Edited by Herbert Van Thal
Published by Pan Books, 2010
Things were pretty grim in December, 1959 in Britain. The charts saw the likes of Adam Faith being knocked off the top spot by Emile Ford and the Checkmates with What Do You Want To make These Eyes At Me For (tragically later resurrected by Shakin’ (shaky) Stevens). The Vietnam war was just starting and the cold war was heating up but amidst the winter gloom there were some bright spots. The Twilight Zone debuted in the USA in October, Ben Hur was taking the film world by storm and in a back office in London, Herbert Van Thal was about to change the history of horror literature.
That last event was of course the publication of the first volume of the most important British horror anthology ever created, The Pan Book Of Horrors. A series which ran nearly as long as the cold war eventually fading away with the Van Thal name in 1989. It is testimony to the series importance that it is now back in all its glory, scary black cat and all. Of course the series was honoured earlier this year with Back From the Dead, The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories edited by Johnny Mains which saw five of the classic originals reprinted along with a superb selection of new stories by some of the original contributors. All that whetted the appetite but other than some creased, yellowing, dingy, second hand copy the pleasure of reading the full blown original has been denied to modern readers, now all that has changed.
Johnny Mains is once again at the helm and the whole horror community owes him a great debt for the sterling effort he has put in to get the series back on the shelves. Johnny also contributes an excellent essay on the history of the series. But what of the stories, have they stood the test of time, should they still be read in daylight “lest you should suffer nightmares”? Let’s find out.
The first thing to note is the sheer variety of styles on offer here, from the country house tale to revenge, crime and supernatural horror. There may be less sex and swearing than in a more modern anthology but otherwise there is everything else you might expect. For me the richest most powerful tales are those which achieve that strange weirdness, that indefinable otherness which unsettles the reader.
Some of my favourites include Submerged by A.L. Barker where a strange young boy, used to wild swimming alone, has a very creepy encounter. The Horror In The Museum by Hazel Heald brings a Lovecraftian nightmare to a wax museum. Both Hamilton Macallister with The Lady Who Didn’t Waste Words and Chris Massie with A Fragment of Fact bring to life more strange encounters with people and places.
The stars of the show for me are an excellent trilogy found towards the end of the book. Bram Stoker’s The Squaw features the black cat from the cover in all its gory, glory. Anthony Vercoe’s Flies is full of strange unsettling and chilling scenes but it is Angus Wilson’s Raspberry Jam which steals the show. This slow burning tale of the psychological troubles of young Johnny and the adults who surround him bursts into life with a shocking, visceral climax that shows masterful pacing and characterisation.
Sure there are a couple that don’t quite work for me, C.S Forester’s, The Physiology Of Fear, was a nice idea poorly executed whilst the pseudo Poirot/Holmes character in Seabury Quinn’s The House of Horror detracted from some otherwise nice scenes. Overall though the quality of the 22 stories on offer is excellent. Most have stood the test of time well and some have matured into excellent pieces.
The critics of the series would tell you that these books were shoddily written gorefests, simplistic tales for simplistic readers. This book completely refutes that and stands as an excellent testimony to the breadth, depth and creativity of the horror genre. Here’s hoping this reissue is a success and that Pan go on to reprint others in the series…oh and a few new volumes wouldn’t go amiss either. For more information try here or the Pan Macmillan site here.