Horror before it got panned

 

© Pan Books

 

One more horror-themed reposting just before Halloween…

 

Michael Gove, well-known cokehead, Aberdonian nightclub boogie-king and England’s Education Minister from 2010 to 2014, would be disappointed in me.  When I was a lad, my usual reading material was not the likes of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which in 2013 Gove famously said he wanted to see the nation’s youth reading.

 

Rather, when I was 11, 12 or 13, I commonly had my nose stuck in works by such authors as Sven Hassel, James Herbert and Guy N. Smith, meaning that I didn’t become conversant in the effects of the Great Reform Act of 1832 or in the gradual diminution of the ideals of Dorothea Brooke, which Eliot wrote about in her 1871-1872 masterpiece.  I did, however, end up learning a lot about German Panzer divisions wreaking bloody havoc on the Russian front during World War II, about chemical weapons leaking out of military laboratories in the form of thick swirling fogs and driving all who come in contact with them murderously insane, and about giant mutant crabs going on the rampage and eating people.  Knowing such things prepared me a lot for adult life.

 

I also spent a lot of time reading, in the form of tatty paperbacks that in the school playground and on the school bus were constantly borrowed, read, returned, borrowed again and read again, a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories.  The first of this series had been published in 1959, under the editorship of the strikingly named Herbert Van Thal, a literary agent, publisher and author whom the critic John Agate had once likened to ‘a sleek, well-groomed dormouse’.  The first few volumes of horror stories that Van Thal edited for Pan Books consisted largely of classical stories from well-known horror writers and more ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) writers who’d dabbled in the genre; and their quality was generally held to be high.

 

By the late 1960s, however, Van Thal was filling each new compilation with more and more stories from new writers, many of whom were taking advantage of a more permissive era to see what they could get away with in terms of violence, gore and general unpleasantness.  Serious horror writers and fans became quite sniffy about the books.  Ramsey Campbell, Britain’s most acclaimed living horror writer, has said: “I did like the first one when I was 13 years old, but I thought the series became increasingly illiterate and disgusting and meritless.”

 

When my schoolmates and I started reading them in the 1970s, the latest editions of The Pan Book of Horror Stories were low in literary quality but high in disgusting-ness, which suited our jaded, beastly little minds fine.  I’m still psychologically scarred by Colin Graham’s The Best Teacher in the ninth collection, which was about a psychopath who decides to write a manual for aspiring horror writers, instructing them in what dismemberment, disembowelment and various acts of torture really look and sound like.  To this end, he kidnaps a horror writer and starts dismembering, disembowelling and torturing him whilst recording everything with a camera and tape recorder.  Anyone who thinks that the horror sub-genre of ‘torture-porn’ began with Eli Roth’s movie Hostel in 2005 ought to check out Graham’s grubby epic from a few decades earlier.

 

© Pan Books

 

To be fair, the later Pan collections did feature then-up-and-coming, now-well-regarded writers like Tanith Lee, Christopher Fowler and, ahem, Ian McEwan.  However, by the 1980s (and after Van Thal’s death), the series was clearly on its last legs.  It resorted to ransacking Stephen King’s famous anthology Nightshift (1978) and reprinting stories like The Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man.  This was unwise, since anybody inclined to read the Pan horror series had probably read Nightshift already.  The final volume, the thirtieth, had a very limited print run and if you ever lay your hands on a copy, it’s probably worth a lot as a collector’s item.

 

A while ago in a second-hand bookshop I discovered a copy of The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.  This, alas, was unlikely to be sought by book collectors, since the copy looked like something had chewed, swallowed, partly-digested and regurgitated it.  At least it was still readable, so I got a chance to sample the original instalment in this famous, or infamous, series.  I was curious to know if it deserved the praise Ramsey Campbell had given it and also to see how different it was from the more disreputable stuff that came later.

 

My first impression was that the stories in this collection weren’t how I’d have organised them.  I’ve heard writers whose works were printed in the later Pan books grumble about Van Thal’s abilities as an editor, and it’s hard to see why stories as similar as Hester Holland’s The Library and Flavia Richardson’s Behind the Yellow Door (both about hapless young women who are hired as private secretaries by older, plainly-batty women and who meet gruesome fates), or Oscar Cook’s His Beautiful Hands and George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl (both about exotic, grotesque revenges and tortures inflicted by East Asian people – at least one of them struck me as racist) should end up in the same book.  In fact, Eliot’s story follows immediately after Cook’s, thanks to Van Thal’s strange policy of arranging the stories by the alphabetical order of their authors’ surnames.

 

I also noticed how stories I’d read elsewhere and greatly enjoyed in my youth now, sadly, seem a bit duff.  I loved Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum when I read it as a 13-year-old.  Heald, incidentally, wrote it under the tutelage of H.P. Lovecraft, whose influence is obvious in the ornate prose-style.  However, a modern rereading suggests that Heald (and Lovecraft) could’ve cut the story’s length by about 20 pages without losing any of its plot points.

