The Pan Book of Horror series ran for 30 volumes, between 1959 and 1989, with the first 25 installments edited by Herbert van Thal.  The series was notable both for its emphasis on contes cruels (and some would say too strong of a reliance upon tales of outright sadism) and for its strong sales numbers, at least for the early part of the series. In the biography/tribute Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares (Screaming Dreams, 2011), author Johnny Mains turns the spotlight on the somewhat mysterious and reclusive van Thal, who died in 1983, and delivers a a fascinating glimpse into the life of an eccentric but influential (at least in the horror field) man.

A slim 89 pages, the book is divided into five sections: a biography; a checklist of published works; facsimile reprints of some of van Thal’s correspondence with Pan authors; author interviews and comments; and a reprint of an article Mains wrote on van Thal for SFX magazine. The biography section is less than 40 pages, and leaves one wanting for quite a bit more, but it was obviously difficult for Mains to find many folks who actually knew van Thal, and were willing to talk about him. As Mains says:

“It took over a year to try and find a photograph of him and everywhere I turned I hit wall after wall. When trying to delve into his dealings as a literary agent at London Management nobody from those days who worked in the same building as HvT was willing to speak to me…”

Although the book’s smorgasbord approach to its subject matter feels a little disjointed at times, it makes for what is overall a compelling and insightful read. I should note, however, that I was never completely won over by Mains’ argument regarding the importance of his subject — “I believe that Herbert van Thal is one of the most overlooked yet important anthologists that this country has ever seen.” Given the critical disdain for much of the series, and the (admirably) blunt comments that Mains himself makes about many of the stories, it’s difficult to agree that van Thal deserves such accolades based on the quality of his output, although the quantity (i.e., sales figures) was indeed distinguished.

Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares is a very attractive book, featuring a striking cover portrait of van Thal by Les Edwards, and is limited to just 100 numbered copies, signed by Mains and Edwards. It may be necessary to be a horror geek like me to truly appreciate this labor of love (and it probably wouldn’t hurt to be British, either, in order to appreciate some of the local flavor), but for those with an abiding interest in the history of horror, there’s much to like here.

About Robert Morrish