Monday, June 20, 2011

The Mask and Other Stories

This review is based on an incomplete advance copy supplied by the editor/publisher.

Herbert van Thal is best known as an anthologist, particularly for his work on the Pan Book of Horror Stories series, twenty-five volumes of which he edited between the late 1950s and his death in 1983.  But van Thal's career in publishing, and his knowledge of the world of literature, were greater than many horror aficionados might suspect.  For full information on that, you'd have to read van Thal's biography, Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares, written by Johnny Mains and due to appear in a revised edition later this year.  Before that, though, Mains is also releasing The Mask and Other Stories, a collection of four stories written by van Thal in the 1930s, when he was still in his 20s.  These stories, while not a distinctive body of work in their own right, have certain interesting features, and, coupled with some interesting supplementary material, will certainly be a worthwhile item for those interested in van Thal or Pan Horror, as well as collectors of unique horror ephemera in general.

"The Mask" is a very short story, more a mood piece than a full narrative.  Unfortunately, its style, while more than competent considering van Thal's age and inexperience as a writer, isn't quite consistent enough to make for a fully-realized atmosphere.  "Variations on a Theme" collects two stories, "Child Performer" and "Summer Idyll," both of which feature an unhappy divorced protagonist having an unsatisfactory encounter with a female: in one case a, well, child performer, in the other case a beautiful rural maid.  At times the dual protagonist's world-weariness is too broadly drawn, but there is also some commendable language, and the endings manage a certain depressive mood.  Finally, the best and best-written of the four stories, "The Old Lady Makes a Cup of Tea," is a dark social comedy about a solitary man who's sick of his persistent circle of friends, and what happens when he tries to get away from there.  As with the other stories, there's nothing terribly original here, but there are a few funny lines, enough to make the story a successful diversion.

It seems likely that, had he pursued fiction writing, van Thal might have surpassed the uneven style of these stories and developed an interesting voice of his own.  Certainly the essay "Recipe for Reading: A Letter to My Godsons," which is appended to this volume and was written in the 1940s, about a decade on from the stories, is a fine piece of writing.  This erudite, drily witty, and succinct piece surveys fiction, essays, letters, diaries, poetry, plays, and other pieces outside the major classics that his godsons might find worth reading.  It's quite fascinating to see which writers van Thal recommends are remembered nowadays and which are not, and I've made a few notes on things I might want to check out myself.  I understand that a couple other essays by van Thal will appear in the final version of the book.  At £12 for a limited hardcover, that's good value for the interested reader.  The Mask and Other Stories is a slight but enjoyable slice of horror history.

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