The Children of Light by H L Lawrence

I wrote about Hammer’s 1962 film The Damned back in 2014, and ended by saying that the novel it was based on, H L Lawrence’s The Children of Light (from 1960), was “rather difficult to get hold of”. I set up an AbeBooks want anyway, and seven and a half years later a copy popped up for only £10 — a little battered and page-stained, and with no dust-jacket, but at least it meant I could read it.

Having watched The Damned a fair few times since — it’s become one of my favourite films — what of course stood out on reading the novel were the differences between it and the film, so that’s what I’m going to concentrate on here (which means I’ll be going into plot spoilers for both book and film, so be warned). The basic premise of book and film, though, is the same: a man and woman, thrown together and on the run, stumble upon a secret government enclosure where a number of children are being raised in isolation, their only contact with adults being by TV screens. It turns out these children were born after their mothers were accidentally exposed to lethal doses of radiation, and are, as a result, highly resistant to its effects. Unfortunately, it also means they’re radioactive themselves, and anyone who spends time with them will sicken and die.

The novel kicks off with an immediate difference from the film. The protagonist of the The Damned, Simon Wells, is a holidaying American (imported for box office reasons, in much the same way Hammer did with Brian Donlevy in The Quatermass Xperiment); in The Children of Light, he’s an Englishman, Simon Largwell, and has just murdered his wife. Actually, we later learn (once the author has allowed us to sit with that shock for a moment), it’s not murder but manslaughter, as what really happened was she tried to stab him with a pair of scissors when he discovered her with another man, and in the struggle he accidentally stabbed her. Nevertheless, he runs from the scene, leaving her alive long enough to tell the police it was her husband who did this to her. From this moment, Largwell is on the run. And, as he admits, he’s not very good at it. He heads for the coast, “borrows” a friend’s (very identifiable) car, then has the misfortune to run into a gang of criminal youths, who steal the car and his money, and beat him up pretty thoroughly before deciding that, as he’s a wanted man and is going to hang, they might as well have some fun and see what it looks like when a man is hanged. These, then, are no stylishly strutting youths as in the film, but a bunch of utterly psychopathic criminals with no redeeming features. Whereas in the film their leader (Oliver Reed) is called King, in the book his name is Caesar (the gang, unlikely as it sounds, call themselves the Borgias, and have taken names from characters in Shakespeare). Caesar is nothing but an ultra-violent thug. Joan, the gang-member who goes on the run with Simon, is King’s sister in the film, and King’s slightly incestuous possessiveness of her is what makes him pursue her all the way into the children’s domain; in the book, Joan is Caesar’s half-sister, but the only reason he wants her back when she makes off with Simon is she knows enough to see him hang, and he’d rather she were dead than in the hands of the police.

1962 PB edition

Simon and Joan, on the run, happen upon a War Department enclosure and, despite the fact it says it’s a minefield, go in. Unlike the film, it’s not on the coast, though they do end up falling down a cliff — in this case, not to a beach but an artificial pit-like area in the middle of the countryside where the children are kept. Here, just as in the book, the adults are found and taken in by the children. (Simon has broken his arm in the fall. One of the children, already an expert doctor, gives him an advanced healing drug that will bind the bone in days rather than weeks.)

Unlike the children of the film, though, these kids aren’t cold to the touch. But it’s possible that idea came from a scene in the book where they first meet Simon and Joan. One child touches Joan’s arm and says:

“She’s warm!—she’s warm! She’s not cold. I said she’d be warm!”

And another child, Sylvia, says:

“That’s very rude. Besides, I told you they were warm, and just like us.”

So, it’s just that the children, bereft of adult contact (except, perhaps, with men in radiation suits), have simply got into believing adults might be cold. (More, perhaps, from the lack of emotional warmth they’ve experienced than anything else. This is one of the novel’s few insightful moments into what life must be like for these poor children.) Unlike the film, the kids don’t believe they’re in a spaceship bound for another planet. We don’t really know they’ve been told anything. But their education is at once highly practical (there are tractors and other agricultural equipment in their stores), highly scientific (these 10-year-olds can quote the radiation resistance of various micro-organisms from memory), and highly impractical (they’re taught ballet and interior décor) — that is, impractical considering these fourteen children are expected to be the lone survivors of the human race, and painting their future homes in coordinating colours is likely to be one of the last things they’ll need to know.

1962 Italian translation. The title means something like The Isolation Pit.

Which leads to another key difference with the film. In The Damned, these children are an insurance policy against the assumed inevitable end of the world through nuclear war. They alone will survive the high levels of post-war radiation. In The Children of Light, Lawrence has his characters dismiss the idea there’s ever going to be a nuclear war, but it turns out the children are needed for a different reason. The amount of radiation released into the atmosphere already, simply through testing bigger and bigger H-bombs, has resulted in the gradual sterilisation of humankind. This has affected people living in mountain areas first of all, but has started to trickle down to lower elevations. It’s only just beginning to be noticed by the press, and is going to result, sometime or other — or so the authorities believe — in a mass panic. And this is the reason they have to keep the children secret: if a foreign power learned of them, it would want a say in the their upbringing. As it is, the British want a monopoly on this hope for the future, and are intent on equipping these children to found an ideal (to their thinking) civilisation after the current one collapses. Johnny Parks, a reporter, comes across an example of what the children are being taught in an essay in one of their exercise books:

“We (he read) will be known as The Race. In our minds and hearts we shall carry all the knowledge and wisdom of the Past. We shall create in an empty world the people of the future, free from racial pride, free from the Babylon of speech confusion, free from the terrifying superstitions of the past so-called religions, free, for the first time in human history, to form a society of healthy, intelligent Beings; we shall have the knowledge of every science, from the beginning; knowledge will be all we shall have; but as we shall increase in numbers, we shall be able to use our knowledge and once again force Nature to provide us with all we need. Mankind, the Old People, are doomed to perish at the dawn of the Space Age. We shall begin, in a few generations, where they finished. But this time we shall begin as One People, The Race, with neither false pride nor false illusions to frustrate us.”

