"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

[Book Review] Children of the Night by John Blackburn

My 2014 edition of Children of the Night by John Blackburn (originally from Jonathan Cape in 1966) was published by Valancourt Books. Valancourt has reissued seventeen of Blackburn's thrillers over the last decade. This helps bring back into focus the actual outlines of UK literary horror production and reception: between 1940 and 1970, horror readers were not simply biding their time waiting for the Ramsey Campbells and James Herberts to hatch. 

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Children of the Night is a heady and highly concentrated mix of cursed village, taboo moorland, sudden murderous madness, secret cults, and forsaken tin mines in a charming postage stamp of land in the northeast UK called Dunstonholme.

Blackburn's heroes (of the professional medical-military-colonial petty bourgeois meritocracy type) must butt heads literally with occult (hidden) forces in the area. Ultimately, they will also have to take on local potentates of church and state power: only the local doctor Tom Allen and professional adventurer Moldon Mott are smart enough to solve the mystery and try saving the day.

Shocked by early, sudden, and inexplicable violence and death in his locality, Dr. Allen learns the best source of facts about Dunstonholme lore is vicar David Ainger.

[....]It was pretty late. [Tom Allen] had arranged to meet Mary at seven-fifteen, and the church clock showed almost that now, though the sun was still high in the sky. Only a few more days to midsummer. The heather wasn't out, of course, but some trick of light gave the near-by hills a deep purple tinge which contrasted beautifully with the pale green of the sea. Tom glanced through the railings as he passed the church. There were some interesting monuments in the churchyard, all of them somehow connected with the sea, which often brought visitors to the village at week-ends. A shattered spar in a stone shrine: TO THE CREW OF THE BRIG, THREE BROTHERS, WHO PERISHED DURING THE GREAT GALE, DECEMBER 1843 . . . A cross with an anchor chain twined around it: IN MEMORY OF LIEUTENANT JOHN SPRAGGE, WHO DIED OF WOUNDS OFF CAPE SAINT VINCENT . . . A very old cross with the Latin inscription worn away, but he had been told that it once read: TO THE MURDERED VILLAGERS OF DUNSTONHOLME, JUNE 1300 – GOD WILL REPAY. He was almost at the end of the railings, when a tall gaunt figure wearing a clerical collar came out of the lych-gate and blocked his way.

     'Ah, there you are, Dr. Allen. I was hoping to catch you. I rather wanted to have a word with you about poor Joe Bates.'

     'Of course, Padre, but wouldn't tomorrow do? I am in a bit of a hurry.' About half the village called the Reverend David Ainger 'father', and the rest 'vicar', but Tom used the military compromise. 'I'm meeting Mary at the Crown, you see and . . .' Behind them the clock struck the quarter.

     'Oh, I'll not keep you long, my boy, and I'm sure the clientele of the Crown won't let your pretty wife be lonely. It really is important to me that we have a chat.'

     'All right, Padre, if you promise it won't be long.' Ainger had a long sallow face which looked as though it had been roughly modelled out of plasticine, but one of the most appealing smiles Tom had ever known. Added to that was an aura which he could only describe as 'goodness'. An impersonal charm that made one want to fit in with his wishes, however irksome they might be. He nodded and followed him across to the vicarage, and into the little gloomy library he called his den.

     'Do sit down, Doctor. Oh, excuse me.' The room was littered with books and papers and Ainger removed two heavy volumes from a chair.

     'That's better.' He leaned against the fire-place and pulled out his pipe, not lighting it, but fiddling with the bowl.

     'I've been to the police station, but they wouldn't let me see Bates, though I did have a few words with Constable Rutter. What I want to ask you is this: do you personally consider that Joe is a lunatic, a cunning murderer, or a person who really did have some sort of supernatural experience?'

     'Isn't that a bit of an unfair question, Padre?' Tom tried to settle himself more comfortably in his chair. A loose spring was digging sharply into his thigh. 'After all, I'm just a country G.P., not a detective, a psychiatrist, or a priest. All I can say is what I told the sergeant they sent over from Welcott.'

     'And could you repeat that to me, Dr. Allen?' As though suddenly remembering his duties as host, Ainger crossed to a cupboard and poured out two glasses of thick brown liquid. 'I really have a good reason for wanting to know.'

     'Of course, I can. There was very little to it. Thank you.' The sherry was sweet and cloying, but Tom sipped at it and told Ainger exactly what he had said to Fenwick. Bates suffered from a weakness of the aorta which could have caused a black-out under severe strain; he had a feeble mentality which, coupled with guilt, might have attributed an act of anger to some divine intervention. Ainger obviously knew all about the way that Bates had been treated over the years by his employer.

