Friday, 5 March 2021

The 12th Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories

By Bryn Fortey

Prospective Welsh international second row forward David Morgan, has, at the behest of his lover Jayne, just murdered her abusive husband.

Except he hasn't.

For he has been tricked by Jayne into killing her elderly uncle instead, so she and her (still extant) husband may inherit the old man's dosh.  The final part of the plan is for hubby to shoot David in apparent self-defence.  But this bit goes awry, for Morgan is able to wrestle the gun from him, and kill the duplicitous pair.

He then picks up the gun and blows his own brains out.

Except he doesn't.

For, the next thing Morgan knows, he is back in the club where he first met Jayne four months earlier.  Clearly god has given him a second chance, to do things right this time around.

Except he hasn't.

A neat twist on the Personal Hell concept, this one.  I could think of worse though.  For at least Morgan gets to shag Jayne, then snap the neck of her obnoxious hubby for the whole of eternity.  But I rather enjoyed this tale for all that.  

The only weak part in the narrative was the ease with which Morgan took the gun from Jayne's husband.  As I was reading that scene, Tuco's advice came unbidden into my head:

"When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don't talk".

By Dorothy K. Haynes

Hard-up couple Jack and Mamie are off on their first break in years - a budget weekend bus trip to sample the delights of Blackpool.  Mamie fancies the Tower and the Pleasure Beach, but scared-of-heights hubby appears more keen on necking beer and whisky in one of the local pubs.

Until he gets so drunk, he decides to take a trip on the "red train" with its promise of a brief stop at the top of the ride, where the bravest can step out onto a tiny platform, and be crowned King of the Fair.

Whereupon Mamie learns that not everything that goes up, comes back down.

Some typically puzzling fare from Dorothy K. Haynes here.  So much so, that I am inclined to believe the most simplest solution is the correct one.  That Jack, flush with his £50 bingo winnings, has basically dumped dowdy little Mamie and headed off for pastures new.

By Bram Stoker

The English families of Delandre and Brent, although for some years in decline, have nevertheless over the years provided the locals with their fair share of scandal to gossip over.

None more so, than when Margaret Delandre, having fallen out with her brother Wykeham, moved into Brent's Rock with that all round cad Geoffrey Brent.  Not even bothering with the pretence of matrimony.

Whilst the pair are holidaying in Switzerland, their carriage tumbles over a steep gorge taking Margaret with it.  Geoffrey, having been leading the horses, is saved from the fall.

Within a year, Geoffrey has installed the new Mrs. Brent in Brent's Rock, and all seems well.

But then Wykeham is visited one night by his long presumed dead sister, who "with distorted features and burning eyes seemed hardly human".  She is on her way to Brent's Rock to seek revenge upon the man who had attempted to kill her.  

But the noisy opening of a window lock alerts Geoffrey to her arrival.  

Stoker's leaden prose can be a bit of a struggle to wade through at times, but this tale of mutual hatred, murder and revenge just about works.

We never learn exactly what Margaret's plan had been, before she get herself killed and interred in the fireplace.  But at this point Stoker brings the supernatural, which had been markedly absent from the tale thus far, into play.  And Margaret finally wreaks her revenge, post mortem, as it were.

Perhaps that had been her tactic all along?

By Margaret Irwin

It has been agreed that the ancient French houses of St Aignan and Riennes should be united by marriage.  So twenty-four year old Monsieur St Aignan has been packed off to the Chateau de Riennes in the Jura Mountains, to make his choice from the three daughters of the house.

In the young man's words, the eldest, Mademoiselle de Riennes "has the most sense", middle sister Marie "is the prettiest", whilst the youngest of the three, Claude possesses eyes which "revealed a deeper knowledge of evil, which is what we generally mean by knowledge of life, than was sounded in all my experience as a traveled man of fashion".

She can also, it seems, turn herself into a white cat.

Which would you choose?

A slightly overlong tale of manners and satanism set in a remote French country estate.  It was a tolerably diverting read, even if on a couple of occasions I found myself silently entreating the author to "Get on with it".

By Theodore Sturgeon

Slim Walsh is a curious fellow.  By that I mean inquisitive, rather than peculiar (although he is that too).

As he has an aptitude for breaking and entering, he decides to entertain himself by learning all he can about his fellow boarding house neighbours, by the simple expedient of poking about their bedrooms when they are at work.

Lots of moderately interesting titbits does he unearth.  But nothing quite as intriguing as what he discovers about Celia Sarton, a young woman on the floor below.

For her room, he discovers, is totally free from spare clothes, toiletries, cosmetics and the like.  Completely devoid of any personal items in fact, save a suitcase containing a banded ream of writing paper.

