Number 16 in the celebrated Pan Book of Horror Stories (“over four million copies sold … fourteen stories to thicken your blood with ice-cold fear”) features a decidedly horrifying tale, ‘The Tunisian Talking Ferret’ (1975) by the otherwise unknown Harry E. Turner.
The story opens with Howard K. Benson, a P.T. Barnum-style showman who is forcing his way through the dense crowds that throng the bazaar of an unnamed Tunisian town. The scene is dream-like, or rather, nightmarish, with the heat of the North African sun, the “ripe, fetid stench” in the cobbled streets coated with slime, the incessant buzzing of flies. The side-streets are thronged with mangy dogs “cringing limply in the shelter of the faded awnings, pink tongues lolling,” whilst naked children eat warm fruit, as their veiled mothers haggle with shopkeepers and stall-holders in “shrill, insistent voices.”
Benson has been told by an anthropologist friend of an incredible talking ferret, and where it may be seen – as a street entertainment in the town’s bazaar. He is determined to purchase this wonder and take it back with him to the United States where it will make his fortune.
An Arab youth agrees to lead him to the ferret on payment of one dinar. He takes Benson to a small, cobbled square, where “half a dozen Negro tumblers” are entertaining the crowd with somersaults and balancing displays. Suddenly, the tumblers disappear, as three figures appear: two heavily-muscled Chinese or Malay minders, dressed in pantaloons with “studded waist belts and foot-long ornate slippers.”
Between these two is an malevolent-looking dwarf dressed in a white kaftan, his shaved head topped with a fez. He carries a wooden cage covered in a black cloth. They walk to the centre of the square, where the dwarf whips away the cloth to reveal “a small brown animal … a pointed ugly snout and fierce black eyes” inside the cage.
The dwarf removes the ferret from the cage so that Benson is able to get a better view. Its mouth opened, to reveal “yellow, pointed teeth,’ and then “its leathery lips formed distinct and separate sounds.” It was speaking in Arabic, in “unmistakably human”and hideous tones.
The ferret turns its head towards Benson, who has made his way to the front of the crowd. Its head swells out from its snout “like a bulbous, matted pumpkin.” Just above its eyes, he can see a livid dent, over which the animal’s fur has only partially covered.
It seemed to Benson that the frightful beast was directing its speech at him, its “long wolfish tongue slicking over guttural phrases with scarcely a pause for breath.”
The dwarf gazed at Benson with undisguised malice…
TO BE CONTINUED