It’s coming up to Christmas and tradition dictates that there’s nothing more festive than curling up in an armchair with a small pile of hot toast and a massive book of scary tales.
The classic horror anthology! Still living on in The Simpsons and the Treehouse of Horror series, but now scarcely found in actual mass-market bound book format. It didn’t used to be so – growing up as a young gentlewoman in the 80s and 90s, magnetically drawn to luridly-covered paperbacks in secondhand bookshops, there were many to take my fancy. And oh, were the covers brilliant!
Pan anthologies, dating from the 1960s, were catnip for thrill-seeking readers everywhere. Not only did they have the most magnificently batty artwork, and a vaguely threatening strapline promising sleepless nights for evermore, they were ‘selected by’ someone called Herbert Van Thal.
It was only recently that I discovered that there was more to Mr Van Thal than the regular emission of collected classic horror stories – the publishers Noose and Gibbet have produced a new anthology from contemporary authors influenced by Pan anthologies, and a biography of the man himself. From this, I have learnt the following facts: everyone called him Bertie, and he wore a monocle – the very model of an Edwardian gentleman curator of the macabre. There’s an interesting blog post by Mark Morris on the undying appeal of chilling anthologies, and links to other Noose and Gibbet titles.
Fontana published a series of anthologies along similar lines, with cover art that really pushed the envelope of gaudiness – most of these were edited by Mary Danby, who I remember from the Armada Book of Ghost Stories series (for the junior thrillseeker), and who appears to have had the most wonderfully Ed Reardon-esque career, authoring titles as diverse as The Famous Five and You Search for Treasure and and the Armada Book of Limericks. She also edited the brilliant doorstop anthology 65 Tales of Terror, which was sold through Marks and Spencer, purveyor of groceries to the British middle-classes, to pop in your basket along with your chicken en croute.
My own personal favourites, lovingly collected and cared for, are the anthologies published in the name of the great horror stars – Peter Cushing’s Tales of a Monster Hunter (great blog post about it here), The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, and all the Alfred Hitchcock series of anthologies (including the fabulous ‘Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do on TV’).
I was slightly deflated when I learnt that Cushing, Karloff and Hitchcock weren’t involved at all in their anthologies (I’d somehow imagined Cushing, in a plush red smoking jacket, browsing the shelves of his personal collection of short spooky stories and only choosing the very best for his fans). Most were collated by Peter Haining, massively influential in the anthology industry, with an exhaustive knowledge of the genre. His obituary is here – now doesn’t he seem like a great guest for the fantasy dinner party game?
Anthologies are still produced, certainly, but not on the same scale and with less of the gleeful charm of the old collections. There’s nothing for it – I’ll have to spend another Christmas with my childhood favourites – just me, some flickering candlelight, and the ghostly voices of the golden age of the anthology.