 

Meanwhile, Bram Stoker’s The Squaw, another tale I had fond memories of, seems much poorer now thanks to one of its characters being an American tourist called Elias P. Hutchinson.  If Hutchinson was what Stoker believed all Americans sounded like, spewing toe-curling things like ‘I du declare’ and ‘I say, ma’am’ and ‘this ole galloot’ and ‘durned critter’, I can only say that Stoker needed to go out and do some research.  Still, despite some glaringly obvious failings, both The Horror in the Museum and The Squaw benefit from having cracking denouements.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

The Horror in the Museum is one of the few stories in the collection that contains a monster.  (And what a monster it is: “globular torso… bubble-like suggestion of a head… three fishy eyes… foot-long proboscis… bulging gills… monstrous capillation of asp-like suckers… six sinuous limbs with their black paws and crab-like claws…”).  Apart from The Kill by Colonel Peter Fleming, a werewolf story penned by none other than Ian Fleming’s older brother, the rest of the stories are fairly monster-free, depending on psychological terrors for their impact.  Indeed, C.S. Forester’s The Physiology of Fear is a horror story in an unusually literal sense.  It deals with a particularly horrific episode in human history, the Nazi concentration camps.  It also features a German scientist engaged in research, with the Third Reich’s support and with prisoners from the camps as his guinea pigs, into the emotion of horror as it arises in the human psyche.  And the story’s ending isn’t conventionally horrific.  Instead, the scientist is ensnared in an ironic and satisfying twist worthy of Roald Dahl.

 

Also not a horror story in any conventional sense is Muriel Spark’s The Portobello Road.  It qualifies as a ghost story, but most of all it’s a mediation on the nature of friendship as it survives, or doesn’t survive, from childhood into adulthood.  This being Spark – whose most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, was simultaneously a prim middle-class Edinburgh schoolmistress and a fascist – the story has a bitter, vinegary flavour.  None of its characters are particularly pleasant and none seem to deserve long-term friendship.  In fact, the one character who tries to keep those friendships alive is the one who, ultimately, commits the story’s single, shocking act of violence.

 

Meanwhile, I reacted to the sight of Jack Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket as if an old friend had suddenly hoven into view.  Not that I’d encountered this particular story before, but it conjured up fond memories of American writers like Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont, who in the 1950s seemed to keep their rents paid by pumping out short stories for the likes of Playboy magazine and TV scripts for the likes of The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960-62).  In admirably direct and diamond-hard prose, their tales would detail the world turning suddenly and inexplicably weird for citizens of conformist post-war America, for both dutiful suburban wives in nipped-in-at-the-waist housedresses and office-bound men in grey-flannel suits.

 

From fictionunbound.com

 

Finney, most famous as the author of the sci-fi horror novel The Body Snatchers (1955), which has been filmed four times and shows conformity taken to a nightmarish extreme, starts his story thus: “At the little living room table Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.”  A half-dozen pages later, events have lured Benecke away from his portable typewriter and embroiled him in a vertiginous life-or-death struggle just outside his apartment window.  It calls to mind the Stephen King short story The Ledge, another one that appeared in his collection Nightshift.  I doubt if the similarity between the two stories is a coincidence, King being a big admirer of work from this era of American story-telling.

 

Also deserving mention are Oh Mirror, Mirror, a claustrophobic item penned by the great Nigel Kneale; Raspberry Jam, Angus Wilson’s poisonous take on the snobbery of old people who no longer have anything to be snobbish about; and Serenade for Baboons, a colonial horror by Noel Langley.

 

Inevitably, a couple of clunkers find their way into the book too.  Anthony Vercoe’s Flies wouldn’t be such a bad story if the writer hadn’t swamped his prose with exclamation marks.  I can’t remember encountering so many of the damned things in ten pages of prose before and the result is almost unreadable.  Meanwhile, The House of Horror is one of a series of short stories that American pulp writer Seabury Quinn wrote about a psychic investigator called Jules de Grandin.  De Grandin is French and seemingly meant to be a supernatural version of Hercule Poirot (who, I know, was actually Belgian).  Unfortunately, Quinn gives him a patois that is as cringe-inducing as Elias P. Hutchinson’s Americanisms in The Squaw: “Sang du diable…!  Behold what is there, my friend…  Parbleu, he was caduo – mad as a hatter, this one, or I am much mistaken!”

 

On the whole, though, I found The First Pan Book of Horror Stories a rewarding read.  I now look forward to tracking down the other, earlier instalments in the series – those ones that came out before Herbert Van Thal decided to crank up the levels of nasty, schlocky stuff, in order to satisfy the blood-crazed savages amongst his reading public.

