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  • Anita Sullivan

Turning Pan Horror stories into drama

The classic horror anthology Pan Horror Volume 2 has 15 page-turning stories of 'gruesome infamy' and 'startling terror'.

So how to choose five to adapt for 15 minute plays Radio 4 Halloween? How to make a listening experience that's as good or better than reading the book? The key is finding the drama.

1) 'The Vertical Ladder' by William Sansom

This is not a standard horror. Nothing supernatural happens. A boy accepts a dare to climbing a derelict gasometer. The horror is in the vertigo and it is utterly compelling.

But Clegg's experience is private. He doesn't speak. He simply climbs. So how do you make that dramatic? I turned the Gasometer into a character. She's about to be 'cut from the sky with fire', she has an agenda. The Gasometer was beautifully played by Pippa Hayward and Clegg by Daniel Anthony, who bravely climbed actual ladders.

2) 'Specialty of the House' by Stanley Ellin

This short, powerful story about an exclusive dining club is structured like Greek tragedy: rules are laid down by a higher power, fate is inescapable, the violence happens off stage. I won't say much about this as it's all about the reveal. My adaptation is very close to the original story, just updated to present-day London. The Samuel Barnett and Kenneth Collard carried the suspense.

3) 'The Black Cat' by Edgar Allan Poe

The Black Cat is a dense, enigmatic and intimidating text, much analysed. Poe had a difficult relationship with alcohol and it can be read as cautionary tale. Another dimension is the sanity-clause: is the hero mad or murder pretending to be so to escape a hanging? This was a contested legal issue in early 1840's, when the story was written. There are interpretations based on 'two cats', 'one cat', and 'no cat but with the wife as instrument of torture'. There are the psychological readings, where each image has its symbolism. And then there are the unanswered questions: what is the hero's trauma, his relationship to God? And let's not forget the simple, gripping supernatural reading.

My adaptation carries all these possibilities, excludes none. The single biggest deviation I made from the text was to add the voice of John's wife, someone who saw his behaviour from the outside and suffered the consequences. I also gave her a name. Barnaby Kay and Samantha Dakin played that relationship with truth.

4) 'Leiningen Versus the Ants' by Carl Stephenson

I read this story as a teenager and remember it vividly. I could hear the sound of the ants, could feel the landscape as a character. I still love the jungle setting, the battle of a man against an elemental force. As with 'Vertical Ladder', however, the lead character battles alone. So I gave him an official observer from the Indian Liaison commission, and placed it in the socio-political climate of 1960's Brazil.

This is the most 'filmic' of the stories, with it rapid short scenes and physical action. David Thomas' sound design is amazing, supporting strong performances from Timothy Watson and Kathryn Drysdale.

5) 'The Judge's House' by Bram Stoker

A tale by the author of Dracula is a must for Halloween. I also think this is one of Stoker's strongest short stories, and completes the collection with a 'haunted house'. My adaptation sticks very closely to the original, but the sound goes above and beyond. Again, no spoilers. But if you don't like rats, this one isn't for you!

The incredible central performance from Luke Thomson, as an academic pushed to the edge of reason, was recorded almost as one rolling take.

I loved working with Karen Rose from Sweet Talk and the fantastic cast at the Fishfactory studios in London. There are thirty volumes of Pan Horror... and we hope to do a few more.

p.s. People in the know may wonder why we didn't do Langelaan's original of The Fly, which is also in Pan Volume 2? Simply because it's too big to be told in 15 minutes... but we have plans to go big with it. Watch this space.


'Pan Horror Volume 2' was first broadcast October 2018 for Fright Night

Produced by Karen Rose

Sweet Talk production for BBC Radio 4


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