For a few years during my childhood my mother accidentally went out with a man who thought that sending me to boarding school was a really good idea. From the age of nine to thirteen I spent most of the week wondering who I would be going to spend the weekend with, as the man also thought it was a good idea to live in France leaving me unable to see my mother for weeks at a time. It was down to a handful of relations and school-friend’s families to look after me from Saturday to Sunday during the school term.
My grandparents lived fairly close to the school and occasionally my grandfather would rescue me for the weekend in his little white Mini, but this meant two days of keeping myself entertained as grandmother was riddled with Parkinsons disease and watched soaps like Coronation Street and grandfather spent most of his life in the garden shed with a soldering iron and a collection of ham radios. A weekend with the grandparents was a welcome relief from the monotony of prep-school, but it wasn’t exactly exciting. There was nothing else to do but read.
Behind my grandmother’s large upright chair was a cheap glass fronted bookcase that housed a collection of weathered old paperbacks. Lining the shelves were a pot-pourri of romance novels featuring horses, countesses or heists, the occasional Agatha Christie thrown in for good measure; hardly the tales of adventure suitable for an overactive nine year old. Apart from a few collections of short stories, there was nothing of any interest whatsoever. By short stories I’m talking about The Pan Books Of Horror Stories, selected by Herbert Van Thal. They were interesting.
The Pan Books Of Horror Stories
Each Pan Book Of Horror Stories had really scary cover art featuring skeletons, monsters and grotesques; even the editor’s name Herbert Van Thal sounded gothic, although his christian name could have done with some work. I would sit quietly behind my grandmother’s chair and whisper these stories out loud, scaring myself half to death in the process. My grandfather would often call me to the dinner table moments before I’d read about someone being decapitated, in London, in a dimly lit bedsit; of someone who was smothered by flies until all that remained was a shiny white carcass; of upper-class cannibals who would eat their middle-class dinner party guests, or of a previously dispatched lover returning from beyond the grave in the dead of night for a final kiss.
I would sit quietly eating fish-fingers, mash and peas with my grandparents while these horrors played over in the backstreets of my tiny mind. Were any of my teachers worthy of decapitation? How many flies would it take to consume a Frenchman? Could cannibals keep in touch by ham radio? And had anyone on Coronation Street ever come back from the dead or worse still were acting, in plain sight, amongst the living?
So many questions.
I recently found some of these old Pan books on ebay and although the writing is uniformly dreadful, there’s a scared child inside me that still gets a bit excited when I gaze at their covers and flip through their pages.
A very nice man is putting together an anthology of the entire series of the Pan Horror Books so please support him! I would love to see that project take off.