Selected by: Herbert van Thal
First published by Pan Books in 1959 / Reprinted: 2017
THE GHOSTS OF SENSIBILITIES PAST
Having released their first mass-market paperback in 1947 (Ten Stories by Rudyard Kipling), publishing giants Pan are this year celebrating their 70th anniversary with a series of reissues of their most popular and iconic titles. Piquing my interest among the twenty classics receiving a new lease of life was a reprint of the first ever volume of collected horror stories; 22 macabre tales from authors renowned (Bram Stoker, Peter Fleming, C.S. Forester) and unheard of.
Having always been fascinated by the macabre genre and discovering a blossoming love for classic gothic fiction such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde thanks to University reading lists, I very much looked forward to diving into this assortment of delightfully disgusting scary stories from a bygone era. Selected by publisher and agent Herbert van Thal, the stories were largely penned in the late 1950s, although Peter Fleming’s “The Kill” is credited in the permissions as being from as early as 1936!
Sadly, none of these terrifying tales have aged well. A number of the stories come across not as charmingly antiquated but as down-right racist and sexist, with women and other cultures frequently dismissed, belittled and mocked. This can be overlooked in some instances owing to outdated mindsets, but in some cases – such as George Fielding Eliot’s “The Copper Bowl” or Noel Langley’s “Serenade for Baboons” – it is so shockingly distasteful as to be distracting.
The variety of spooks and scares is undeniably admirable, with everything from vicious tales of man’s inhumanity (“Jugged Hare” by Joan Aiken, “Submerged” by A. L. Baker) to fantastical monster movie material (“The Horror in the Museum” by Hazel Heald, “Behind the Yellow Door” by Flavia Richardson) via psychological shockers (“The Psychology of Fear” by C.S. Forester, “Nightmare” by Alan Wykes), supernatural spine-tinglers (“The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark, “Flies” by Anthony Vercoe) and all-out gore-fests (“The House of Horror” by Seabury Quinn, “Raspberry Jam” by Angus Wilson) presented for our ghoulish literary consumption.
However, all the stories share the same flaw in that they are all hideously overwritten. With such small type, even when some stories spread to just 10-20 pages, they became a drudge, bogged down in superfluous padding and excruitiatingly unnecessary detail. It felt to me as though all the authors were trying to prove their literary merit and their skill with prose, yet it came across as though they didn’t know how to efficiently edit! The only story which doesn’t last too long – Chris Massie’s “A Fragment of Fact” – is guilty of the opposite and is so fleeting as to feel unsatisfactorily concluded.
To give the assortment some praise, “Flies” was my favourite story as it felt the most inventive in its concept and scope, whereas a lot of the plots felt too cemented in the traditional A-to-B narrative template which does not allow for any mystery to remain suitably withheld. “Raspberry Jam” ended on a sickeningly gory note, if only it wasn’t mired in such boring domestic squabbles in the lead-up, while Jack Finney’s “The Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” must be applauded for attempting something more comparable to a modern short story, even if it was more a tongue-in-cheek suspense story than an out-and-out horror.
Sadly, elsewhere I was let down, none more so than by Bram Stoker himself! “The Squaw” was by far my most anticipated read, yet despite a promising start with an accidentally murdered kitten and a devilishly determined mother cat frothing with vengeance, the story concluded with a cop-out where gruesome deaths were favoured over a satisfying sting in the tale. That pretty much sums up my fettered feelings about the entire collection, although I am well aware that the series proved popular enough to continue for 29 more volumes, only finishing in 1989. Maybe the best was yet to come?
CR@B’s Claw Score: