Monday, 19 October 2009

Old Books

For me Herbert Van Thal’s name was synonymous with horror stories, but as well as an anthologist he was a publisher, agent and biographer. I just had to see his name on the front cover of a book and I’d get a tingle in my spine.

I’ve always had a love affair with ghost and horror stories – for as long as I can remember and as a teenager I used to get through the numbered Pan books of horror stories like nobody’s business.

Anyone remember those? Edited by Herbert Van Thal. Goodness knows how many – I think there were 24 and I must have read most if not all of them. They had delightfully gruesome covers and I’m pretty sure that when I put the books down at night, I put them face down in case I should wake up and scare myself even more stupid than I already was.

I hung on to them for years – my kids can remember the covers vividly – I can’t think why.

I first read the story of the Elephant Man in those books. And stories by Rosemary Timperley, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, H P Lovecraft, L P Hartley, C S Forester, Bram Stoker, W W Jacobs – I could go on and on and probably on some more.

I’m pretty sure I read The Gift of the Magi by O’Henry in one of them. It is one of my all time favourites.

I would read any book of horror stories I could get my paws on, not just the Van Thal ones. I wish I hadn’t parted with them when I had one of my massive book clearances.

I may have to visit and treat myself.

Most of those offered for sale are fair or have slight scuffing or show signs of wear and tear. My Pan books were very creased and battered through much handling. My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird is like that – the cover falls off when I pick it up.

But isn’t that the sign of a much loved book? One that has been read and read and obviously enjoyed? The best kind.


  1. Sorry, Teresa, it's before my time I think - I don't recall Pan books at all - why don't I, though? What year were they published?

    I remember watching An American Werewolf in London when I was about ten. I'd been ill and begged mum to let me watch it which she reluctantly did. I had this purple woolly hat on (don't ask!) and recall pulling it over my head during the most gorey/scary bits! I wish I hadn't watched it then. I'm the same with horror films now. I don't tend to watch them if I can avoid it. But I love ghost/paranormal films and TV series.

    Julie xx

  2. Oh lovely. Bram Stoker, Poe, Ray Bradbury. Mine was the attic bedroom and I would be too scared to go to sleep. The book covers were definitely face down and, for some reason, I had to keep my hands under the covers because one story told of a witch who chopped children's hands off. I can put my hands outside the duvet now but I still sleep with the light on.

  3. I just looked them up Julie and the Pan books were published one a year from 1959 to 1983. I'm going to have to ask - why the purple woolly hat?

    Are you afraid of the dark, Lynne? So am I! Are those books to blame?

  4. Sorry Teresa, I avoided anything with horror in the description, books, films, whatever even as a child. And these days, I feel there's enough of that in real life! My weakness was Biggles. Oh, how I loved that man!

  5. I don't remember these books, Teresa, but your post has reminded me of something that I've been trying to find out for years. I wonder if you or any of your followers can help?

    A long, long time ago (probably in the sixties or seventies) I saw a horror story on TV, and basically somebody was trying to solve a mystery - murders, I think.

    They went into an old building and found the body of an old man who had died whilst sitting at his desk. Although he was dead, his white hair had continued growing and so had his fingernails, which had grown through the back of his hands because he was sitting there with clenched fists.

    I believe he changed into a black cat at night and went out and committed these murders, but I may be wrong because it's all just a vague memory, which has been haunting me for years.

    Does it ring any bells with anybody? Maybe it was a short story originally? I've googled black cats and looked at synopses of 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination' and 'Brian Clemens' Thriller', but I'm none the wiser and it's driving me slowly mad. Help!!!

  6. There were 30 volumes of the Pan Book of Horror published from 1959-89, the first 25 edited by van Thal and the last 5 by Clarence Paget.

  7. Ah Marian - Biggles! My husband's Biggles collection went in the Big Clearout and about a year later my oldest son went mad for Biggles books and they all had to be bought again.

    I'm afraid that doesn't ring any bells, Susan - but now I'm intrigued. I hope someone can enlighten us.

    Mortbury - thank you! I'd forgotten the later books. I don't think I had any of those. The Dark Voices volume which followed looks good too.

  8. My mother had a thing about keeping my head warm when I was ill, Teresa! Even when I was indoors! It probably explains a lot of why I am like I am - my brain got too hot as a child!!

    In 1983 I was 12,but I don't know why I haven't read them as an adult - on no, my poor bookcase!

    Julie xx

  9. Goodness that's a scary cover. Enough to give you nightmares without even reading the book.

  10. I can't do horror in any medium - nightmares, y'see. Even to something as daft as Abbott & Costello. Ornaments, carvings, furniture too, if it has a face on, it can't be in my bedroom.

