Sunday, 7 September 2014

The 16th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1975)

No doubt about our cover-star here - it is the unnamed murderer and subsequently boiled-man from An Experiment with H2O.

By Norman P. Kaufman

As with most retired school teachers old Stoddart probably made his fair share of enemies amongst his former pupils.  Unfortunately one such blames him for all of the ills of his disappointing life, so one evening smashes his head in with a hammer in the old man’s home laboratory.

Returning to the scene of the crime later that evening to pick up the murder weapon he inadvertently left behind, he is waylaid by the victim’s wife and daughters who, purely in the interest of scientific research you understand, decide to boil the murderer alive in a Bunsen-burner heated water bath.

A brutally uncompromising opening to Pan16; with Kaufman not stinting on the gruesome details of either the initial murder, nor of the subsequent execution.  The first half of the tale is a streams of consciousness monologue by the murderer which ends mid-sentence as he is introduced to the business end of the hammer he had been searching for.

The second half consists of a very formal, almost scientific write-up of the boiling process by the dead man's family.  And when we read the line:

“It did in fact give us mutual and pleasurable satisfaction to view the disintegration of the subject’s genitals and penis.”

I am not sure the word "mutual" is appropriate here, as it would suggest both parties in the business enjoyed the disintegration.  The murderer's views on the event are not recorded.  Nevertheless, it reinforces just what a formidable trio of ladies these truly are, and not the sort one should cross lightly.

By Maureen O’Hara

Six weeks after a married couple – the woman heavily pregnant – drown in an offshore boating accident Kip, the retired sailor who had swum to shore without attempting to help the drowning pair, finds what he thinks is the corpse of a drowned baby on the beach.

But the infant recovers and is adopted by Kip and his wife Mary, she in particular having been entranced by the child.  As the boy grows it becomes apparent the chap is more at home in the water than on land, and that his pitching up was not totally accidental.

The slightly dream-like language of this one makes it read almost like a fairy-tale.  Witness the following piece of dialogue between Mary and the boy, after he has informed her he must leave some day.

“I shall come with you, my dearest, no matter where.  I will never let you go!” cried Mary in a frenzied voice.

“No, Mamma, no!  If you are foolish you will try to follow me.  Pray do not, for the road upon which I shall tread will be a road meant only for me.  If you pursue me, you will be persecuted."

Bear in mind this is a conversation between a four-year-old and his adoptive mother, and you can tell this is one precocious and articulate infant.

I noted a minor inconsistency in the narrative for, although we are told the boy “though he was four years old he had not yet learned to walk”, but a mere couple of days later Mary sees “the drenched boy standing before her” .

It is a diverting enough tale, and although the events of that final evening are a touch confusing the outcome is depressingly predictable, with the only mystery being how many of Kip’s family are going to pay the price for his earlier selfishness.

By David Lewis

A diary apparently written in code is found aboard a lifeboat full of skeletons which had been adrift for some three years.  Via the priest who buried the remains, the diary finds its way into the hands of a Dr. Turner who immediately recognises that the entries have been written backwards.

He takes the book home to transcribe and in doing so sets in place a sequence of horrific events.

This story, rather like the actual diary itself when I think about it, promises much but fails to deliver.  The narrative opens with an evocative burial scene, including a description of the items found inside the lifeboat alongside the corpses.  This sets up a rather intriguing set of mysteries, which we hope will be unravelled by Turner as he interrogates the mirror-writing.

But the tale just becomes a bit messy and unfocussed after this point, with characters being terrified to death, bogeymen pitching up who are able to be warded off by a few incanted lines from the 23rd Psalm, and the old priest finally toddling off to do what a man has to do.

By Giles Gordon

Widowed Mrs. Rutherford treats herself every morning to a leisurely read of the Morning Echo newspaper.  Today it is filled with the usual bad news: a fire in a local supermarket, an old woman killed on a pedestrian crossing, a body found on an allotment site, and a bank robbery.

