I'm both too young and on the wrong continent to have been a reader of the Pan Books of Horror Stories, a horror anthology series edited largely by Herbert van Thal and famous both for its longevity (thirty volumes in as many years) and for the debatable quality of some of its content. Nonetheless, I found Johnny Mains' new book on the series fascinating. Subtitled A Biography of Herbert Van Thal, it's actually much more than that. The biography proper takes up a little over a third of the volume; the rest is given over to such associational items as a selection of photographically reproduced letters relating to van Thal and the writers he worked with, a series of interviews and recollections with some of the Pan Books authors, and a reprinted magazine article providing an overview of the subject. The result of this mingling is a book that provides a window onto what might charitably be called pulpy writing and publishing in the mid to late 20th century. In this light, the book's digressive, slightly disjointed character becomes charming rather than frustrating.
Because comparatively little is known about the details of van Thal's life, the biographical text itself (previously published in different form in the book Back From the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories) pursues various sidelines, from interesting trivia about figures associated with van Thal to comments on which stories in particular Pan Books volumes are and are not impressive. Mains' obvious enthusiasm for his subject smooths over the intermittently awkward compression resulting from this approach, and of course there is a certain pleasure in agreeing or disagreeing with his judgments. I'm also tempted to spill some of the more interesting van Thal-related facts here, but that would hardly be fair.
The additional material is likewise charming. The reproduced letters, though there aren't many, provide the usual guilty pleasure of looking at someone else's mail, and suggest further facets to van Thal, who seems to have been a more fascinating figure than available information can convey. The author interviews and recollections, only small portions of which were used in the biography, reveal the mixture of craft and persistence involved in professional popular fiction, whether that fiction is horror, novelizations, or even screenplays. Despite having only a passing familiarity with the people involved, I enjoyed their reminiscences of a forgotten era; fans of these writers will surely be delighted.
Like The Mask and Other Stories, the Mains-edited collection of van Thal's own fiction, Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares is a limited edition curio that will appeal to horror experts and collectors. Less than 100 pages long, it's being released in an edition of only 100 copies, signed both by Mains and by artist Les Edwards, who provides a fine cover painting of van Thal. For ordering information on the book, which costs £12.99 plus postage, head to this link.
This review is based on an advance, uncorrected electronic copy supplied by the author.