The Mask and Other Stories
By Herbert Van Thal
Published by Noose and Gibbet, 2011
Johnny Mains is well known for his work in unearthing the history of the horror genre and in particular the Pan Book of Horror Stories and it’s long standing editor, Herbert Van Thal. It was during some research for Back From The Dead that Mains uncovered a little known collection of stories authored by Van Thal himself, Child Performer. This collection restores those treasures to there rightful place in the bookshelf but was Van Thal’s writing as good as his editing…?
First story, The Mask tells of a young girl who cares for an old woman in a grand old house. The old woman, a former star, is now sustained by a mask but the girl feels trapped in the decaying house. It’s a beautifully written tale full of somber poetic writing and emotional impact as the girl seeks freedom from her burdens.
The next two stories are Variations on a Theme and feature the character of Hugh Brandon-Weber a man emotionally traumatised by his wife leaving him, having first accused him of being boring. It’s clear that he still loves her and is very much the victim in both these stories but they both expose weaknesses of character which soon cause the reader to lose sympathy.
In Child Performer he seeks solace in the theatre where he can escape his troubles. It’s at one of these shows that he first sees Baby Helen and this is where things get complicated and decidedly odd. He becomes infatuated with the child, imagining her as a substitute for the child he and his wife never had, but there is no getting away from the fact that his infatuation threatens to cross a very dangerous line.
Another line is firmly crossed in Summer Idyll where the same character meets a beautiful young country girl who, again, he sees as a substitute for his wife. What starts as an innocent bit of fun soon turns nasty and the phrases “he regretted he had spoiled her” and ” the girl was left crumpled and disordered and gently crying” leave the reader in little doubt about what happens. Of course, Van Thal punishes his character for both indiscretions but they still make for uncomfortable reading as the beautiful descriptive writing contrasts with the dark underbelly of the main character.
Relief is at hand in the form of The Old Lady Makes A Cup of Tea a farcical comedy which sees Captain Reginald Parker trying to escape the city and his so called “friends” by buying a country house and not telling anyone. His friends turn the table though, in what is an unexpectedly funny story.
Finally the essay Recipe For Reading was written by Van Thal to his godsons as an intended reading list. It’s interesting and illuminating to read Van Thal’s views on literature and helps lovers of his editorial work understand his own tastes. What is perhaps most surprising is his avoidance of most horror. Only Sheridan Le Fanu gets a mention but whether this is more to do with the intended audience or a genuine reflection of Van Thals’s tastes is not clear.
This is a collection which has worth as an historical document but that’s not to dismiss the quality of the writing. Certainly The Mask is an excellent story, touching, sentimental with rich textured prose. That same quality of prose does come through in the other stories but is offset, as I said, by the unsettling subject matter. The horror equivalent of finding a lost Beatle album, this is an important and interesting collection and once more the horror community owes a debt of gratitude to Johnny Mains for bringing it to our attention.