Ginger Nuts of Horror
I always count this as the first ‘proper horror’ book I read. Everything beforehand had been a run up. Every Dr Who book, every Armada Ghost book, every book like Bernhardt J Hurwood’s Vampires, Werewolves and Other Demons from Target which had a great picture of a werewolf on the front and a really scary story about a Mara (look it up) inside.
I was nine years old, and figured it was time for me to make what I thought would be the relatively minor step up to reading grown up horror. So I implored my mum to get me the subject of this piece when we were in Woolworths in Brecon one Saturday. It cost 50p. My mum had no idea what she was getting me, and I had no idea what I was getting into.....
I still have that same copy of Pan Number 9. In fact it’s sitting next to me as I write this, and that rather peculiar papier-mache wrapped face with bloodstained lips on the cover is staring up at me. At that age I found all the Pan covers terrifying, by the way, and would dare myself to look at them in bookshops.
The first story in Pan No. 9 is Man Hunt by Raymond Williams, in which a mother and daughter emasculate a rapist who has escaped from prison. The emasculation takes place offscreen but it’s still pretty horrible. Next is The Fly by Dulcie Gray, an ordinary enough little tale about a man killing his wife by pushing her out of the window. Except that because this is a Pan story we get ‘her face was gashed open...and one eye lay on the flagstones beside her’. The third is Dorothy K Haynes’ marvellous Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch..., a period tale in which an innocent young girl is burned alive by her friends and family because they think she’s been consorting with Satan.
I read those three stories in one session and then couldn’t go on. It was all too horrible, too awful. I thought I was going to get stuff that was just a little bit stronger than R Chetwynd-Hayes’ ‘The Slippity Slop’ and other gentle silliness that I’d been reading in the Armada Monster Books. Not rape and eyeballs and burning alive.
I put the book away. In fact I thrust it down the back of a cupboard so I couldn’t chance to see the cover. I wanted nothing more to do with it.
A couple of weeks later I dug it back out and carried on.
Scanning the contents page now, I remember so many of those stories with gruesome fondness. Lindsay Stewart’s Strictly for the Birds, where the old man in the wheelchair is slowly feeding his own rotting body to pigeons, Martin Waddell’s Bloodthirsty, still one of the weirdest and funniest vampire stories I’ve ever read. Colin Graham’s The Best Teacher, an unbelievably unpleasant conte cruele about a horror writer who ends up having his arms and legs sawn off. I remember reading that one before lunch with my family one Sunday. Dulcie Gray again with a much better, quite terrifying story called The Happy Return, one that has a punchline that is similarly cruel, pitiful, and horribly, horribly funny. Tim Stout’s The Boy Who Neglected His Grass Snake, with that great scary ending where the dead tortured snake crawls out of the bin and creeps up to his cruel, spoiled fat child of an owner who is cowering beneath the bedsheets. That one made me sweat. But not as much as Eddy C Bertin’s The Whispering Horror, a story I can still read today and feel a pleasurable shiver from such a horrible idea as an ancient thing growing children’s flesh on its withered bones. And always whispering...whispering...
But the absolute best thing about the tales in The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories was that I could remember them well enough to tell my friends in the school playground. An interest in reading tended to be used as an excuse to get you beaten up when I was a youngster, but if you read the Pan Books even the bullies left you alone. Except when they wanted you to tell them ‘one of your stories’. I got very good at that. When a supply teacher took over our class for the day she asked if anyone would like to read a story aloud to the class. A chorus of ‘Get John to do it’ had me out at the front in no time. I read them Lindsay Stewart’s Jolly Uncle, the one about the evil uncle whose rich little nephew has a weak heart and whom he tries to kill off by taking him to watch appalling horror films with titles like Dracula’s Curse on the Virgins. The teacher told me to stop after I got to the bit about the eyeballs bouncing down the stairs and then plopping, one on top of the other. My street cred went up yet again.
By the time I finished the twenty three tales (each now published for the first time, the cover proudly states) in The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories I was addicted to horror. To reading it, to telling and performing it, and to the desire to write it myself. My secondary school English masters had to put up with an awful lot of sub-Pan nonsense and some of the expressions those gentle arts teachers would give me as they handed me back my work still make me smile now.
The Pan series deteriorated as it went on. Some would say the rot had even set in by volume nine, but I bought them all, right the way through school, and right the way through higher education. I picked up Pan 29 at the bookshop on Birmingham New Street Station while on my way back to university and still remember the one about the chap trying to squeeze his wife into a washing machine.
Written horror underwent something of a sea change in the 1990s. Gone were the likes of the stories one could find in the Pan books, and in came work that claimed to have higher literary aspirations. Some people thought this was a good thing, but I’m afraid I have never felt that way. For me things reached a nadir in 1998 when I went on holiday with two brand new books claiming to be horror anthologies. There wasn’t a single witty, gory, sexy, entertaining horror story in either of them. There wasn’t a single story of the kind I realised I still loved in either of them. I’m not going to mention the titles here because the intention of this piece is not to upset anyone, but I’d be happy to tell you what they were if we ever meet face to face. I threw the books away and realised it was time for me to give up on horror and find something else to read. I felt that what had once been a genre filled with delirious and gleefully nasty fun had been replaced by stories fit only for pseudo-intellectuals who had all day to pretend to be pondering the impenetrable ambiguities of what on earth was meant to be going on in half of what now called itself modern horror.
But then around 2002 something happened that made me want to pick up a pen and start writing seriously. There were no markets but I didn’t care. In fact it was precisely because there were no markets that I started writing. Stories like the ones I remembered loving as I grew up. Stories that would thrill, shock, but most of all, entertain. I was writing for myself, which is always the best way. And as time has gone on I’ve found more and more people who like this kind of story too, and it’s been a delight to meet them, be read by them, and be published by them. It is the greatest honour to have people I have never met before shake my hand, clap me on the back and say ‘That Dr Valentine, eh?’ and give me the hugest smile. It’s a smile very similar to what the nine year old John Llewellyn Probert must have had on his face when he finished reading The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories, and to see someone smile like that because of something I’ve written really is one of the most wonderful things I will ever know.
As I said above, I’ve been flicking through my 37 year old copy of the book as I’ve been writing this, and it’s remarkable the feelings of nostalgia and love I still have for this book. It’s the possession of mine that’s been with me longer than anything else. It’s the book that made me. I love it. I love the Pan books. I love writing horror. Long may it all continue.
John Llewellyn Probert is the author of the award-winning Amicus-style portmanteau short story collection The Faculty of Terror and its follow upThe Catacombs of Fear (both available from Gray Friar Press). His latest collection is Wicked Delights from Atomic Fez. For more about his fiction visit John Llewellyn Probert’s Website. You can also catch up with his thoughts on horror movies past and present at his House of Mortal Cinema.
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