She is puzzled to hear this latter crime subsequently reported on the radio as breaking news.  And even more puzzled when her friend points out her newspaper has tomorrow’s date on it.

Stephen King once wrote about “What if?” stories.  Tales whose lives begin as a single question to oneself, with the narrative structure subsequently built around this.  This entry I feel was probably developed like that, with the author asking himself one day: “What if the following day’s edition of my local newspaper dropped through my letterbox”. 

I rather suggest many of us, upon discovering such an improbability, may make our way first to the sports pages and then, rather promptly, to the bookies.

What Mrs. Rutherford and her friend Mrs. Trevor decide to do is to contact the Police in order that, if nothing else, the supermarket fire may be averted.  But, of course, fate intervenes.

Attempting to work out the exact chronology of all the events and where the production of tomorrow’s newspaper actually took place I found headache-inducing.  So instead, I tried to limit myself to working out the motivation of whoever was responsible.

For the whole business must be supernatural, with number one suspect being the late Mr. Rutherford who drifts through the whole narrative (ahem) ghost-like.

It does, though, appear to be a lot of bother to be just some other-worldly prank, so one has to assume he was trying to warn his former wife of the danger she was in.  Even that seems unlikely, for even Mrs.Trevor was smart enough to realise that “If someone is going to die, they will die”. 

By Harry E. Turner

Howard K. Benson is the presenter of a successful TV programme; one which specialises in presenting the weird and the wonderful from all around the globe.  He is in North Africa attempting to track down the curiosity of the story title which, with the aid of a local boy, he succeeds in doing. 

Unfortunately the ferret’s owner is reluctant to the point of outright hostility to the possibility of having his prize presented on TV.  But Benson is not a man easily deterred.

This story boasts what must be one of the more esoteric titles within the PBoHS series, but it does what it says on the tin.  For the yarn does contain a ferret, which not only is Tunisian, but does in fact talk.  No problem there.

The real issue is the preposterous anatomic leap of faith we are asked to take.  Without going into details one can only surmise either this was one extremely large-headed ferret to begin with, or the prising open of the poor animal’s skull was a particularly successful process.

But if one is able to swallow that, (and I was), we are left with really rather diverting tale.

Much of the enjoyment arises from Turner's vivid description of the Tunisian Bazaar with its labyrinthine streets and alleyways, and associated miasma of spices, filth and general squalor

Benson is written as a cross between Alan Wicker and Robert Ripley, determined to get what he wants and quite prepared to splash the cash to get it.  Unfortunately it is his rather less worldly-wise acquaintance Simpson who ends up paying the price for Benson’s arrogance.

There is a sly twist at the end of the tale as the author leads us down one path before wrong-footing us.  The result being, although a far from upbeat ending, then certainly one of the Pantheon’s less grim ones.

By Christopher Bray

An unnamed South American country is in the midst of a revolution and, as is often the way of things in these situations, the military are systematically executing the Enemies of The People.  One such is a humble gardener whose only crime was to remark to a foreign journalist that during revolutions his plants go short of water.

On his way to the firing squad he warns the sergeant overlooking proceedings that “…when I return I will send you a postcard”.  The military man dismisses the words as the ramblings of a simpleton, until sometime later a dog pitches up bearing a postcard addressed to him in the gardener’s handwriting.

Although on the surface this appears your common or garden Revenge-from-beyond-the-grave ghost story, it does feature some really quite bizarre, surreal even, imagery.  The dog trotting into the sergeant’s office bearing a postcard between its teeth, the mutt then watering a plethora of plants from a seemingly infinitely capacious bladder, and the sergeant quite literally shooting himself in the foot.

One could almost read the whole business to be the result of a remorse-ridden mind, were it not for the fact the sergeant does not really seem to be sort of guy prone to guilt trips.  Additionally, both the two guards who lost the dog and his own wife saw stuff which freaked them.

The ending is hardly a surprise, but with The Municipal Gardener it is not the destination, but the journey which entertains.

