Ian McMillan: Herbert dip

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I’m trying to create some atmosphere for this week’s column, so close the curtains and turn the lights out; maybe put some doomy music on that goes doooom… doooom, like somebody tramping through a scary castle in pit boots. Put a turnip in the window and light a candle in it to make it grin like a skull. Hang cobwebs from the ceiling unless you’ve get real ones because you can’t be bothered to dust. It’s Halloween and it’s time to read some scary books as the gloaming turns to darkling over the fields.

Actually, better turn the lights back on or you won’t be able to read this. That’s the thing with scary stories, as far as I’m concerned: they’re better read in a bright room. As a lad, I was a big fan of frightening myself to death with two particular sets of books: The Pan Books of Horror Stories, edited by the wonderfully-named Herbert Van Thal; even typing the name makes a shiver trickle down my back.

We’d stand shivering and sorting through the Superman and Batman comics in search of the elusive first edition of Action Comics from 1938, the one that was worth so much money that we’d be able to buy the stall and the one next door that sold sweets.

I first came across the Pan books when I used to haunt (hoho) the second-hand book and comic stall on Wombwell Market on a Saturday; I’d be damp-haired after going to the baths with my mate Chris and we’d stand shivering and sorting through the Superman and Batman comics in search of the elusive first edition of Action Comics from 1938, the one that was worth so much money that we’d be able to buy the stall and the one next door that sold sweets. We never found it, of course, although one week I did come across an early edition of Green Lantern that, when I took it back to the stall a few weeks later, did allow me to at least buy a bag of rhubarb and custards from the sweet stall.

Next to the comics there was a box full of paperbacks and, at the top, a book with a rat screeching at me from a grinning skull: The Sixth Pan Book of Horror Stories. I have to admit that I liked the way that the words Horror and Stories appeared to be made of melting wax that looked hot and cold to the touch at the same time, and I loved the name Herbert Van Thal; he sounded like he ought to look a bit like Dracula, only venturing out at night when the moon was full, with cheekbones so hollow you could store liquid in them and eyes that had a gaze that pierced you like a drawing pin. I also, being a bit of a collector, liked the fact that this was the sixth, so there were at least another five.

I took the book home and read it in the back room, where the sunlight was strongest but I was still scared half to death, almost leaping out of my cardigan when my mam accidentally slammed the door.

I eventually got the full set, and I might dig them out tonight to give myself a frisson or a shudder. I’ll imagine Van Thal leaning over my shoulder, his breath freezing cold on the back of my neck. Is it getting dark outside or is it just me?