     As he talked, Tom studied the room. Ainger had been a celebrated mountaineer in his time, and the walls were covered by photographs of roped figures balanced on precipices, or crawling up arĂȘtes and dank gullies. A tough old boy, and apparently quite a scholar too. Though he was no theologian himself, he could see that these books were the real thing. Most of the major Greeks bound in leather, Aquinas, Augustine in the Bretain edition, Von Hugel wedged against Spinoza, and not a trace of the popular works which usually take pride of place in Anglican libraries.

     The next case appeared to be devoted to a wide range of subjects, and some of them disturbed him slightly. Among The Golden Bough, Patterns of Culture, and other standard books on anthropology were dotted: Marshall's Cult of the Werewolf, Weber's Devil in Western Europe, and a number of medical books. In the top shelf he could see Winter & Reynard's Teratology . . . A Study of Monstrous Birth. Its coloured illustrations had given him several sleepless nights when he was a student.

     'Thank you, Doctor.' Ainger put down his glass with a sharp click as he finished speaking. 'You preserve a completely open mind, in fact. Colonel Keith provoked Joe Bates just once too often and in the wrong place. He died because Joe was either mentally or physically ill, and that's all there is to it. You haven't thought that his death might be connected with certain other events which have happened in this village?'

     'Sorry, but I'm not with you, Padre.' The grandfather clock in the corner showed the half hour. As a doctor's wife, Mary was used to waiting, but this was their day off. 'What other events do you mean?'

     'With the salvage ship, perhaps. No, please bear with me a little longer, my boy.' Ainger took a newspaper from his table. 'By all accounts, her master was a most reliable man, yet he suddenly appeared to go mad and charged out to sea through thick fog, destroying himself, his crew, and the crew of that unfortunate tanker which happened to be in his way.

     'And today, Joe Bates goes mad too. He'd worked for Keith for years and he must have taken him up Boxer's Hill a hundred times. Why should he suddenly have this stroke or black-out, or whatever it was, and tell a story about feeling that he was being buried alive?

     'You've known Joe for some time, Dr. Allen. Do you think he is capable of making it all up?'

     'No, and I said so to Sergeant Fenwick.' Tom frowned. 'At the same time, the mind plays queer tricks on one now and again, and he might have imagined it.

     'But I can't see any possible connection between him and the Dalecrest. Nobody can even guess what happened to her till there has been a full inquiry, and even then . . .' He broke off and shrugged his shoulders.

     'Quite right. I don't think we'll know even after the inquiry. Not unless they find survivors, and that appears unlikely now.' Ainger crossed to the window and stared out at the bay, with the sunlight glinting on his spectacles.

     'But there have been a lot of unexplained tragedies in this district over the centuries, haven't there? What really happened to the Children of Paul? Why should a group of normally peaceful people suddenly turn into vicious murderers?'

     'I haven't the slightest idea, Padre. After all, it happened several hundred years ago.' Tom struggled to conceal his irritation. He was fond of Ainger, but the old boy really did appear to be getting very strange.

     The Children of Paul were members of a religious cult led by a monk named Paul of Ely. Like many other medieval sects, they believed themselves to be contaminated by the rest of humanity, and decided to withdraw from the world. The story went that they arrived in Dunstonholme in 1300 on their way to one of the Feyne Islands where they hoped to found their community. Being refused transport by the Franklin, they killed the villagers and the small garrison of the castle, and set out in stolen boats which promptly capsized and drowned all of them. There was some factual evidence, Tom supposed, but most of it was just legend, like Arthur, and Robin Hood, and Gog-Magog.

     'Yes, six hundred and sixty-six years ago, almost to a day, but there have been more recent events as well.' Ainger's voice droned on against the tick of the clock. 'Do you know why we have no railway here? They started a line from Welcott, but it was never finished. When they got as far as the moors, the navvies refused to work on the cutting.

     'Then there was the lead mine up near Salter's Gate. Lord Mayne financed it to ease local unemployment in 1880, but it closed down after only a few weeks, because nobody would work there. They said there was a curse on the place.'

     'I thought the shaft was supposed to be unsafe because of loose rock.' How old was Ainger, Tom wondered? At least seventy-five, and his mind appeared to be running down fast. There were no relatives either. They'd have to see about finding him a living-in housekeeper if he got any worse.

     'Yes, that was the official reason they gave for the closure, but no local people believed it. There are more things though; so many more.' Ainger turned from the window and stared at a tarnished silver crucifix on the far wall. Behind his glasses, the eyes didn't look as though they were focusing correctly.

     'The night the American ship was bombed, for instance. That terrible business at Pounder's Hole. You probably think I'm mad, Doctor, and in a way I hope you are right. But, I honestly believe that all these events are connected, and there is something hellish surrounding this village. A dreadful danger which is going to break out very soon.'

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In leanness and tone Children of the Night has much in common with early post-WW2 thrillers by Maclean and Bagley. Blackburn's strength in Children of the Night is dramatizing thriller crises in wild and dangerous landscapes whose history of ancient menace coexists with the modern world.


28 May 2022

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