Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Back From The Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories by Johnny Mains

 The Pan Book of Horror Stories was an iconic and long-running literary institution in Britain for some decades from the 1960s through to the 1980s; to such an extent that I had actually heard of it despite having been born in Australia in 1986! Publishing short horror stories by little-known writers in yearly volumes, it tingled the spines and inspired the nightmares of thousands in its heyday. Back From The Dead is anthologist Johnny Mains’ love letter to the series. He has devotedly selected and compiled these stories along with author anecdotes, a look into the influence of the series and a biography of Herbert Van Thal, the Pan Horrors’ infamous editor.

The stories contained in Back From The Dead are sometimes tame, sometimes gruesome, but all have the haunting quality of eeriness for which the Pan Book of Horror gained its infamy. They are written by authors featured, at some point or other, in the Pan Horror series - sixteen of them are new, previously unpublished tales, and five are classics. The nostalgic format – each story starting off with an author’s anecdote about their experience with the series and with Van Thal, was a real pleasure to read.

Not being much of a genre-reader I have never really delved into horror before and it was an interesting experience. Sometimes I was actually delighted by the types of things that really scared me; such as birds, or children, or deserted islands, or very subtle implications of the macabre. Quiet omens. My favourite stories and the ones which left the biggest impact on me were ones that asked more questions than they answered. Camera Obscura, about a greedy money-lender who visits one of his debtors (an old man who lives in a mysteriously large house on a hill) and peers into his strange, homemade ‘camera obscura’ only to leave the house into a world that isn’t the same one he came from, was one of my favourites. I also loved Mr Smyth, which tells of a policeman investigating the murder of a beautiful young girl who seemed, by all witness accounts, to have been fawning all over a decrepit and penniless old man. But every story selected by Johnny Mains is worth its salt as a soul-chilling, goosebump-inducing tale and if you like a good creep-out then this volume is a decent dose!

I found the 'anthology' format fascinating because the selection of content gives you a little peek into the personality of the anthologist –which is also why the story of Herbert “Bertie” Van Thal contained within is so interesting and deeply explored in Back From The Dead. In this case the selection is devlishly mischievous, somewhat sentimental and just the right balance between gory and charming. In my opinion this dark homage is a love letter, sealed with a scream, to Van Thal and the Pan Horror Series - and couldn’t have been, ahem, executed better.

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