Horror armchair reading not for the faint-hearted

2011-01-19 00:00

FIRST published in 1959, The Pan Book of Horror Stories kick started a publishing phenomenon that saw successive volumes published every year until 1989 — a total of 30 in all.

Much of the book’s success was attributed to the selection skills of its editor­ Herbert van Thal “a prolific anthologist­ and biographer whose breadth of work in the horror genre is impressive”, according to horror story writer Johnny Mains in his foreword to this facsimile reprint bearing the original cover.

Van Thal’s own 1959 introductory note poses the question “why do we like reading about torture, sadistic monsters, cruel people? Why do we like frightening ourselves by reading about events which we never hope to see, let alone participate in?” While not convinced we all share Van Thal’s taste in reading I’ll buy his conclusion that it’s because we like “being taken out of ourselves” and that while “sitting in our (we hope) comfortable armchairs” we can enjoy our guilty pleasures at a safe distance.

Armchairs seem to be obligatory for reading horror stories as well as their close relative the ghost story. As opposed to the latter form the horror tale needn’t have supernatural elements, although they are permitted; the main purpose is to deliver a tale so horrible that it leaves the reader unsettled, even revolted.

In this first Pan collection Van Thal culled stories from earlier an- thologies, a pattern he followed for a while in the later books before he began commissioning tales from established authors­, as well as emerging writers. While this introduced new talent it was also, as Mains points out, when “the rot started to set in. Many stories showed an almost cavalier attitude to horrendous violence­, tossing aside the supernatural and psychological tales that had gone before in favour of cheap sadistic thrills, rape and extreme body torture­.”

Such matters are not entirely absent from this first volume, for example George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper­ Bowl cannot be read other than as an exercise in sadistic misogyny while Bram Stoker’s distasteful The Squaw is clearly out to repel.

But perhaps what most surprises about this first volume­ is the presence of respected literary names, among them Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, A. L. Barker and L. P. Hartley. One forgets that most “literary” writers, from Henry James to Graham Greene, have at some point dabbled in the macabre.

Other authors in Van Thal’s roster include Horatio Hornblower’s creator­ C. S. Forester, Peter Fleming (brother of the now more famous Ian) and Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale, while the subject matter ranges from werewolves to evil curses to cannibal houses — even H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulthu mythos gets an airing in Hazel Heald’s The Horror of the Museum.

Serenade for Baboons, from Durban-born Noel Langley (later a co-writer on the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz) is set close to home in the Drakensberg. What was Southern Rhodesia features briefly in Spark’s offering, The Portobello Road, probably the stand-out story in this collection. Not because it’s the most horrific, but because it’s the best written, playing with the conventions of the genre to come up with something quite fresh, as does Angus Wilson’s Raspberry Jam, detailing the affections and loyalties of a child growing up amid adults.

According to Van Thal it is wise to read these tales “in daylight lest you should suffer nightmares”. Oh, and don’t forget the armchair.

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