By Dulcie Gray

Brash bully Gerald has been the bane of Paul’s life since the two met as seven year-old schoolboys.  From ridiculing him in front of classmates, through marrying his girl to taking the credit and financial rewards for Paul’s domestic innovations.

Now both are middle-aged, Paul has decided the time for revenge has come.

Dulcie Gray provided a total of ten stories to the PBoHS series, but this is not one of her better efforts.  For it is little more than a vastly inferior re-write of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

By Charles Thornton

A convicted killer counts down the minutes to his execution by hanging, for murdering a girl.  But all is clearly not as it seems, for he regains consciousness a few minutes after the drop.

The shorter entries to the Pantheon (Debt Paid weighs in at just two pages) rarely worked, but this one is actually an intelligently written piece with a neat twist.

Its sole flaw is that the author cannot resist dropping in a touch of tedious moral outrage at the close:

“Drugs were apparently the cause”

“Yes, Matron – it always is these days – I believe they call it a “trip”.  When will they ever learn?”  

By Elleston Trevor

Journalist Robert Jasen has been given priveliged access to the preparations for the first moon mission.  His latest article is to be an interview with potential cosmonaut Charles Loomis before and after he undergoes a week-long isolation test.

Jasen cannot imagine how Loomis could possibly cope with the stress caused by the lack of stimulation, but Loomis informs him he has a “gimmick”.

We are clearly into the murky waters of Sci-Fi here, and in case anyone is unsure of this the author uses the time honoured tricks of giving the characters slightly exotic names, as well as dreaming up fictional futuristic sounding organisations; to whit The Associated Eastern Press and the Aero-Medical Psychological-Stress Research Laboratory (wow!).

I am unsure quite when this one was written.  Elleston Trevor was a writer of some renown who died as recently as 1995, but it has a feel about it of a refugee from Science Fiction’s golden age of the 1950s.  Today it all seems most terribly dated, as I am sure it would have done even back in 1975 when Pan16 was published; moon landings being old hat even then.

But in some respects this does not really matter for Chicken Switch, as most Sci-Fi does, simply uses the science as a prop to hold up some investigation into some aspect of the human condition, in this case the potential of the power of suggestion.

The Chicken Switch of the title refers to a device within the isolation chamber which the subject can use to prematurely bring the experiment to a close, should he feel the need.  Curiously, it actually plays no real part in the narrative.

By Roger F. Dunkley

Soon to be betrothed young couple Andy and Eve are engaged in that time-honoured game:  virginity tug-of-war.  Eve is keen to hold onto hers until after they are married, with Andy equally keen to relieve her of it.  The latest round is taking place out in the countryside, atop a hill covered by a ring of standing stones.

As an evasion technique Eve suggests they count the stones.  Andy’s twice arrives at a total different to Eve’s.  This fact appears to irk him inordinately.  So the couple decide to count a third time, whilst a shadowy figure watches on.

A pretty dull tale populated by a brace of equally dull characters.  Rather like Carl Thomson’s The Swans in Pan13 the true nature for the male’s anger is never quite made clear; whether it was already bubbling just below the surface, or was directed by some external supernatural force. 

In either event the result is the same for the unfortunate Eve.

By Maureen O’Hara

Anthea and Benjamin are due to be wed, but mutual friend Josephine separately warns both that their prospective partner has a dark secret.  Neither party take the warnings seriously, yet Anthea cuts Josephine’s tongue out as a punishment for her “lies”.  But was she lying?

As with O’Hara’s other contribution to Pan16 The Evil Innocent, this one is encumbered by the author’s decision to use oddly inappropriate language:

Benjamin, after being warned by Josephine that he must not marry Anthea, responds with:

“Tell me what you feel obligated to tell me and then let us return to our merrymaking.”

And we are later fed the following exchange between Anthea and her future father-in-law:

“You have not forgotten that this is your wedding day, Anthea…”

“Dear God, I had indeed forgotten.  The sherry, you see, it was of such poor quality.”

