TV Cream


Pan Book of Horror Stories, The

From 1958 onwards, paperback house Pan published a regular anthology of short stories of the macabre: spine-chilling tales of uncanny terror, subtle beastliness, eldritch nightmare, Grand Guignol and other adjectives only ever used to describe fruity horror of a certain vintage.  For three generations of children, it was a grisly winner. The stories, ranging from a couple of pages to several chapters, were selected by the perfectly-named Herbert van Thal, who beckoned the reader in with foreboding entreaties on the back cover: ‘We feel that the stories in this book are such that if your nerves are not of the strongest, then it is wise to read them in daylight.’ Or, Mr van Thal neglected to add, retold in school playgrounds with added wide-eyed spooky mugging and judiciously placed ‘mwah-ha-ha-haaaa!’s by ‘flamboyant’ pre-teen boys the nation over. The oral tradition of storytelling was well-served by these tatty black paperbacks.

Many of the tales were disturbing indeed.  Favourite subjects were grotesque creatures found in eerily empty Edwardian houses, brilliant surgeons taking revenge on unfaithful lovers as only they knew how, immobilised men being slowly devoured by swarms of rats, and best of all, lovingly-described scenes of methodical dismemberment, preferably carried out by innocent young children.  The writing was often of a high calibre – as well as genre stalwarts such as R Chetwynd-Hayes and Nigel Kneale, the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, and even John Lennon contributed unholy offerings of nameless dread to leave sleep cowering in the halls of terror.

With their distinctive covers depicting the remains of some unfortunate victim, and their ghostly wobbly font, the books provided the ideal literary counterpart to spooky TV programmes like Armchair Thriller and Hammer House of Horror.  With the advent of the video nasty, however, the spooky schoolboy samizdat network which had kept the books in such good business moved on to more graphic prurient kicks, and the anthology’s popularity started to wane. After van Thal’s death in 1983 the series limped on with derivative unpleasantness largely written by hacks (oh, and Stephen King), before finally resting in peace in 1988.



  1. Johnny Mains

    January 3, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Just a small point of clarification, the Pan Horrors ended in 1989, not 1988. And good news, Pan are re-issuing the 1959 volume in October 2010. Anyone interested in reading a new anthology with stories exclusively from Pan Horror authors would do well to visit – the book also contains a 12k essay on Herbert van Thal.



  2. Paul

    January 3, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    Fantastic! These books remind me of summer holidays on the Isle of Wight when my older brother would always pack one in the suitcase for ‘light reading.’ There was almost guilty pleasure when I would make sure I wouldn’t be caught and read one myself. Some of those stories are still lodged somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind.

  3. Jo Pacey

    February 14, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    I was very shocked by these books as I used to read them when I was about 12 (having convinced my mum they were kid’s ghost stories!) Some of them used to stay in my mind for weeks and fill me with horror when the light went out at night. I think my mind was permanently damaged by them. I still remember one called ‘Putz dies’ where this professor served up somebody’s eyeball to them concealed in a bowl of jelly.

  4. Tom Ronson

    February 21, 2022 at 2:25 am

    The most horrible story in the entire run is The Clinic by Alex White, in which a teenage girl is considered too opinionated and independent by her parents, who send her off to the titular clinic where she is repeatedly raped, tortured and mutilated, before being returned to her parents (who are delighted with the results) as a mute, limbless lump of scarred and beaten flesh. My middle school library had all these books, plus copies of James Herbert’s The Rats and The Fog. Morally improving reading matter for nine-to-thirteen-year-olds.

    • THX 1139

      March 13, 2022 at 2:25 pm

      The Clinic was written by posh, ladylike actress Dulcie Gray, who dabbled in mystery thrillers and even more lightly dabbled in grisly horror fiction under a pseudonym (presumably so her fans wouldn’t be shocked).

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