Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The 25th Pan Book of Horror Stories (1984)

By Alan Ryan

A stranger slopes into a bar and offers the proprietor a sample of a drink he is peddling called Baby’s Blood.  The barkeep reluctantly takes a sip, is impressed and agrees to fork out the exorbitant sum for a single bottle.

But what is in the bottle?

The question above is the only note of interest in this off-beat but nevertheless disappointingly dull tale.  Is the beverage actually baby’s blood?  If so, where does the salesman obtain his supply or, if not, then what the heck is the stuff?

And once the rather improbable answer is revealed, the yarn loses any charm it once held.

By Terry Jeeves

Moments after arriving in some unnamed medieval town, a traveller narrowly escapes being murdered by a complete stranger.  Turning the tables he learns his assailant’s sole motive for the act was to aid his search for the fabled Mordred's hidden treasure, which can apparently only be found by “one who has slain another that very night.”

The traveller dispatches his would-be murderer, before setting out to see if he cannot find the horde himself.
That allegedly addictive role-play game Dungeons and Dragons was just getting into its stride in the UK in the early Eighties when this volume was published, and this short episode sort of feels like some lazily thought through game encounter. 

Or perhaps, upon reflection, it more resembles a section from one of those interactive adventure books authors Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston churned out around this time. 

You know the sort:

Having broken through the tunnel wall into the crypt, you find a locked chest over which is draped a skeleton.  Do you:

Explore the rest of the crypt:  Go to page 25
Break open the lock on chest to find out what is locked within: Go to page 88  

There is a certain frisson provided by the accelerated pacing once the hero enters the chamber, but this is the sole redeeming aspect of this mediocre piece of hokum.

By J. I. Crown

Middle-aged bachelor farmer Solie is generally believed to be a rich man, with his fortune hidden somewhere around his tumbledown holding.  Eighteen year-old gypsy temptress Josie would really rather like to get her hands on the cash, so decides marriage to be the best route to access.  But any riches prove stubbornly elusive to her post-matrimonial searching of the house.

When she falls pregnant she decides unearthing the dosh must be expedited by whatever means necessary.
It reminded me a lot of Love on the Farm in Pan24, did this one – but with the gender roles reversed to the more conventional rich older man/impoverished younger girl.  The characters I feel are slightly better written here, particularly Josie with her inner turmoil of “wishing she could love (Solie), just a little."

However, when push comes to shove, she proves to be a pretty ruthless and single-minded individual.

Even after a couple of re-readings though, I could not form a proper picture in my mind’s eye of quite what she was up to with the horses and old chicken run, although it is fairly clear things did not end well for Solie.

Josie’s inevitable comeuppance is also left slightly vague, as we are left wondering if the departed Solie had somehow succeeded in influencing events.

By Norman P. Kaufman

A young man in his mid-twenties is informed by his GP that the abdominal pain he has been enduring is due to the presence of a foetus in foetu; ostensibly a parasitic twin which has begun growing at an alarming rate.  Surgery is the only option, but the patient decrees this will only take place if he can perform it himself!

Somewhat preposterously the medical professionals agree to this, and with the aid of a pair of scalpels, some heavy painkillers and a set of mirrors, our hero, after a touch of understandable reluctance, digs in.

He successfully hacks out his twin and lives happily ever after.

The premise of this one is so off-the-wall one cannot but suspect there is something more subtle going on.  Is it an updating of a biblical parable?  – If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out or some such.

Or even an allegory for some then contemporary event: the excision and destruction of the Gang of Four by the Chinese Communist Party perhaps?  Who knows?

What I do know is that the only sympathetic character is this yarn is the innocent victim of the piece – the narrator’s unfortunate twin.

By Curt Pater

Four youths unable to find employment decide to pay a visit to Mr. Robbins.  For he is man with the reputation of being able “to do impossible things”.

After taking all of the boys’ money he treats them to an apparently sham séance, telling them afterwards that whatever job they concentrated on during the performance will come to them.  Convinced they have just been conned, before leaving two of the youths distract the old boy whilst a third retrieves their money.

But then one by one the boys’ wishes begin to come true, but not quite in the manner they had hoped nor expected.