(To which Johnny thinks: “My God—what a hunk of drivel… What the hell is this—a school for scientific political nuts?” … And need I add that, unlike the film, in the book all the children are platinum blond? It’s The Midwich Cuckoos again, only through radioactive disaster rather than alien invasion.)

(…And another point about the children in the book. We’re given all their names, and the first thing you notice is that the boys have surnames, but the girls don’t. Presumably their governmental “parents” decided there was no point giving the girls surnames as they’d only lose them when they grew up and got married. The other thing is that most of the boys have thoroughly normal-for-the-day English-sounding names — James Robinson, Albert Jones, Henry King — but one is called George Orwell!)

1979 Italian PB

Johnny Parks is another difference between the novel and the film. Whereas in the film King follows Joan and Simon into the children’s domain out of a need to get his sister back (and retain control of her), in the book Caesar contacts a local reporter, Johnny, to get him to find out if Joan is alive or dead. Because, some time after Simon and Joan enter the War Department enclosure, an explosion is heard and body parts are found, which are claimed to be the couple, who are then officially declared dead. But Caesar knows different. The remains were supposedly identified thanks to a silver cigarette lighter belonging to Simon Largwell, but Caesar knows Simon didn’t have that lighter on him, because he personally stole all of Simon’s possessions of any value. So, their death is a cover-up. Obviously, Caesar can’t go to the police with this; and anyway he just wants to be sure Joan really is dead, so as not to have to worry about her telling the police about his crimes. Johnny is intrigued by the air of government secrets and gets into the enclosure. There, he meets Simon and Joan and the kids, and arranges an escape. It’s meant to be just the three adults escaping, but one of the kids, Sylvia, tags along, desperate to see something of the outside world. They start to head back to London, where Johnny is going to give the story to a national newspaper. In the film, the characters escape but don’t get far before being captured, and by that point we know they’re dying of radiation poisoning anyway. In the book, about the final quarter is taken up with the characters’ attempts to reach London and get the story out, while the secret government organisation in charge of the kids attempts to silence them.

What’s also interesting is what’s in the film but not the book. One of the things I like about The Damned is that, as well as its Wyndhamesque science fiction elements, it has a lot of character moments extraneous to the plot. The book, being much more of a breathless thriller, has far fewer of these, meaning the film feels more novelistic than the book. The clearest example of this is the character of the sculptress, Freya Neilson, who is completely absent from the book. In The Children of Light, Bernard (who’s in charge of Project Mannekin, as the operation to raise the children is called) is nothing but a government official, driven entirely by the need to protect the children and the single hope for the future they represent. (He refers to himself and his fellows on the project as “custodians of our human heritage”.) In the film, he’s humanised by being in a relationship with the artistic Freya (though ultimately proves to be equally singleminded as the novel’s version).

Overall, I think the film makes improvements on the novel, sometimes in big ways (bringing in the character of Freya), sometimes in small ways (the fact that the children in the film have all selected pictures from books which they pretend are of their parents), all of which add a depth of character that’s mostly absent from the book. Johnny Parks, the reporter, is the one character I miss from the book, but it’s easy to see why he was dropped (to allow more screen-time for Oliver Reed). If nothing else, the book — like all thrillers, I expect — is a good gauge of what your average person in early 1960s Britain might have been worried about: the dangers of nuclear weapons, the scariness of violent youth gangs, and perhaps a growing suspicion the government were up to something secret and had the power to keep it covered up.

The author’s full name was Henry Lionel Lawrence. He was born in 1908 in Lambeth (and baptised Catholic), and died in Colchester in 1990. His parents were music hall artists, meaning young Henry and his siblings spent a lot of time moving about. He was educated in the north of England, and had some short stories published in his early twenties. (I’ve only been able to find one, which was subsequently anthologised, “A Journey by Train”, about an encounter with a man who was dead for four days before being revived, and is now overcome by occasional murderous urges.) Lawrence worked as an advertising copywriter. He moved to Australia for a while, then Ceylon, but was back in Britain in time to join the RAF during World War II (when he served as a photographer with a Bomber Command Pathfinder unit). He was married, and had a daughter by the time of his first novel, at which point he was “a Senior Copywriter in a well-known London Agency” (according to the jacket blurb of Children of Light). His second novel, another thriller, The Spartan Medal, came out in 1961, and he seems to have published no more after that, though a 1979 biographical snippet lists him as being a member of the Crime Writers Association, PEN, and the Television and Screen Writers Guild.

Comments (2)

  1. Ramsey Campbell says:

    Thanks for all the insights! One tiny point – Losey wanted Freya to be shot by someone in the helicopter, but the producers overruled this.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Interesting. I can see why they might have overruled him, as being shot by a character we know has more emotional impact.

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