Wednesday, October 31, 2012

John Blackburn, Children of the Night (1966)

Blackburn, John, Children of the Night, London: Jonathan Cape, 1966
____________, Children of the Night, Panther, 1968 (first Panther edition)
____________, Children of the Night, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969 (Red Mask Mystery series, cover below)
____________, Children of the Night, Panther, 1970. 158 pages (cover by Alan Lee; my edition, right)

Children of the Night at Goodreads
Children of the Night at ISFdb
Children of the Night at IBList

Rating: 6/10

(Originally intended for Friday's Forgotten Books, I decided I'll post instead on Halloween. Perhaps this coming Friday...)

(For other Forgotten Books, please flip over to Patti Abbott's page.)

Strange things are occurring around the Moorish community of Dunstonholme, odd events proving fatal to the simple townsfolk. When the local priest is found dead Dr. Tom Allen and adventurer Moldon Mott begin to investigate the events, and uncover an unlikely cause to the recent bouts of insanity.

Blackburn is not a well-remembered author, though he does appear to have somewhat of a following, and Children of the Night seems to be among his most loved (or at least best-remembered) novels. He was fairly prolific, and one might expect that in a decade when little horror of note was being produced in the UK, Blackburn would have been more of a household name. Perhaps it was a decade during which the public wasn't interested in horror, still rebuilding twenty years after World War II. That war is mentioned and alluded to throughout the novel, clearly very much present in 1960s British consciousness. Having read only this single novel, I won't speculate further on his status as half-remembered author; while Children of the Night is entertaining and, if you choose to think about it rather than forget it, even interesting, it is not a novel that stands up to the better plotted mysteries of both earlier and later decades. Unfortunately a strong first half is followed by plodding sequences that lead to an expected finale. The interesting aspect is that Blackburn manages to mix many separate genre elements into such a short and simply plotted work.

Children of the Night is presented as a cozy mystery, upholding many traditional elements of suspense, along with its stock characters (though well drawn), simple tensions and bits of humour. Despite strong mystery elements, it revolves around a distinct supernatural element. Moreover, the book is more violent, with a greater body count than cozy mysteries are normally prone to, and the looming threat has not just a community affected, but potentially the entire world. The combination of elements work well overall, and we are not suddenly surprised by the supernatural since (other than those fantastical covers) it is made clear right off the bat that we are dealing with a supernatural and sinister mystery. Though there is nothing terribly shocking about the reveal, it is certainly interesting, and if you think about it seriously, beyond the scope of fantasy, quite disturbing.

The writing is straightforward with a few sloppy moments. The book is a fast read because of the straightforward prose, yet also because it is mostly plot-centric (aside from some satire and the plodding filler I mention earlier), not to mention short. (There is also something about these Panther paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s that are a pleasure to read; luckily my copy is in excellent condition and the pages are white. The speed was also likely influenced by the fact that I'm taking a break from Shogun after completing over eight hundred pages.)

The characters are definitely stock and act as we would expect them to, but this works well since we are so focused on the mystery. The added humour also helps, but it's the satire that comes across the ridiculous sayings and doings of certain negative characters that helps to heighten character; some are stock but do serve a purpose above the restrictions of plot, if only to illustration some specific points.

I love the covers, both of them. The idea is that there is an entity in the earth that is seriously affecting the minds and actions of the people above, and these earth-integrated faces adapt nicely. The one above, my copy, throws in some worms, while the one below adds a handful of naked people. Interesting about the blurb on the Panther front cover: "They crept out of the earth, gripping men in the terror of their ancient evil." There is a monologue by a priest that questions the notion of "evil" in people, stating that there is no such thing as "evil" but that people are forced to live and act within circumstance. Perhaps the blurb penner missed this point, or is refuting the idea (likely he never the book). What makes this interesting is that the priest in question is an unambiguously negative character, and yet he makes a valid and humanitarian point. I wonder if, since he is so denigrated by the author, perhaps Blackburn believed in classic notions of evil?

Occasionally the novel evokes the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, with rational characters getting involved in ancient destructive "evil," but I wouldn't claim there are direct references or aims to imitate, since the cozyness of the mystery element is more aligned to that of twentieth century British mystery authors. Moreover, once the reveal has taken place about a third of the way through the text, the author focuses considerably on satire, and that extended satire (with elements of parody) makes of the novel something quite fresh. Though it's been years since I've read it, I found myself at times thinking of John Wyndham's 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes (aka Out of the Deeps).

The plodding follows the good satire by trying to fill a gap between the novel's mystery, which is solved around page 100, to its climax which begins at about page 135. This sequence is unnecessary and uninteresting as it tries to extend the satire and adds moments of obvious and generic humour.

Overall highly entertaining, and I'm happy to note that when I picked this book up in a pile of book fair rejects I was fortunate to have nabbed another Blackburn novel, Nothing but the Night (1968; despite the similar title the two are unrelated). I'll reserve it for when I need another quick read.

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As of 24 December 2015