  11. Funny how mums used to insist on wrapping us up when we were ill isn't it, Julie?

    Don't have nightmares, Helen!

    Well you definitely wouldn't want those books in your bedroom, Diane.

  12. Scary biscuits - will be having nightmares about Susan Wright's film. My mum used to keep us up to watch creepy films when we were small because she was too scared to watch them alone. We saw some real humdingers, but I don't recall that one.

    We used to devour horror books as teenagers - a good one would travel twice around the school before falling to pieces (no Twighlight or Buffy in our day).


  13. Susan, there's an MR James story called "The Tractate Midoth" where an old man is buried sitting at a desk I believe but I'm not sure about the hair and nails growing, that sounds more like Edgar Allan Poe. I've always been one for ghost stories rather than horror.
    There's also a story called "Ancient Sorceries", by Algernon Blackwood I think, where the inhabitants of a French town turn into cats by night.

  14. Kath, thanks so much for your suggestions. Having googled a bit, it's not the MR James story (although that's very good) and I don't think it's Edgar Allan Poe either.
    'Ancient Sorceries' is a possibility - although it involves witchcraft and I don't remember that - and apparently the BBC showed a series of Algernon Blackwood stories in the sixties called 'Tales Of Mystery'.
    Some of the others tales sound familiar, but unfortunately they're no longer available in any form.
    Algernon Blackwood stories sound pretty terrfiying though - might treat myself to a book!

  15. My mum used to let me sit up to watch horror films too, Suzanne - I'd never thought before, but it was probably for the same reasons your mum did!

    Thanks for that, Kath, I'm going to look those up. Those Pan books had Poe and Blackwood stories in too (and a lot were ghost rather than horror).

    If you ever find out what it was, Susan - let us know! I'm intrigued.

  16. Could it have been part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, Susan?
    Or the series Mystery and Imagination (which included The Tractate Middoth)?

  17. I don't think it would have been Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Teresa, as I think they dealt with much more 'conventional' murders. Might well have been Mystery and Imagination though or The Twilight Zone or Hammer House of Horrors, which reminds of another one - 'The Two Faces of Evil - which I prefer not to think about.

    I've spent time googling again this afternoon, but I'm none the wiser really except for confirming what I already knew - that there really aren't any new plots.

    Mind you, I once wasted hours on websites trying to find out what an old delicious banana and toffee ice lolly was called, and I found out in the end so maybe one day I'll look in the right place and find the answer to this.

    The lolly was Wall's Wiz, by the way. Don't know if anybody else remembers it, but it was absolutely wonderful -they ought to bring it back.

  18. I really do recommend M R James to anyone who hasn't tried him, especially "Casting the Runes" and "O whistle and I'll come to you my lad".

  19. What did we do before Google, Susan? There was another Alfred Hitchcock series - I think it was called the Alfred Hitchcock Hour and I remember vividly one about a little girl who swapped places with her doll.

    I don't remember Walls Wiz, but I used to love Lunch Bars and it was a real treat when my mum bought me one - and I can't find anything about them on Google. They were just a flat biscuit bar covered with chocolate, blue wrapper for milk and red wrapper for plain. I can taste it now . . .
    There is one on Google, but it is nothing like the one I used to have.

    Agree with you about M R James, Kath.

  20. Teresa, I remember the one about the dolls too, it was called "Where the woodbine twineth".

  21. Unfortunately I don't think it could have been Alfred Hitchcock hour either. Teresa. I'm not sure, but I've been reading synopses and none of them sound familiar.

    I think I'll just have to give up, try and forget about it and spend time writing instead.

    Maybe I should write about a deceased old man sitting at a desk, covered in cobwebs (just remembered that bit!)who turns into a very nasty cat at night.
    I could try it with People's Friend. What do you think???

  22. Susan, are you absolutely sure about the Tractate Midoath? Have just quickly re-read it and two things struck me - the fact that the dead man is described as sitting at a table and the description of his face as being made of cobwebs. M R James's prose style can seem a bit dry, but I think the TV version, in the series "Mystery and Imagination", dwelt much more on the horrific appearance of the deceased. In fact I still have an image in my mind of a fairly frightening publicity still in the Radio Times.(Have just looked the series up and that episode was shown on 26 February 1966, my 13th birthday!!!) Must admit can't relate the cat to it though. Might you be remembering two different stories?

    Will shut up about it now, promise. Good idea about People's Friend though. Let us know how you get on.