem and a Bunch of Roses in Pan3.
And although the plot-line is so silly as to be impossible to take seriously, nevertheless this one gets under the skin and disturbs in a way neither of the aforementioned tales do. This is mainly due to the fact it is an innocent seven-year-old child who is being punished for the sins of another. And punished in a particularly grotesque manner, by the one person who should have loved him the most.
The narrative could have been an even more harrowing read, had Gray taken the time with characterisation of the child, for he remains little more than a cipher throughout. But then I wonder if perhaps even the author found such a thing too painful to contemplate.
FATHER FORGIVE ME
By Raymond Harvey
A young girl who has just discovered she is pregnant attempts to seduce the local priest in order to pass him off as the father, but has her head bashed with a rock when she taunts the priest after he turns her down. Unfortunately for the killer, his actions have been witnessed by the local village idiot – who, it turns out, also has the hots for him.
With its Out-of-the-Frying-pan and Into-the-Fire plotline, Father Forgive Me reminded me of Dulcie Gray’s The Brindle Bull Terrier in Pan8 to an extent. For with both we are left to use our imaginations to continue the narrative, after murderers have failed to cover their tracks as well as they had hoped.
Set in Ireland (where else?), the characters are all such stereotypes I could not, when reading the dialogue, prevent myself putting their words into the mouths of the cast of Father Ted, with Father Michael as Ted, Tom speaking the lines of John Flynn, and Mrs. Doyle playing old Mrs. Casey. Although the Channel 4 series never came up with anyone quite like Mary Casey, mores the pity.
A COMEDY OF TERRORS
By John Burke
Robbie is a successful film set designer, with a reputation for coming up with particularly realistic and grotesque death scenes – all the fruits of his labours in his home “workroom”. To ensure he gets a scene in the next film he is working on correct, he flays alive his girlfriend before dumping her body in a local rubbish dump.
But then his (by now ex-) girlfriend’s brother comes looking for her.
Although John Burke does drop a few light-hearted macabre touches into the narrative, this one is more Terrors than Comedy, even if he, almost demurely, skips over the description of the actual flaying process. He really could not afford to pass up such opportunities, if he harboured any ambitions to become a PBoHS regular.
THE BOY WHO NEGLECTED HIS GRASS SNAKE
By Tim Stout
Rodney is an amateur herpetologist who, against his better judgement, procures a grass snake for the son of a friend. But the snake proves to be a naught but a passing fad for the boy, with the inevitable fatal consequence for the unfortunate reptile. But something or someone has decided the boy must pay for his neglect.
There must be few stories where the death of a child can be viewed as anything other than a tragedy, but here I have to say the word karma springs to mind. But the real mystery is whether or not the supernatural has been at play here; to whit did the Rodney’s theory of events actually take place, or did Rodney take a more active hand in proceedings?
I lean towards the latter I think given little clues scattered around, which I shall leave you to collect yourselves.
By Lindsay Stewart
When six-year-old orphaned Mason’s grandmother dies, he is entrusted to the care of his Uncle Clive. Clive may be a feckless spendthrift, but he is fully aware of what will happen to Mason’s generous trust-fund should he outlive his charge. And poor Mason does have this congenital heart defect.
Quite a strange little story this one, for Stewart never quite seems to take the narrative seriously, placing all manner of deliberately preposterous dialogue in the characters’ mouths:
“Uncle Clive may be a monster,’ (Mason) thought, “but there’s no-one else in the world who cares so much for my welfare as he.”
Quite why Clive’s plan fails to go to plan is not made clear, although the likeliest moral at play here is “Don’t monkey about with weird stuff you cannot control”.
MRS. ANSTEY’S SCARECROW
By W. H. Carr
Lawson has detested Anstey since school, and the latter’s subsequent professional achievements just fuelled the fires of loathing. But the final straw was his successful wooing of Lorna, a local girl Lawson long had his eye on.
Thus, when fate provides Lawson with an opportunity to club his rival to death, he seizes it with both hands and, although there is no evidence to link him with the death, Lorna Anstey knows Lawson to be the guilty party.
So she brings her hereditary powers of witchcraft to bear, with the aid of a scarecrow she dresses in her dead husband’s clothes.
A fine thriller this one, with the resourceful Mrs Anstey using psychological persuasion to drive Lawson over the edge. There is no real evidence of any witchcraft at play, with the probability that merely through applying the power of suggestion to Lawson’s guilt and superstitions does Lorna achieve her aims.
Although, the fact Lawson’s “muscles contracted so terrifically that they snapped his own bones” may tend to suggest some external force also took a hand in proceedings. Indeed a “toad-cold hand”, as Carr memorably describes Lawson’s fear at one point.
NOT ENOUGH POISON
By Alex Hamilton
We are on a ranch somewhere in South America here, and a couple of farm-workers are attempting to destroy an extensive ant colony. But their failure to use, as the title asserts, enough poison results in the ants spilling out onto neighbour Sarah Hart’s property. And the critters are angry.
A really well-written story, which at thirteen pages is disappointingly brief. But, as if in compensation, Alex Hamilton presents us with deftly entertaining prose throughout. Such as:
“The heat was like a great, fat, unpleasant wrestler who had put an unbreakable hold on her…..teasing her with small, vexing discomforts for the amusement of himself”
“On her knee lay an old novel, inverted. The silverfish were getting through it faster than she was.”
Sarah is painted as a feisty, if terminally stubborn, woman, boasting a simmering just-below-the-surface sexuality; she enjoys the thought of flaunting herself in front of the workers, clearly turned on by their “rhythmic, sensual labouring”. Even if she refers to them as “dumbbells” and “stupid”.
