Friday, 5 October 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Part 1)

No, I'm not posting the cover. Too graphic for this blog.

This Halloween season I am going to try something a little different. I will be creating a series of posts centered on one small short story collection I acquired. The book is The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories first published in 1986.

For thirty years, from 1959 to 1989, Pan books put yearly collections of horror stories based on the best of the year. There were 30 volumes, originally edited by Herbert Van Thal before his death in 1983. Clarence Paget edited the last six volumes before the series finally ended, coinciding with the the ultimate death of short stories in the western world by '80s end.

And this was no small series. It ran stories from writers like Muriel Spark, C.S. Forester, Ray Bradbury, Lord Dunsany, and Basil Copper throughout its lengthy run. For those who recognize these names, you should know why this series interested me for this post. However, the issue is that not every writer up there was writing in the 1980s.

For those who were around in the '80s, horror was possibly at its most popular, but definitely not at its best. It was the decade of slasher movies, after all. This series, however, has a pedigree that extends further back than just that small period, which means it should be an informative read. If nothing it will prove to be a fun time capsule.

I recently found volume 27 of this series in a used book store and wanted to do something different for Halloween season. Therefore, I've decided to read and talk about each of the twelve stories here over the month. Both to compare current to older horror, and to see just where short stories were at in that period of the '80s when they were all but gone.

In this post I will focus on the first three stories.

The first piece is On the Fisherman's Path by Chris Barnham. The plot centers on the main character backpacking through Europe. People are dying in places he left behind, and he soon meets a woman also traveling alone. After a fling, he finds dead bodies and thinks the woman might have something to do with it. She then vanishes after he finds some dead bodies. The end.

Very well written, if a bit slow, with effective language. Unfortunately, it's boring and the atmosphere feels far more like a romance than horror until the very last page.

The problem I had with this story was that it reminded me of Shambleau by CL Moore stripped of all terror and romance. For those unaware, Shambleau deals with manly chad Northwest Smith rescuing an alluring woman from a bad scene and ends up oddly attracted to her as he takes her in. He is then pulled into a nightmare far beyond his senses can understand. The trip is quite evocative and horrific.

In this story, the woman is not particularly attractive and she has no dynamics to her to clash with the main character which leaves the reader wondering just what he sees in her. When people end up dying near the main character (at the very end) there still isn't any hint as to what she's doing or what her purpose is. She just ends up disappearing. We don't even see anything happening until near the end. It's just not as exciting or interesting as that earlier classic.

It might be unfair to compare the two, but they fundamentally are about the same thing, only the more recent story has modernism replacing the gothic romanticism and supernatural wonder. So you get a serial killer, a plain looking woman, wandering a typical city in a typical summer, and an ending that doesn't solve anything. I don't even think it's a bad story, but it is hard to not be disappointed after reading a masterwork like Shambleau. It's undeniably a step down.

The second work in this collection is Harry E. Turner's Ms Rita & the Professor. This is a story about a radical feminist (we're talking shooting Andy Warhol level crazy) and her professor friend who is losing parts of his body. The main character, an ethical journalist with a love of plain-looking animalistic women (his words) tries to stalk her for purely innocent reasons. At least, we are told that. The character is a bit unclear. He then learns the truth about her and the story flips on its head.

The pacing flows well, going from one scene to the next, and the build up works because of it. Like the first story the prose is strong and descriptive. But the horror just isn't very interesting. However, as satire (which I fully believe this story is) it is hilarious. I was laughing throughout the entirety of the story once the reveal happened. There is no way this would ever be printed today for the outrage it would cause from certain camps. Still, despite that, this doesn't really fit a horror collection as it is far too funny and not very horrific.

I just can't imagine reading this and not busting a gut. It's just strange that an obvious comedic piece would be put in here. It's good, it just barely fits with the genre its supposed to represent.

Also, this is the second story in this collection about a "normal" man lusting after a not very attractive woman (again, in their words) and the horror coming from them not realizing said woman is disturbed until it is too late. I'm not sure if Mr. Paget had a particular love for these sorts of stories, but to front-load an anthology with two very similar stories like this, even if one is a comedy, is bizarre. There's not much horrific here, either.

That said, they are different enough that it will make reading the rest quite the experience. Two stories in and I began to wonder just what else will be on offer. Thankfully, I was not disappointed with the next one.

For the last one I will talk about today is Medium Rare by Samantha Lee. This is only a page long, but well worth mentioning. Simple story, simple length. A communist in the Spanish Civil War gets tortured and ends up eating his son's left buttocks.

That's really the whole story. I was rolling on the floor after this one.

I'm sure it's meant to be very serious social commentary on the horrors of fascism against communists (as much sense as that makes) but the brief length and sudden reveal after the main character was revealed to be guilty of what he is accused either means the author was serious and the story completely misses the mark, or was not and this is an uproarious comedy piece. I will charitably assume the latter.

If true then I admit confusion. That then leaves two out of the first three stories as comedy pieces (in a horror anthology) each dunking on feminists and communists. For an anthology in 1980s Britain, I find that strange.

But I'm not going to complain. I'm having a good time.

And that is only the first three. There are still nine left to go which I will cover in the weeks to come. So stick with me on this. If the rest of the stories are anything like these, it should be fun.

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