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.


English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby

At the end of this exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) film-by-film history of English horror cinema, Jonathan Rigby quotes Anne Billson on the special place Gothic has for the English:

‘Horror thrives best when emotions are bottled up, and no one bottles them up quite like us.’

I’m not sure this is true of all horror. I’d say the US horror films, like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which put an end to the 20th century’s main British horror boom, are more about political than emotional repression — when they’re not simply about pure, primal terror, that is. Certainly, they don’t work in that stiff-upper lip way Hammer’s fairy-tale Gothics do. Perhaps that’s why the term ‘Gothic’ seems so much more appropriate to English horror cinema. (Though Rigby has also written books on European Gothic and American Gothic.)

Although Rigby mentions a welter of early horror films in his first chapter (covering 1897 to 1953), things (as well as Things) really kick off in 1954, with Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, which made a marketing virtue of its ‘X’ certificate (brought in by the BBFC in 1951, to exclude under-16s). That film’s success led to the ‘First Flood’ of British horror (as Rigby titles the chapter), most of which were science fiction horrors, or the sort of costume-drama Gothics that Hammer were to make so much their own.

Right from the start, British critics and censors did their best to act as the repressing super-ego to these horror films’ blasts of unleashed id, complaining of a surging tide of boundaries-testing ‘sex and sadism’ (that nowadays seems merely quaint), which led to a slow choking-off of this initial horror boom in the first half of the 1960s, when horror filmmaking in Britain seems to have been dominated by costume Gothics (not just Hammer, but Roger Corman’s Poe films, too), alongside some respectable one-offs like The Innocents, The Haunting, and Repulsion. (Michael Powell, with his 1960 film Peeping Tom, became the sacrificial lamb to the repressive critics’ slaughter.) With the social changes of the 1960s, that critical repression flipped into outright prurience by the early 1970s, when a glut of US investment led to the films Rigby covers in a chapter called ‘Market Saturation’. After Hammer finally went to the Devil (literally — their last film being 1975’s To the Devil a Daughter), Rigby lumps the rest of the 20th century into a single chapter titled ‘British Horror in Retreat’.

Jonathan Rigby

That’s where the first edition of English Gothic ended. In this new (2015) edition, there’s a new chapter, ‘Risen from the Grave: 2000–2015’, covering the period which contains, among other things, Hammer’s own resurrection, its most characteristic film being (again) in period costume (The Lady in Black).

Perhaps it’s notable that Hammer had their success at the same time as the Carry On films. Both relied for their character on British prudishness, and both failed to adapt to the changing mores of the latter half of the 1960s (trying and failing in, for instance, Carry on Loving on the one hand and Dracula 1972 A.D. on the other), finally giving way to pulpier home-grown product which was far less repressed, and less finessed (Prey, Frightmare) — which themselves failed in the face of the fully explicit, overseas-made films of the video-driven 1980s.

I wonder if perhaps the horror genre will always have two opposing strands to it: the shocking, gory, explicitly violent side and the more dreamy, surreal, Gothic side. As people get tired of the excesses — or used to the shocks — of one (too much blood, or too little), the other has a breakout success. Hence, for instance, the boom of ghostly and surreal Asian horror films at the turn of the millennium, which then gave way to the excessively physical terrors of the Saw franchise five years later.

Some of my favourite British horror films have their feet in both camps — Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, or Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, for instance — but I much prefer the dreamy, supernatural, Gothic side: chills rather than shocks, and spooks rather than psychopaths.


The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, most notably being his children.