The Second Pan Book of Horror Stories, Selected by Herbert van Thal
Published by Pan Books (Pan McMillan) 1960
ISBN: 0 330 10067 X
At the time of writing this we approach Halloween (again) and my thoughts turn to Horror stories for this time of year. Two years ago I reviewed the re-release of the first of these collections. This year I had to raid the vaults of Hobbit Towers for this 52-year-old classic.
There are fifteen stories in the collection, ranging from the classic (from Edgar Allen Poe, HG Wells and Bram Stoker, for example) to the rather unknown these days (Guy Preston, Oscar Cook, Stanley Ellin). There’s also the odd surprise: Agatha Christie and Carl Stephenson.
As you might therefore expect, the collection is eclectic. Some stories have dated badly, whilst other are unfairly forgotten. Some have gained a reputation of class and have, quite rightly, kept it.
The stories, in full, are:
Piece-meal by Oscar Cook;
The Fly by George Langelaan,
The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom,
Pollock and the Porroh Man by HG Wells,
The Inn by Guy Preston,
The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker,
The Speciality of the House by Stanley Ellin,
The Last Séance by Agatha Christie,
The Black Creator by Vernon Routh,
By One, By Two and By Three by Stephen Hall,
Boomerang by Oscar Cook (again),
Our Feathered Friends by Philip Macdonald,
Taboo by Geoffrey Household,
The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe, and
Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson.
Let’s look at these in turn.
Piece-meal is one of those tales told in the bar – a tale of revenge and dismemberment that was probably originally designed to start the collection with a jolt. It reads well but is less shocking today.
These days The Fly is perhaps better known because of its 1958 film starring Vincent Price, or even the more visceral Cronenberg remake (1986) starring Jeff Goldblum. There are slight changes between this story and the film version, but generally it’s a tale that still holds up well. I suspect that this would have been a big attraction to readers for this collection, as the film wasn’t that long ago.
The Vertical Ladder is a story of vertigo experienced as a teenager foolishly takes on a dare. The description of fear felt as our lead character climbs higher and higher is quite vivid, but it ends badly in a rather unambiguous way. The weakest story read at this point.
Pollock and the Porroh Man is a solid, dependable tale from HG. A tale of voodoo from the ‘mysterious’ African continent, this one reflects its rather Imperialist origins, with its talk of ‘blacks’ and ‘half-breeds’. Allowing for this, it is actually quite disturbing and not what many will recognise as a typical HG Wells tale.
The Inn by Guy Preston is, as the title suggests, a haunted house type tale, with creepy, gory goings on in a lonesome inn as told to a doctor. Originally in the Not at Night series, this is quite a tale clearly designed to shock.
The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker was an old favourite, and if I remember right, the first Bram Stoker story I ever read nearly forty years ago. Away from the vampires, it is an effective tale of rats and a grisly haunting in a creepy house. Still recommended.
The Speciality of the House is, like The Inn, one of those tales that hang on a key idea. This time it is a select restaurant, where its selected diners are given no choice for the most excellent of food fare. Though a little predictable I liked this one a lot.
The Last Séance is a tale from ‘The Queen of Crime’, Agatha Christie, better known for her Poirot and Miss Marple tales. This is a ghostly tale of a medium facing what the title suggests. I expected great things here but was sadly disappointed. Histrionic, clichéd, predictable, and really not anything like as impressive as I hoped it would be. The weakest story in the collection, in my opinion.
The Black Creator is another weak story, of a man captive on an island of monsters created by a mad scientist. I struggled though this one.
By One, By Two and By Three is a step back up to form, from an author unknown to me. A tale of friendship, jealousy and possession, which is quite chilling.
Boomerang by Oscar Cook, his second tale, is also quite good. A tale that follows on from Piece-Meal, it shows the ‘complicated’ relationships between two men, a woman and the imaginative use of a rare breed of earwig from Borneo. The language has dated a little, with the woman referred to as ‘a filly’ and the tale reflecting a very old-fashioned view of male-female relationships. Nevertheless, fans of Star Trek: Wrath of Khan will like this one!
Our Feathered Friends by Philip Macdonald is a tale that is about a young couple who, whilst on a day out, visit a wood. A writer better known for his thrillers (he wrote scripts for Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series for a while) this is a solid yet relatively uninspired narrative, with some very bad dialogue. A lesser work from an otherwise often dependable writer.
Geoffrey Household is another author better known for his non-genre fiction, such as the novel Rogue Male. Here, in Taboo, we have a werewolf tale. Typically alpha-male, this one.
Two classics to finish. The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe, is pretty well known. A man driven to drink by his hectoring wife, he hatches a revenge that involves their black cat. Fairly short, yet quite memorable. It is as nasty and as gruesome as you would expect.
Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson is by an author relatively unknown these days. I knew this story because of the film version (Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle, 1954, produced by George Pal) which I saw as a child. The story holds up fairly well – man (Leiningen) is brought to his limits by the relentless invasion of jungle ants on his Brazilian plantation – and despite the lead character being a little two-dimensional, it does create an impression that, like The Fly, humans may not be as supreme on Earth as we might think we are. Some of the scenes where ‘man meets ants’ are quite epic. Not really ‘horror’, but like Porroh Man, a tale designed to show that in some faraway places there are strange things possible.
In summary, there are more hits than misses here. Personal favourites would be The Fly, The Black Cat, and The Judge’s House, all of which are recognised as classics. Almost as good, and much more unknown was By One, By Two and By Three and The Speciality of the House.
For a collection over fifty years old, there’s a lot here to enjoy. Not all the stories are what we would call out-and-out horror these days, but there are some respectable chills and excitement. If not all the stories have stood the test of time, the breadth of stories means that if you don’t like one, the next one will usually be better. Whilst it may not be quite as shocking as it was when first published, it is, on the whole, a satisfying read and one that would be quite appropriate as a Halloween read.
Mark Yon, October 2012