Another Careful-what-You-wish-for yarn this one with elements of the Pan7 entries The Monkey’s Paw and The Island of Regrets .  Although the lighter touch Pater brings to proceedings put me more in mind of the Pete and Dud film Bedazzled.

It was a reasonably entertaining tale for all that, and represented a marked improvement on the poor fare served up by this volume thus far.  Although I did find the business of the red-eyed familiar or demon or whatever a touch unsatisfactory.  It’s implied involvement in making the wishes of the first two youths come true appeared a touch haphazard at best.  

And quite how it was going to help the youth in the final paragraph get into the knickers of his female workmate remained a real puzzle.

By Alan W. Lear

Paul and Pat Ashover are renting an old house near Edinburgh whilst Paul researches a TV documentary on witchcraft he is producing.  Whilst her husband is away Pat finds her libido slipping into overdrive, so finds release in the arms of the local odd job man – a chap with some decidedly odd sexual proclivities.

Their cottage, by coincidence, apparently was once the home of a pair of 17th Century siblings Robert and Grizell Bell who had been burned as witches, after confessing to all manner of depraved practices.  Pat, confused by her own untypically rampant sexuality, begins to believe she is possessed by the spirit of Grizell Bell, and her lover similarly so by brother Robert, so murders him with blows to the head.

But then Pat’s seven year-old daughter comes in from the garden with her young playmate, and Pat soon learns she has made a dreadful mistake.

Bertie (or was it perhaps, Clarence) was certainly sailing rather close to the wind when he chose to include this tale in Pan25.  For that final scene where the two children sexually abuse Pat must come very near to the limits of what is regarded as legally acceptable prose, both today and back in 1984. 

The saving grace may be the fact the children’s bodies have both been taken over by the pair of long-dead witches and, somewhat preposterously, appear to have sprouted adult genitalia, but nevertheless “Naughty” certainly makes for a disturbing and uncomfortable read.

By Christina Kiplinger

Arthur spends his night working as a cemetery security guard, and his days watching his embalmer friend Mr. Bond prettify the dead.  He therefore has ample opportunity to identify and exhume the recipients of his necrophiliac attentions.  He does, at least, have the good grace to take them to dinner first.

During a number of stories in earlier volumes of the series, we enjoyed close calls with necrophilia.  But with this one we are presented with The Full Monty, so to speak.  And, other than allowing Bertie/Clarence to finally tick that box, I see little merit in this pointless two-pager.

By Alan Ryan

In the forests of upstate New York in the late 17th Century, a hunter discovers a naked young girl who, after ascertaining she does not belong to any of the local Indian tribes, he takes in and cares for.  Some weeks later, after seeing the hunter’s wife behead a chicken, the girl leaves the couple, compelled by a desire for blood.

I had great difficulty writing much about this one, as many aspects of the narrative are left deliberately (one might almost say wilfully) vague by the author.  

The best I could come up with is that the narrator is some elemental being – a vampire perhaps – recalling it's first few weeks of conscious existence three hundred years earlier, before rather fondly relating the moment it divined its own true nature.

It is all rather unsatisfying, although I did rather like the oblique James Fennimore Cooper reference.

By Ian C. Strachan (or Ian C. Straghan as my edition misspells him)

A trainee architect is sent by his firm down from London to rectify a snafu in a land development project.  Work has apparently ground to a halt as no-one can trace the owner of a large old house due to be demolished.  Poking around inside the place the architect finds one room full of antiquarian books on the occult, and a second securely sealed by a hefty padlock.

After having rather too much to drink at the local pub one evening where he hears from the local yokels how the place had “a bit of a bad name”, he drunkenly breaks into the property and decides to crowbar the padlock.  Once inside the room he finds an altar, a blood-stained silver bowl and a full-length mirror curiously free from the dust which covers the rest of the house………

As with Tom Cunniff’s The Twisted Ash in Pan24, the clammy hand of M.R. James can clearly be felt at play here.  For the narrator fits the James' archetype of the studious academic (in this case a trainee architect studying for exams) unearthing and investigating some creepy artefacts from the past which are still able to impact upon the present.  And a rather decent yarn James and Strachan have forged together, I have to say.  