 

Blood-crazed savages such as my twelve-year-old self…

 

© Pan Books

Trump-town riots

 

© CBS News

 

“It’s a disgrace, there’s never been anything like that.  You could take third-world countries, just take a look, take third-world countries.  Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country.  It’s a disgrace.”

 

So spoke President, now almost Ex-President, Donald Trump at a rally at Washington DC on January 6th.  This was before the rally’s attendees launched an assault on the US Capitol while members of Congress were meeting there to certify Joe Biden becoming the 46th president and Trump’s successor.

 

Bravely, Trump used the pronoun ‘we’, which normally means ‘me’ as well as ‘you’, when he declared: “…we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to the Capitol…”  Then, bravely, he didn’t accompany his supporters when they marched off to confront and fight their way past the Capitol’s police force (many of whom, as it happened, were suspiciously reluctant to do their jobs).  Instead, bravely, Trump headed back to the White House where, bravely, he watched the ensuing carnage on TV.

 

In his speech, Trump claimed that November 2020’s presidential election, when Joe Biden won 72 more electoral college seats and 7,250,000 more votes than he did, and which everybody from the Supreme Court to the Department of Justice – not to mention the judges who chucked out 60-odd lawsuits filed by Trump in protest – agreed had been held fairly, was even more fraudulent than an election held in a third-world country.  Even more!

 

I guess I should credit Trump for using the term ‘third-world countries’, which is an improvement on his previous term for less-well-off parts of the planet, ‘shithole countries’.  I doubt, though, if he’ll ever evolve to the point where he refers to them as ‘developing-world countries’, or even less-patronising terms like ‘low-and-lower-middle-income countries’, or ‘the global south’, or ‘the Majority World’.

 

As somebody who’s spent much time living in (what I’ll call) low-and-lower-middle-income countries, I have to say I’ve never seen a spectacle as humiliatingly ridiculous as the one in the Capitol following Trump’s rabble-rousing speech on January 6th.  I’ve lived in North Korea under Kim Jong-Il and Libya under Colonel Ghaddafi, dictators whose perpetual self-aggrandisement led to some ludicrous sights indeed.  But nothing I saw in those places compares to last week’s scenes, where American politicians fled from their chambers while doors buckled, windows imploded and police and secret-service officers were pushed back by an inexorable, invading tide of white supremacists, Nazis, militiamen, crackpot conspiracists and MAGA nutjobs.

 

It resembled the start of a zombie-apocalypse movie – the bit where a live TV broadcast, announcing the emergency and urging calm, is interrupted by the studio staff looking into the lobby and screaming off-camera, “They’re here!  They’re here!”  Though this wasn’t so much Dawn of the Dead as QAnon of the Dead.

 

© Sony Soho Square

 

And during my time in what Trump thinks of as ‘shithole countries’, I’ve never seen performers from such a theatre of the absurd as those who were centre stage in the Capitol when, temporarily, the mob occupied it.  The QAnon-shaman guy with the buffalo furs and horns and the painted face, resembling the figure on the cover of the 1993 Jamiroquai album Emergency on Planet Earth after it’d spent a night sleeping in a skip.  The other guy with the furs, plus glasses and a dead beaver on his head, looking like the world’s shittest Davie Crockett.  The guy in the bobbled ‘Trump’ hat who walked off with Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, now under arrest and subject to a thousand jokes on social media about when he’ll ‘take the stand’.  The guy with the Santa Claus beard and the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T-shirt, whom one right-wing idiot later tried to deflect criticism from on social media by suggesting he might actually be an ‘Auschwitz survivor’…  Hold on, though.  Someone celebrating Auschwitz in 2021?  That’s not absurd.  That’s frightening.

 

Indeed, after the initial absurdities broadcast on the initial news reports, there came more frightening accounts of what’d happened.  A police officer died of injuries sustained while being bludgeoned by a fire extinguisher.  Another officer, a black man, had to offer himself as bait and lure a racist mob away from the senate entrance, so that those inside got a few extra minutes to evacuate.  (While these things were happening, other officers, clearly sympathetic to the mob’s intent, were dismantling barriers to let them pass and posing for selfies with them.)  Journalists were attacked.  A makeshift noose was strung up outside.  Masked figures roamed around carrying zip-tie handcuffs, apparently planning to take hostages.

 

Meanwhile, there was the jaw-dropping contemptibility of Republican politicians such as Ted Cruz, the Texan cowpat, and Josh Hawley, a man who physically and spiritually resembles Miguel Ferrer’s scumbag executive in Robocop (1987).  Even after the insurrection, they kept on parroting Trump’s honking-mad claims about election fraud and they voted against Biden’s certification.  Obviously, this is because they want to secure the support of Trump’s deranged base when they launch their own bids to become president in 2024.  With Cruz and Hawley, it’s not so much ‘we the people’ as ‘me the people’.

