Review: “Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares: A Biography Of Herbert Van Thal” by Johnny Mains

An unusual non-fiction review for the Hellforge, this book from Screaming Dreams gave me a shiver of nostalgic anticipation. A matte hardback with a terrific portrait by Les Edwards, it took myself – and I’m sure many others – right back to the playground.For me, it was the late 80s, and we were lucky enough to attend a school that had several of the Pan Book of Horror anthologies on the shelves in the English room. It was always long-serving editor Herbert Van Thal’s name on the cover, and they were devoured with glee, even proving to be the humiliation of an indignantly self-righteous teacher who confiscated them as lurid contraband before discovering they were actually school property.

“Bertie” was a lifelong lover of books, and did much other work in the field as well as the Pan anthologies. Here, Johnny Mains has put together a succinct and highly readable biography, and is the only one to tell the story of this publishing niche legend. This book has fostered me with a great mental image of Bertie’s office, him perched over a tome at his desk like a vulture, flanked by creaking overflowing shelves. We are given a pacy summary of his life and publishing career, from his nights as an AR warden during the war, being on the jury for the infamous John Christie serial murderer case, and facing a legal wrangle of his own when his then employer was accused of publishing obscene material.

Johnny Mains has done some thorough research, contacting the subject’s family and old colleagues, and his reporting feels satisfyingly factual. There is the occasional supposition if the truth isn’t known, but this is always clearly explained as such, along with the reasoning. It’s nice to read something unsensational, and the author also offers some detective work regarding prose styles, attempting to deduce the identity of a mysterious pseudonym.

Certainly an odd-looking man, Bertie emerges as passionate and friendly to work with, although certainly no angel. Perhaps his contributors could’ve seen more reward, especially with repeated print runs, and there was also the shady business of reselling their work. There’s a selection of contributor  interviews that provide some pleasing anecdotes, and also a great section of photocopied correspondence in which Bertie compliments, cajoles and gently scolds the authors. His personality and humour really come across in these short but wry letters.

There is the odd typo, and I had to reread a sentence occasionally due to a lack of punctuation. But overall, the simple informative style works well and lets the subject matter speak for itself.  With the Pan books the star of the show, it was fun to revisit these tales, a couple of my favourites from years ago being George Fielding Eliot’s dark milestone “The Copper Bowl” and Myc Harrison’s ghastly “The Spider and the Fly”. The book also discusses the possible reasons for the series’ decline, including Bertie’s ailing health and issues with colleagues.

Johnny Mains is certainly the right guide. His knowledge and passion is clear, and his debut fiction collection “In Deepest Sympathy” also has a delicious Pan-esque flavour to the proceedings. He’s been instrumental in resurrecting much genre interest in these books, being the project editor for the re-release of the 1st edition last year, and also publishing “Back from the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories” which included a shorter version of this biography.

“Lest You Suffer Nightmares” is a slim volume, but therefore uncluttered, the author admirably restricting discussion to the notable highs and lows. Too much detail would’ve become turgid, and I avoid doorstop biographies like the plague. Bertie wasn’t some revolutionary or rock star, he was an interesting but normal man who led an interesting but normal life, and this book is gauged appropriately. I thoroughly enjoyed his story, and while the appeal of course lies mainly with those who have a fond history, this is an attractive addition to any bookshelf.

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Johnny Mains

Screaming Dreams

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