The Pan Book of Horror Stories by Herbert van Thal
The Pan Book of Horror Stories
Published by Pan Macmillan, October 2010 (Review copy received)
Originally published by Pan Books, 1959.
ISBN: 978 0 330 51868 0
Review by Mark Yon
Let me tell you of a dirty little secret, reissued from the UK’s pulp past. This book is a glorious reissue of the first in a series of thirty horror books that delimited and defined many a British horror reader for over twenty-five years.
On its original issue it was seen as something garish and unpleasant, its horrific tales too gruesome and unsettling for many. When you ask many of the present day genre writers – Stephen Jones, Clive Barker, Mark Morris, Phillip Pullman – it is this series they remember that affected them when younger.
So: in this reissue, with a new introduction by Johnny Mains, we have a new edition of a book that otherwise stays the same, even down to the original cover of a black cat’s face on a black background (related to the Bram Stoker tale in the book) and the 3’6 price label in the bottom right corner of the cover.
We have twenty-two tales, from some familiar names – as well as the aforementioned Bram Stoker, there’s also Jack Finney, Nigel Kneale, C.S. Forester, and Seabury Quinn – to others which are less so these days – Hester Holland, L.P. Hartley, Hamilton Macallister, anyone?
Though the names may not necessarily be familiar, titles like ‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets’ (Jack Finney), ‘The Library’ (Hester Holland) and ‘The Horror in the Museum’ (Hazel Heald) pretty much tell you what to expect. Some have been reprinted through the years – Bram Stoker’s’ The Squaw’, for example, though this is one of his lesser known tales (and involves no vampires!)– and yet there are many other near-unknown tales that deserve a revivification. In fact, it is the fact that many of these are less known that made this a treat for me.
As perhaps you might expect from a British book of the 1950’s, it often reads with that British sense of the stiff upper lip, of facing adversity under pressure, intermingled with a feeling of distress and tension, though it must be said that not all are British. (There are two stories reprinted by permission from the great Arkham House, for example, which give a decidedly Weird Tales feel to parts of the collection.) And yet there is that thing that can only really be described as a sense of unease. Although there is, unlike other books later in the series, no profanity, comparatively little grue and a surprisingly substantial amount of psychological subtlety, there are scenes of torture, gross awfulness and violence. We also have adultery, jealousy and the odd bit of nastiness. Though time may have diluted the chills a little, it is a wonderfully nostalgic read.
Two things struck me most on rereading. The first is that how important the settings are. Many are quintessentially English, from gloomy rooms and desolate buildings and the back streets of London to the quiet country lanes and softly flowing little rivers, all are here. It is these quietly beautiful and imposing environs that accentuate the weirdness within, and this makes the tales eerily effective.
Secondly, it was also surprising to find that many of the stories still hold up after all this time. Particular favourites of mine were Nigel Kneale’s Oh, Mirror, Mirror, until recently very hard to get hold of, and Oscar Cook’s His Beautiful Hands, a grisly tale of decaying flesh. In a similar way, C.S. Forster’s The Physiology of Fear has a 1950’s take on the Nazi concentration camps that fuses both horror and guilt. By contrast, Angus Wilson’s Strawberry Jam is unsettlingly icky. It was great to read one of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin tales again, in The House of Horror, though it is clear that some aspects of the character and culture have dated – the funnily translated phrases from French into English, the use of the term negro as acceptable. Despite this, this is an undervalued and near-forgotten series that deserves a wider reading.
On the other hand, there are exceptions that have dated quite badly: George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl is a derring-do tale of Chinese torture that reads like a bad pulp tale of the 1930’s. Had it not been for the unforgettable portrayal of a rat, burrowing beneath the skin of a torture victim, this one would not have been memorable at all. Similarly, Muriel Spark’s tale The Portobello Road involves the word ‘nig’. Though it can be argued that these tales were a product of their time, and the tale is partly set in South Africa, contemporary readers may find such parlance shocking, in a way different to that originally intended.
On the whole though, there are more hits than misses. There are tales that unsettle (LP Hartley’s W.S.), tales that make you look at normal things in a different way and tales that are just a little messy.
If you fancy reading the origins of a series that became influential, if you appreciate a gently delicious shudder on an autumnal evening, then this is a great read. Recommended perhaps for that Halloween read.
Mark Yon, September 2010.
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