Friday, 15 October 2010

‘The Pan Book of Horror Stories’ – Herbert Van Thal (Pan Macmillan)

I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t be the case today but when I was a child at primary school, the shelves were covered with books that I’m sure a teacher today wouldn’t let an eight or nine year old anywhere near. Maybe it was just my school, I don’t know, but I’m not complaining though; I had a lot of fun trawling my way through some great reads.

This time round, I’m talking specifically about the ‘Pan’ and ‘Fontana’ horror series; books with the most lurid covers and stories to match inside. I only had myself to blame but at least three quarters of the nightmares that I had as a child came from reading these books and staring at covers festooned with rotting corpses, evil looking ghosts and monsters peering out from pools of raw slime. I couldn’t stop reading these books, wouldn’t stop in fact. As a particularly bloodthirsty child, I just couldn’t get enough of these books!
Fast forward far too many years to about a fortnight ago when the reissued edition of the very first ‘Pan Book of Horror Stories’ came through the door. Once again, I was nine years old and eager to get my hands on a book crammed full of fear! My adult self was a little more cautious though. Would what I found scary, as a child, stand the test of time? There was only one way to find out...

For me, ‘The Pan Book of Horror Stories’ is a testament to the fact that not everything can stand the test of time. It’s not the book’s fault; it’s simply that the things that used to freak me out as a kid don’t have the same affect anymore. That’s not to say that those same stories won’t freak you out though, there’s a little something here for everyone.

Take the opening story for example. Joan Aiken’s ‘Jugged Hare’ is a tale of a wronged husband that totally left me cold, no matter the fact that he was completely insane. While it may have had an impact back in the day, I felt that this was lessened by the fact that I’ve seen this kind of drama play out in any number of mediums. It’s not horrifying anymore, it’s almost commonplace. It was the same kind of deal with A.L. Barker’s ‘Submerged’. The drama that plays out here can be seen as horrifying in the eyes of the youthful lead but not as far as I was concerned. He might not have been able to see it coming but I certainly did and that pretty much killed it for me.
Bram Stoker’s ‘The Squaw’ also left me feeling cold. As powerful as the ending was (and it did make me jump) I couldn’t help feeling that it came about through a matter of circumstance rather than through the obsession of the protagonist as Stoker wanted us to believe. While the vagaries of fate can be horrifying at times, the shift of focus led to a story that came across as a little confused and it was that impression that stayed with me after I had finished reading.

These stories (along with a couple of others) would have scared the life out of me as a child not really conversant with the notion of death, let alone violent death. These days, death isn’t so much a horror as it is a certainty and so stories like these lose a little of their weight...

That’s not to say that all of the stories in the book failed to hit the mark, far from it. Ghost and horror stories still have that capacity to scare me when they fully embrace the notion that there is evil lurking just beyond the corner of your eye, ready to drag you straight to Hell... Any tale that really captures the essence of insanity is a sure fire winner as well. ‘The Pan Book of Horror Stories’ has plenty of these kind of tales if that’s what you’re after.

Hazel Heald’s ‘The Horror in the Museum’ makes no bones whatsoever about its debt to H.P. Lovecraft but totally succeeds in capturing that creeping dread behind the knowledge that life outside our dimension has its avaricious eye on us. This story in particular was a real stand out read for me. Anthony Vercoe’s ‘Flies’ was more of the same. We don’t know why the lead character has found himself in this situation and that makes what he has to face even more horrifying, especially when he must face the consequences of seemingly innocent choices... Same deal with Noel Langley’s ‘Serenade for Baboons’, we’re asked to accept the inexplicable on its own terms and this heightens the eventual horror of its ending.

What the ‘Pan Book of Horror Stories’ does do very well, in most of its entries, is to highlight the utter horror of insanity by placing it in direct contrast to placid suburbs and gentle rural landscapes. ‘Raspberry Jam’ isn’t so much horrifying in its climatic scenes as it is in the treatment of two old ladies driven to despair by the other villagers. Seabury Quinn’s ‘The House of Horror’ and Flavia Richardson’s ‘Behind the Yellow Door’ do very much the same thing; hiding obsessive mania because a mask of normality, drawing the reader in before shocking them with what has been hidden away...

‘The Pan Book of Horror Stories’ was rather a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, it was a timely reminder that life moves on and some of the things what scared me in my youth left me feeling little more than non-plussed now. On the other hand, there were more than enough chills left over to make me pause for a split second before turning off the bedroom light... There’s enough variety here to make this an almost essential read for Halloween.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

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