Rite of passage

As a teenager (many moons ago), I distinctly remember the Pan series of Horror stories. All with distinctive and extremely creepy covers, they were a bit of a rite of passage for the devoted reader. Pan even had a sort of entree to the series, via the Armada series of ghost stories for children edited by the brilliant Mary Danby. Some of the stories were every bit as eerie as the "grown-up" series. I never owned one of the Pan books (my Mum would have had a fit), but they were surreptitiously borrowed and often read under the covers, where I scared myself silly.

Recently on a satellite channel showing old horror films, I came across one of the portmanteau horrors beloved of British film studios from the '50s to the '70s - Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, which was very much in the spirit of the Pan books of horror stories of the same era. So, a quick look on Amazon, and I discovered that the first volume had recently been reprinted. A holiday in France, alone in a tent up a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, in a roaring gale - the perfect place to read a book of horror stories. How could I resist?

There are a generous 22 short stories included in this first volume. There are quite a few well known names among the authors, though not all are primarily known for their horror story writing - Muriel Spark, L.P. Hartley, Joan Aiken, and Nigel Kneale (pre-Quatermass Experiment).

Starting the book I was oddly disappointed. The Joan Aiken tale failed to move me at all, there was some mild creepiness in Submerged, The copper bowl was more nauseating than scary (though I've never been a fan of the slasher-horror), though, as I think is very typical of many a pot-boiler, the Pan anthology said as much about the period it was published in, and the wants and fears of its readers, as it did about the stories themselves. Was it any accident, for example, that just a few years into the Vietnam War, a central character should be Vietnamese, dangerous, and impossible to fight?

All this was interesting, but hardly did what a horror story was meant to do, i.e. scare the socks off you. And then I came to Jack Finney's exceptionally clever tale Contents of the dead man's pocket, in which an everyday situation becomes a tale of horror. Brilliantly done, and the only story that made me gasp out loud in sympathy with the central character. I also loved the time-travelling Flies by Anthony Vercoe, Bram Stoker's The Squaw (an interesting if dated tale), and The library by Hester Holland. Kneale's Mirror, Mirror is an unusual tale too, while Seabury Quinn's The house of horror must have influenced many a horror film, even, I suspect, The Rocky Horror Show.

I read these tales with a mixture of horror, and a good dollop of interest in the social context in which they were written. They were fascinating, and if some haven't stood the test of time, others are just as scary as the day they were written. Read, and prepare to be scared....


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