"Nobody lives like that!", thinks Slim.

What a superb short story! 

I really am torn between writing loads about this one, effusively extolling its virtues.....and shutting up, lest I spoil the fun for any other first-time reader.

In the narrative there is some puzzling weirdness which must be investigated, and a resolution which does not disappoint, but the real strength lies in Sturgeon's prose.  For it really is a joy to read.

Early on we learn:

"Slim isn't dishonest, his mother used to tell Children's Court some years back. He is just curious".

and, later, upon inspecting Celia's bed on his first visit to her room, Slim ponders:

"Maybe she had slept in it, but very possibly not; Mrs Koyper specialized in unironed sheets of such a ground-in grey that it wasn't easy to tell."

I really could quote dozens of similarly witty passages.

The tale, although ostensibly a horror story, is really an exploration of the fact we know so little about the people around us, and what occurs in the privacy of their own homes.

And we discover what is going on here, quite literally, through Slim's eyes.  And yet, despite the fact his methods are both highly immoral and illegal, they don't feel so.  There is no salacious voyeurism going on.  

Slim is just, well, curious.

By Charles Thornton

Alf and Ada Clark run themselves a very successful cafe, and are confident that they will soon be able to sell up and buy a seaside boarding house.

But one day Ada, always a large lady, has a fall which causes her to permanently lose the use of both legs.

The quality of Ada's cooking was really what drew the customers in and , when her replacement does not cut the mustard, business dwindles.  With debts rising, and the Margate boarding house looking more and more unlikely, Ada decides upon drastic action.

Perhaps not quite to everyone's taste this one, but I certainly enjoyed it.  I found I rather liked Alf and Ada, and would have loved to have seen them their get their B&B.
Although, their financial fall from grace, from "another twelve months we'll be able to buy that boarding house in Margate outright - never mind about a mortgage" to "They were quickly going broke" did appear inordinately swift. 

By Dino Buzzati

Successful timber merchant Schroder is feeling a touch under the weather, so requests Dr. Lugosi to call.  The doc assures his patient there is "nothing seriously wrong", but takes away a specimen (of urine, we assume) nevertheless.

He returns the following morning with a pistol-toting local sheriff, and a diagnosis.

The real horror here is not the fate which befalls Schroder - for he is so lightly painted, the reader has little opportunity or cause to invest in him - but the fact such social ostracism was the norm in Europe for many centuries.

Leprosy had such a dreadful reputation, with all manner of stigma attached, that horror writers loved to use it as a plot device back in the day.

But in reality, the disease is very difficult to catch, and would almost certainly not have been passed to Schroder following his brief contact.  Even if he had somehow contracted the bacterium, the incubation period before even the mildest of symptoms (areas of skin numbness) are noted, is generally over five years.

And there is no diagnostic urine test for the disease.

In fact, it is now believed the vast majority of those historical cases of leprosy, were actually untreated syphilis.  

By Kay Leith

Dragging herself home shopping-laden, after a long night shift, Hilary is stopped by a desperate sounding chap, asking for directions to a street she knows does not exist.

But he will not take no for an answer, and Hilary, already tired and short tempered, becomes angry at the man, hurling her groceries at him when he will not stop following her.

Suddenly she finds herself in a street she does not recognise.

Science Fiction, I suppose is the bag this one really belongs in.  As it features some unusual dimension-slip construct, whereby an individual who has found themselves locked in the wrong dimension can initiate a return to their own, by making someone lose their temper.  

In doing so, both parties are then transferred across the divide.  And the co-transportee has then to attempt to work out how to jump back, knowing they will drag an (angered) alien back with them.

An original enough concept, and one which works well within the context of the story.  My only gripe with the narrative, is the speed with which Hilary was able to work it all out.

It would probably have taken me years.

By W. W. Jacobs

Jem Benson is engaged to be married to the delectable and much in demand Olive.  But there is a tiny fly in the ointment: his profligate ne'er-do-well cousin Wilfred, who has come into possession of some rather racy letters Jem had written to a former lover.

Wilfred also happens to be £1500 in debt, so naturally feels a mutually beneficial arrangement could be agreed.  Jem takes a more prosaic approach to dealing with the issue, and (probably) tosses his cousin down a disused well.

All is going well (ha ha), until Olive drops an expensive piece of jewelry down the hole, and insists Jem retrieve it one way or another.  

So down into the well on a rope he goes.

Two questions here for the reader to ponder: the first being did Jem actually kill Wilfred?

We are never explicitly told he did, although much of the text suggests so.  He is seen hurrying back across the gardens after Wilfred had left the house, telling his mother "I don't think we will be seeing him again".  