I really enjoyed this one, and was genuinely sorry to see Sarah go.
By Martin Waddell
In a tea-urn at work Richard has discovered a decaying human left foot, so he takes it home to offer it as a present to his girlfriend Emma.
Emma takes the odd gift in her stride (ha-ha), but is thwarted in her attempt to sell it on to make a few pounds. She asks Richard to find her the other one (a pair being more likely to find a buyer, apparently).
This he does, in another office tea urn, but to Emma's chagrin it is another left foot!
Not Martin Waddell’s' finest moment this one. Although the yarn builds to the one-liner indicated above, the real joke is the insouciance shown by everyone who encounters the decomposing appendage.
But it is a joke which swiftly outstays its welcome.
DON’T AVOID THE RUSH HOUR
By Peter Richey
Following an evening out on the tiles, a youth awakes at 3:30AM on a London underground station platform. The staff have apparently locked the place up for the night, without noticing he was still there. But he is not alone.
Speaking from experience, I know there are few things scarier than being Down in a Tube Station at Midnight. But I should imagine being locked in a tube station well after midnight in utter darkness would certainly be one such set of circumstances. Add into this mix the suspicion that there is someone else locked in with you, and you have the premise of “Don’t Avoid…”
The strength of this one is the author’s pacing; he begins a tale relating a teenager’s first vodka-fuelled binge session, the boy’s initial concern upon waking being trying to recall if he is still a virgin or not. There is initially almost an element of farce to the chap's predicament, but the temperature noticeably chills when he thinks he hears a voice in the darkness replying “What?” in response to his attempts to attract the attention of the station staff.
The tension-fuelled flight along the tunnel is first class, with the lights coming back on just in time to illuminate one of the more vivid death scenes in Pan9. One can almost hear the sizzling and popping, and experience the aroma that “wasn’t turkey”.
If I do have a moan with the yarn it is that the newspaper story gathers together and tidies up all of the loose ends rather too neatly. But I did like his mum’s salaciously cryptic statement: “I know a thing or two about what boys do at night. I didn’t marry your Dad for nothing”.
I think I should really rather like to meet this woman one day.
THE WHISPERING HORROR
By Eddy C. Bertin
Don and Harvey, inseparable childhood buddies, stumble upon a derelict cottage in the woods, with almost all that remains being the steps leading down to the cellar. The boys are just attempting to pluck up the courage to go down and investigate, when they hear a whisper from cellar depths.
For reasons I cannot quite explain, I feel there is a definite Stephen-King-ish aura to this one; praise indeed given Pan9 was published some six years before Mr. King made it into mainstream print.
It may be the remembered story with its epistolary diary coda, or perhaps the children finding a scary thing in the woods plot-line. For there is no doubt Don’s encounter with the creature outside his bedroom window definitely brings to mind Danny’s late night visit to his brother Ralphie in ‘Salem’s Lot.
And the Whispering Horror itself – some ancient, elemental force, which the author makes no attempt to explain – could easily have been lifted from the likes of It, Desperation or any number of King’s yarns.
Definitely one of the stronger entries to Pan9.
Dolorice is a stripper who at thirty-four is, by her own admission, “far too old for this game”. She is considering the sideways career move into prostitution, but would much rather obtain a generous Sugar Daddy. So when she is offered six-thousand pounds for a single private performance, she is understandably tempted.
The show she is asked to give is a depiction of Eve in the Garden of Eden. There will be no Adam, she is pleased to hear, but all the other props will be there: Tree of Knowledge, fig leaves, apple………….and the snake.
With all the pages the author invested in Dolorice’s characterisation, we are clearly meant to feel some sympathy for the poor woman. But she is such a dipstick, utterly unable to read all those big red warning signs, that it is hard to view her demise as anything other than Darwinism at work.
Not that old Charles had much time for the Garden of Eden fable, of course.
By A.G.J. Rough
A youth compensates for his bullied childhood by randomly murdering strangers.
I hadn’t really enjoyed either of A.G.J. Rough’s previous PBoHS contributions, but this one was relatively innocuous. It is written in the form of a confession, which we are led to believe the narrator has sent to a publisher in order to “tell somebody how things really are”.
But in truth, the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere of interest.
By Mary R. Sullivan
A former soldier makes a post-war return visit to Malaysia, where he hears a tale of a crocodile hunt which went wrong.
No ghosts, demons or blade-wielding psychos here, but just a well-crafted tale of a trio of hunters who underestimate the power of nature, with tragic consequences.
The croc whose ire does for two of the hunters is not painted as some vindictive entity, but merely a particularly large reptile understandably a touch aggravated at having been shot through the eye.
The description of the aftermath to the attack is, perhaps aptly, all a bit confusing, but Sullivan more than compensates with her vivid yet not overly-dramatic death scenes.
All in all an exhilarating five-page ride.
THE GREEN UMBILICAL CORD
By Jamie McArdwell
Andrew’s puny little ivy picks up considerably when he buries bits of his recently murdered wife next to it. And it appears the plant requires more of the same to thrive.
A fun little tale written in an entertainingly dead-pan manner, with the only real surprise being the number of individuals Andrew turns into fertiliser before the police finally call.
By Tanith Lee
The narrator lists her lover’s imperfections, but can forgive him all of these. For she is also far from perfect.
Tanith Lee would go on to become a renowned writer of fantasy fiction, but Eustace was her first published work, back in 1968. So I suppose one has to doff one’s tifter to Bertie for recognising her potential. For he had precious little to go on really, with Eustace coming in at a mere eight lines.
But even within those confines, Lee manages to squish in a dash of humour, a pleasing punch line, and still leave us with a really quite unforgettable mental image of some particularly tricky sexual acrobatics.