Some of the prose does jar a touch, drifting as it does rather too closely into cliché:

“I knew instinctively that if I was seized by those thin hands, not only would I die, but I would be condemned to eternal damnation.”

And how does our hero know this?

“I do not know how I knew this; it was a certainty in my mind, as one knows that fire burns."

Plus, I also felt, in these more permissive times, the author could have treated us to a few details about the illustrations encountered in one of the books, after whetting our appetite with:

“the most repugnant and frightening woodcuts it is possible to imagine.”

M.R. James would at least I feel have given us a clue.

By Stephen King

Lester Billings’ three children all died in their infancy.  The authorities have concluded they passed away from natural causes, but Billings believes otherwise and has decided to open up to psychiatrist Dr Harper.

As with Pan21, this volume contains a brace of already well-known (and presumably well-read) stories by Stephen King.  Quite why, I am unsure, although I note Pan took the steps to ensure no-one missed the fact, by adding the line “FEATURING STEPHEN KING’S The Boogeyman” across the front cover and having a quote from the tale monopolise the rear.

It is a typical enough early King offering, him placing an ordinary joe in an extraordinary situation.  Although whereas King generally has a real gift for developing likeable characters, Billings is painted a cowardly thug - not above subjecting his family to the occasional “whack” or “slap”.

King does rather dexterously lead us into suspecting Billings to be a paranoid schizophrenic and the perpetrator of the killings; note how the author takes care to place Billings in situ to provide him with opportunity on each occasion.  But then the good Stephen chooses to inject a dollop of pulp into proceedings to produce, what I feel to be, an characteristically unsatisfactory ending. 

By Alan Ryan

Little Robbie has an imaginary friend who not only chats to him, but can show him visions of what is happening elsewhere.  Including, what daddy is doing during his night-shifts as a fireman. 

Within the realm of The Pantheon things rarely end well when children develop imaginary friends.  And so it proves here – although we are left to ponder if the ethereal Eric influenced events or just represented them.

By Carl Shiffman

Serial squatters Kevin and Marjorie cannot quite believe their good fortune at their latest find; a fully furnished cottage situated in a pleasant Suffolk village.  The place may be a touch damp and smell of decomposing fish, but the pair can live with that.  They are, however, less sure about the wet footprints which persistently appear on the floor next to a window which keeps opening itself.

A quality ghost story this one, with the moral being that taking heed of the yarns told by old chaps in village pubs can sometimes be a worthwhile thing.

By Stephen King

A man visiting his mother dying of cancer in hospital wrestles with the possibility of killing her with an overdose of painkillers.

I have long asserted to anyone who would listen that Stephen King’s best work may be found in those instances where he steers clear of the supernatural, and sticks to the real horrors of the world.  For me the likes of The Body, Dolores Claiborne, and The Reach are far superior reads to the vampires/aliens/monster-ridden yarns he is better known for.  And in the same way, although The Boogeyman may burn itself deeper into the memories of many readers, "Woman" is a vastly more enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of writing.

King’s own mother died of cancer, and there are sufficient other similarities in circumstances for this tale to be considered at least semi-autobiographical, and it was probably written by the author as a way of dealing with his own inner turmoil at the time.

By Barbara-Jane Crossley

Melvin de Ryan is a highly successful fashion designer, looking to expand his already extensive London-based empire.  Whilst in the process of setting up his first Scottish store he meets Tania, a highly talented designer in her own right.  Melvin is both impressed by her work and captivated by her beauty, and a business partnership and a marriage are swiftly forged.

But on the wedding night he discovers that the nickname the gossip columnists have given to Tania – The Black Widow - is rather more apt than they or the unfortunate Melvin dreamt.

Rather weak gruel to close out The Pantheon’s quarter-century here.  The narrative is entertaining enough I suppose in an I-wonder-how-this-is-all-going-to-turn-out sort of way, but once the wedding-night post-coital shenanigans begin, it all just gets a bit silly.

The problem really is that Melvin and Tania are each painted as such perfect, talented and successful characters we do not care much for either.  They are equally two-dimensional and hence disposable so, when it becomes apparent proceedings are not going to end well for one of them, which one we do not really mind.

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