Not your average village.

Not your average village.

“One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September.”

Hallowe’en creeps ever nearer (as an aside, where the hell has this year gone?) and so feeling in an October-y mood, I settled on reading a book with an all-pervasive unease about it. If you’ve not heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, you’ve possibly heard of the film it spawned, Village of the Damned. Yes, we’re talking today about creepy children, a horror trope as old as the hills.

The tiny village of Midwich sits somewhere in the English countryside and has, for the last millennium, pretty much avoided scrutiny and escaped any drama or important historical happenstance. But all this changes when, on the night of the 26th of September one year, the phones die, the power goes out and everybody in the village falls asleep. When residents from nearby towns go to try and see what has happened, they do not return.

Police discover that there is a point some two miles from the village’s centre that, when crossed, causes anyone to pass out. Even the drivers of the vehicles sent in have fallen asleep and are now blocking up the roads. After a day of this, the strange force field vanishes and everyone in Midwich wakes up again with no memory of what they term the Dayout. Life continues on and the event begins to feel unreal. But then, a few weeks later, it turns out that every woman of child-bearing age in the village is pregnant.

When accusations of extramarital affairs and the like are unfounded, the villagers decide that this must be something to do with the Dayout, and await the births of their children to see how natural the infants are. All the children are born on the same day, and they are definitely not what anyone expected. All of them look practically identical, with blonde hair and gold eyes, and it quickly becomes apparent that they are aging far quicker than anyone could imagine. Not only that, they appear to share some kind of hive mind, and before long they have the entire village under their control.

First and foremost, this book is bloody creepy. The Children are emotionless, bland and terrifying, with a different moral code to humans (they are definitely not human) and the ability to make people do their bidding. This is particularly notable when they stop any villagers from leaving the area, but they are responsible for numerous deaths too. Being young, despite their appearance, they perhaps do not understand their power.

Just having to run an image search for this picture creeped me out.

Just having to run an image search for this picture creeped me out.

But on the other hand, it’s sometimes very clear that they know exactly what they’re doing. While the three main characters who are trying to work out what’s going on – Richard Gayford, the narrator and innocent bystander; Gordon Zellaby, a mentor to the Children; and Bernard Westcott, part of a Military Intelligence team – are fairly interchangeable and none of them are particularly great characters (Zellaby perhaps excepted, due to his amazingly long-winded manner of speaking), the magic here lies with the Children. Although they have few lines and do not really come into their own until over halfway through the book, they remain captivating.

It’s also interesting to read a book with a slightly more old-fashioned tone and set of ideals containing a science fiction plot. It’s sort of like if Agatha Christie had suddenly decided to introduce vampires into one of her murder mysteries. Good fun is to be had though with placing these events into our world. The characters are familiar with H G Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds, and so the idea that the children are aliens is not met with complete scorn.

Although occasionally over-wordy, and finishing off in a place which to me felt too soon, it’s a brilliant book. The fear comes in slowly at first, but then settles with a chill and frankly there is little I find scarier than the idea of a group of telekinetic hive-mind kids controlling me. I suppose it’s not really about children, though, it just once again brings into play humanity’s fear of being conquered by something more powerful than themselves.There’s a line in it about how the only reason we’ve taken over the world is because our brains are bigger and better than any other species, so when we’re faced with a race that beats us at that, we are in serious trouble.

If you like the hairs on the back of your neck to stand to attention, and enjoy the feeling of not knowing if you’re going to get a relaxed night sleep ever again, then give the book a go. It’s clever, and occasionally dryly funny, and above all probably still less creepy than the film, making it really the better option of the two. Then again, the book always is.