 

I suppose I should react to this with schadenfreude.  The USA has a long history of promoting revolutions and insurrections in other countries.  The most notorious of many examples were the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which the USA and its little sidekick the UK orchestrated in 1953 (and which begat the Shah of Iran, which begat the 1979 revolution, which begat the Ayatollah, which begat the Iran we know and fear today), and the 1973 coup d’état it engineered against President Salvador Allende that resulted in the murderous, fascistic rule of General Pinochet.  Now it’s embarrassingly fallen prey to an attempted coup of its own.

 

Still, all the sanctimonious blather about the USA being the mother of democracy and the shining light for other nations to follow, often propagated by Hollywood movies, does worm its way into your consciousness no matter how hard you try to resist.  So although the idea of American democratic righteousness is more myth and propaganda than reality, seeing its political heart get trashed by Jamiroquai-shaman guy, beaver-on-head guy, lectern-guy, etc., was rather sad.

 

From twitter.com / schwarzenegger

 

Incidentally, if the notion that the USA is the great champion of democracy is cheesy guff, it was appropriate that a few days later Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of cinema’s greatest proponents of cheesy (though enjoyable) guff, went viral in a video in which he praised American democracy.  Arnie even likened its resilience to the sword of Conan the Barbarian.  The sword’s blade, he explained, becomes stronger the more it’s tempered by punishment.  (Sorry, Arnie, but I seem to remember Conan’s mantra being to ‘crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women’.  Which doesn’t sound terribly democratic to me.)

 

But returning to the topic of low-and-lower-middle-income countries…  From 1999 to 2001 I worked in Ethiopia.  When I arrived there, most Ethiopians’ experience of the outside world was via an antiquated TV set kept in a wooden cabinet in the neighbourhood coffee shop or bar, which gave them access to two terrestrial channels.  The channels’ output seemed to consist mainly of clips of traditional Ethiopian dancing, English football matches that’d taken place three weeks earlier, and reruns of Jake and the Fatman (1987-92).

 

Within two years, however, satellite TV had arrived with a vengeance.  Suddenly, those same people were being exposed daily to dozens, if not hundreds of channels crammed with glossy adverts and pop videos dripping with opulence – fancy cars, penthouses, jewellery, designer clothes.  It was all phoney nonsense, of course.  Most people in other countries didn’t live like that.  But how was your average Ethiopian expected to know?  And how, I wondered, would this impact on the psychology of a people whose country was then, and still is today, pretty impoverished?  (In 2018 its GDP per capita was ranked 167th in the world.)

 

As it turned out, I should have been more worried about the Americans and how they’d cope with rapid advances in communications technology and especially with the sudden arrival of social media.  For now we have vast numbers of Americans taking Trump’s twitter ravings as the gospel truth.  Also, vast numbers of them believe the insane drivel that is the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, whereby Trump is battling a worldwide network of paedophilic, baby-eating Satanists who control everything, especially everything that’s liberal.

 

Whoever Biden appoints as a successor to Betty DeVos, Trump’s wretched Secretary of Education, will urgently need to promote 21st century skills like critical thinking and digital literacy in the nation’s schools.  Otherwise, thanks to social media and the Internet, the USA will collectively disappear down an extremist rabbit hole or get locked into a far-right echo chamber.

 

Ironically, Trump, so disdainful of ‘shithole countries’ in Africa and elsewhere, is probably closest in his vanity, bluster and puffed-up preposterousness to some of the infamous dictators who ruled certain African nations after the end of colonialism.  I’m thinking of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko who, while most of his subjects lived in poverty, built a palace that became known as ‘the Versailles of the jungle’, travelled using a fleet of costly Mercedes-Benz motor cars and hired Concorde for shopping trips to France.  What Trumpian things to do.  I’m also thinking of Uganda’s Idi Amin, described in 1973 by his country’s American ambassador as ‘racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous and militaristic.’  That sounds like Trump down to a T.

 

By the way, talk of Idi Amin makes me think of the 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, based on the 1998 novel by Giles Fodden.  In that, a hapless, vain and dim Scotsman, played by James McAvoy, cosies up to Amin, played by Forest Whittaker, at the start of the latter’s career and soon gets more than he bargained for.

 

© DNA Films / Film4 / Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Thinking of The Last King of Scotland’s imaginary scenario, I’m somehow reminded of the real-life scenario here:

 

© Daniel Biskup / The Times / News Syndication

 

Anyway, America, one week has passed since the Capitol insurrection.  You’ve got just one more week to go before Biden gets inaugurated and the Orange Blob, hopefully, is cast off into powerlessness and obscurity.

 

You’re halfway out of Crazy Town.  Hope you make it.  Good luck.