“I agree that the sherry was foul…But I carry bad tidings also.  Your friend Josephine was found dead two hours ago upon the hill.”

This almost clichéd Olde English did not seem too out of place in the folk-story narrative of The Evil Innocent, but here it just appears obtrusively incongruous.

By Laven E. Coberley

A swarm of “killer ants” emerge from the New Mexico desert and attack a ranch and its inhabitants, before turning their attention to the nearby town.

Imagine if you can that a twelve-year old boy with slight learning difficulties, having read and enjoyed Leiningen Versus the Ants in Pan2, has decided to write his own version.  His early draft is prematurely translated into Spanish by someone whose grasp of English grammar is not quite perfect, then subsequently converted back into English, by an individual for whom Spanish is not their first language.

If you can imagine attempting to read such a convoluted mish-mash, then you may be just be able to gain an inkling into how bad Revolt of the Ant People is.  There have been a number of dull, boring and hackneyed entries to The Pantheon up to this point, but nothing so excruciatingly poorly written as this.

And yet…..the author does succeed in somehow imparting a sense of pacing to the action.  A pity then that aspects of the storyteller’s art like creating empathetic characters, developing a logical plot-line and writing credible dialogue are all conspicuously missing.

By Raymond Miller

A scientist pottering around investigating the effects of ultraviolet light upon the ageing process accidentally discovers his equipment allows him to travel backwards and forwards through time.  He decides this fords him the opportunity to commit the perfect crime – namely the murder of his inconvenient wife.  But things, inevitably, do not go to plan.

The big problem all time travel yarns face is that has already been proven to be impossible.  For if at any point in the future time travel did became a reality, the present would already be cluttered up with future folks popping back for a look. 

A consequence of this is that it is impossible for authors to come up with an even remotely believable-looking time machine.  Most science fiction writers -  a perfect example was H.G. Wells in his book The Time Machine - simply create some faintly ridiculous contraption and leave it at that, not even attempting to tackle the nuts and bolts of the business.  Miller does the same, dreaming up a cross between a revolving door and a UV sun-bed to perform the needful.

A third problem is the inevitable Mobius strip time-chronology of events which develops, whenever time travel is introduced into any narrative.  It requires a lot of careful pinning down, something Miller was either unable or unwilling to do; with the result the first glaring flaw becomes evident almost immediately after the scientist makes his discovery.  For had he even gone back in time five seconds, the chimpanzee would have been back in the chamber with him, yet he awakes to find it still roaming about the lab - almost 24 hours before it had escaped.

One could spend all evening picking the plot holes in this one, but where’s the fun in that?  Ultimately, all that matters is: is it an enjoyable yarn to read? 

And it is.

By Conrad Hill

Minnie’s life appears to be one long battle to keep her house clean; to an extent we would term Obsessive Compulsive Disorder these days.  So hubby Roger is delighted to be offered the ultimate appliance in household cleanliness, The Bushmaster: some African snake-like creature/invention which positively loves to gorge on dust, dirt and general rubbish.

Minnie is less sure about it so promptly sets about the thing with a poker, before discovering to her eternal cost that the Bushmaster’s appetite occasionally strays beyond rubbish.

For hubby, Minnie’s fate, whilst certainly solving one problem merely presents him with a selection of others in its place.

Not really a horror story at all, but a great piece of fun from Conrad Hill during which he takes the opportunity to have a dig at such diverse targets as feminism, the NHS approach to mental ill-health, local council bureaucracy and Western consumerism. 

At almost fifty pages it is a bit of a trek, but the yarn is never less than entertaining due partly to Hill’s decision to interject a number of sexually charged encounters into the narrative: the nightmarish crowded tube train journey, Roger’s attempt to chat up the female taxi driver and his affair with Janice.

The admittedly memorable ending makes no sense at all, but is so perfectly in tune with the off-kilter world that poor Roger has found himself inhabiting, that it is hard to see how things could have turned out any other way.

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