And he certainly turns a whiter shade of pale when Olive suggests the well may have to be drained in order to recover her bracelet.

But I do feel, for a murderer, he does appear rather blasé about taking his fiancée to the murder scene - if it is a murder scene.

The second question is: did the corpse of Wilfred in some way reanimate and wrap itself around the rope holding Jem?  All that confused tugging and jerking on the rope when Jem is in the water, would suggest some sort of frantic struggle is going on.

Although, had Jem been the murderer, he could hardly have been surprised into a flap by finding the corpse down there.

All in all, a typical selection of Jacobs' ambiguities which adds rather than detracts from the power of the story.

By Terry Tapp

A horde of large, hungry "ant things" have come out of the desert, looking for "the promised land".

First stop is Seth Kenyon's farm, which he shares with his wife and daughter.

The Pan collection housed a couple of ant invasion stories (three if you count Not Enough Poison, which I do not).  Leiningen Versus the Ants in Pan2 was just wonderful, whilst Revolt of the Ant People in Pan16 was just nonsense.

This one kinda fits in between the two.  It is well-written, with believable dialogue.  But we don't really get sufficient characterisation of any of the three cast members to care terribly much whether they live or die.

I did rather like the way, though, that the author jumped from Seth's assertion "We beat 'em" to the desolate scene the following morning, leaving the intervening carnage to the reader's imagination.

Although, had Seth owned a copy of The Second Pan Book of Horror Stories, and had read of Leiningen's travails, he would have realised putting up a single water obstacle wasn't going to slow down the ants for too long.

By L. A. Lewis

Chalmers has been haunted by an ill-defined fear of the dark since a child, believing he was some sort of a warlock burnt at the stake in a previous life.  He was, for a time, also convinced he was being haunted by a huge bird/man creature, which made a habit of perching on his chest of a night.

Things appeared to have settled down following his marriage, but one evening he rapes his wife, and promptly begins hopping around the house bird fashion.

His wife calls in the aid of former friend of Chalmers, who is a doctor.  Meanwhile her pregnancy, dating back to the rape, progresses.

Well, what an unusual, and yet endlessly entertaining, tale this one is.

It begins like one of those run-of-the-mill between-the-wars, English upper-class yarns - witness the narrator refer to his family as the "old people", and his father as "The governer", "the old man" and most anachronistically, "the Pater".  

The author just about keeps a lid on the bird business silliness in the first half of the narrative, but once Chalmers' wife brings the doctor into things, it is often difficult to keep a straight face reading some of the text.

"I noted that Chalmers' face was heavily coated with cream and talcum powder so that he looked unpleasantly like a sex pervert." the doctor notes at one point.

Chalmers responds that the creature (which he believes has taken over his body):

"imitates me in every little thing I do.  It uses my safety razor - only it has to use remove not hair, but feathers.  I suppose it puts on the cream and talcum to hide the quills".

I have to assume the author had drifted into tongue-in-cheek parody by this point, particularly when we reach that grin-inducing final-line plucking joke.

By Hal Pink

Barker, "a botanist of repute", claims to his friend (the narrator) that he has obtained the seed of a mandrake plant.

So, he sets about tweaking the steam boiler in his cellar to provide the "colossal...moist heat" required to allow the plant to germinate and grow.  And grow it most assuredly does, enjoying a particularly impressive growth spurt after killing Barker's cat and draining it of its blood.

Now man-sized, the plant turns its thirsty attentions to Barker himself.

Since J.K. Rowling dragged the mandrake plant kicking and screaming (ha ha) into the mainstream, most folks probably know at least a bit about these odd plants nowadays.  But I guess there must have been a time when they were regarded with superstitious awe.

Their root structure certainly can look remarkably humanoid, but I rather think much of the folklore which grew up around the plant related more to the hallucinogenic properties of its leaves, than anything else.

Perhaps the narrator and Barker's final encounter with the plant in the latter cellar was just that.  An hallucination?

By Mary Danby

16-year old Sir William Porter-Grant may have inherited his father's title, but he got none of the "twinkling warmth" which characterised his late father.  For William is an obnoxious, self-entitled snob, who bullies his mother mercilessly.

After seeing William humiliate her at an antiques fair, a stall holder calls the boy across, and attempts to interest him in buying a puppet theatre, complete with puppets.

"What do I want with a puppet theatre?", William scoffs.

But these are no ordinary puppets - these are Engelmayer Puppets.

A delightfully satisfying revenge tale this one, as Mary Danby draws us a totally believable picture of a spoilt aristocratic brat, before bringing him crashing down in a particularly apposite manner.

I would have perhaps liked to have learned a bit more about the antique seller, von Bick, who sold William the theatre, for he really sounded an intriguing individual.