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Children of the Night

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Panther, London, 1970
first published by Jonathan Cape, 1966
(price: 6/- 30p, 160 pages)

The blurb on the back:

The children of evil wake...
The rural peace is shattered by a series of gruesome and mysterious deaths. Not murders in the ordinary sense, but the work of some malignant, unnatural, deadly force ... who are the Children of the Night, who creep out of the ground and grip a whole village in terror of their ancient vileness? Their secret lies centuries in the past, but what of the future? What of their foul deeds of tomorrow?
John Blackburn, 'today's master of horror', leads the reader shivering in suspense to a spine-chilling climax of surpassing terror.

In its modern form, horror has been around for nearly 250 years now, since the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, so inevitably it's been though a few lean periods in that time. In Britain in the late-1950s and 1960s, for example, there was hardly anything happening at all. Down at your local Odeon, Hammer was reinventing the horror movie, whilst over in America the likes of Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson were transcending the somewhat lumpen legacy of Weird Tales, but in terms of British literature you might be forgiven for thinking that the best we had to offer was Dennis Wheatley. Except that there was one man in those pre-Herbert, pre-Campbell times who was mining his own seam and who deserves to be more widely celebrated as a major novelist.

John Blackburn's first novel was A Scent of New-Mown Hay in 1958 and set the tone for much of his work. A free-wheeling blend of science fiction, terror and Cold War tension, all firmly set in a world shaped by the catastrophe of the Second World War, it had no respect for generic demarcation but was still unmistakeably horror. A long string of books followed, of which this one, Children of the Night, is both representative and exceptional.

The premise is a local Scottish legend about a medieval religious sect known as the Children of Paul. Founded by a charismatic monk from Ely, whose scientific studies suggested he might be a precursor of Copernicus, this fanatical group supposedly disappeared into caves below a desolate moor in 1300 to await the coming of Judgement Day, which Paul had fixed as being exactly 666 years in the future. The novel is set in 1966 and strange things are happening in the locality. Could it be that the descendants of the Children of Paul are preparing to re-emerge?

Partly the joy of the book is the sheer scale of the elements that Blackburn combines in such a short work: millennial cults, Satanism and local legend collide with the great myth of Sawney Bean (the Scottish cave-dwelling outlaw and cannibal who may have influenced the subsequent story of Sweeney Todd). But there's also an entirely separate strain of satire going on. Stuff like this:

Dr Russell Fenge, Lord Bishop of Welcott, sometimes described in the right-wing press as the 'despicable bishop of Welcott', was a liberal churchman and against things. High on the list of his hates were capital punishment, class and race discrimination, nuclear armaments, and the Holy Ghost. He often referred to himself as a rational Christian, and his best-selling work of popular theology, God Knows, proved his deep and comforting faith in the impotence of the Deity.

Well, it amused me. As did the idea that the Bishop has a signed photo of Dr Hastings Banda on the wall of his study. And it made me wonder about the curious fact that in the so-called permissive 1960s and '70s there was such a strong right-wing vein in popular fiction: there's the obvious political stuff like The Chilian Club, but also George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman books, and Frederick Forsythe and things like this. I don't what, if anything, it means - I just thought I'd mention it.

Anyway, this book is highly recommended. Later work by Blackburn - including Nothing But The Night, which Christopher Lee filmed - was stylistically more refined, but this is the most intriguing proposition, a fascinating concoction that has a clear line of influence on James Herbert.


see some bonus covers from John Blackburn:
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A Scent of
New-Mown Hay
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Devil Daddy