4 May 2013

Short and Sweet

In a recent reorganisation of the bookshelves I gathered together onto one shelf all of the short story compilations from around the house. I seem to have a few from the 1990s featuring young up and coming writers. It’s interesting to flick through and find a recognisable name. Marcel Desailly (Chelsea and France Soccerball participant) appears in one French collection (in English, the French language not being my strong point). In one Serpent’s Tail collection, there is a story by my namesake, a forerunner for his successful novel and movie about drug dealing in London,.

However, while I’m drifting around the shelf I invariably end up at my favourites: The Pan Book of Horror Stories, various editions of these books have been around me all of my life. I know nothing of Herbert van Thal, I presume he was a real person and not a pseudonym for a group of editors in the Pan offices, whoever he was, his name is synonymous with horror stories. I only have a few copies ranging from the Fifth to the 25th, but over the decades I’ve read most of them. We had a English teacher at school who used to read us selected stories from the Pan collection, all of these years later I’ve no idea why, we certainly weren’t studying horror stories, this was the staid, selective education of the 1970s, it was Dickens, Shakespeare and maybe some early 20th Century poetry.

What’s interesting in recalling these stories is that I’ve no idea who wrote the individual pieces, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The classic ‘Be careful what you wish for’ premise, The Monkey’s Paw, is a good example. I can give a reasonably good précis of the story although I’ve not read it for years, I pretty sure it was filmed for Hammer House of Horror or Tales of the Unexpected,  but I do not know who wrote the original text (a quick check in The Seventh Pan Book of Horror Stories, selected by Herbert van Thal reveals that it was W W Jacobs). Which brings me to another point; the later collections were weaker even though they had stories from the likes of Stephen King or Clive Barker, well-known names which would dominate the contents.

I read short stories in a random order much to Mrs RB’s distress, she feels that if someone has gone to the trouble of putting together a compilation, whether literature or music you should respect their judgement and read the stories in chronological order, I, on the other hand, might read the shorter ones first leaving the longest till last or read the ones with interesting titles first. When there is a Stephen King story in the collection, it nags at the periphery and demands to be read first and King’s short stories are far from short.

Among his ‘short’ stories are The Body and, Rita Heyworth and The Shawshank Redemption both of which have been made into successful movies. They are proof of King’s genius of storytelling, it is as if when he’s restricted, either by accident or design, he is more concise and his work is stronger.

Indeed, going back to The Monkey’s Paw, the horror is in your own mind, there is no explicit description of what is behind the door, the brevity of the text allows your imagination to take over.

To create a storyline, believable characters and a chilling dénouement in 10 pages is skill worth recognising, a skill that hopefully other writers still have.

Herbert van Thal, Horror, Pan, Monkey's Paw


  1. Love short stories. Amongst my favorite are a collection by AS Byatt, Neil Gaiman, Kazuo Ishiguro and of course, the master, Edgar A. Poe...

  2. and in a strange way, although you would think that they should, short stories don't suit the Kindle, maybe it's the way I read them.