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Midwich Cuckoos and The Beast

The Children's HomeOne of the great strengths of Charles Lambert’s eerie, unsettling short novel is that he sets up an odd world, one which seems inherently plausible but he does not attempt to dot the is and cross the ts of logic. There is sufficient day to day, detailed reality to carry the fantastical elements, and the writing style, which eschews whimsy and the ethereal, rather serves to underline the strange normality of its weirdness. This means that the odd and the more usual versions of ‘reality’ sit alongside each other in a kind of delicious tension of opposition

Morgan Fletcher is the heavily disfigured scion of an extremely wealthy family, whose strange family business goes back for at least a couple of generations. The reader (and Morgan himself) is not quite sure what the family business was – some kind of world trade, as his grandfather amassed all sorts of strange travellers’ curios from far off lands.

Something has happened, some kind of breakdown in society, and Morgan lives in isolation. His wealth means there are various retainers and servants about the place, but no one sees Morgan except his housekeeper, Engel, who arrived some time ago. Outside the walls of Morgan’s empire, there were at some point violent encounters between citizens. We assume as a result of some kind of apocalyptic collapse of society. Various myths have probably circulated about Morgan’s terrible disfigurement, and it’s quite possible that everyone is as afraid of seeing the terribly damaged man as he is of being seen. So one myth which Lambert’s book is hinting at is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – and of course, in the fairy tale, the Beast is actually possessed of far more beauty in his soul than most of the ‘unbeastly’, of unexceptional physiognomy. There are mismatches between the outward mask and the inner beings of many. And Morgan is clearly a good man. However, children begin to arrive at his domain, no one is quite sure from where, or indeed, why. And Morgan’s goodness is shown by the fact he gives them sanctuary. And, pleasingly, the mysterious children are not repelled or frightened by his damaged appearance. Instead, they trust him.

The children are not quite what they seem. They have some curious abilities – their ferocious intelligence, their speeded up development, for one thing. Another literary memory being used is John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. The reader, like the children, like Morgan, begin slowly to become a little less sure of their own, or anyone else’s agenda. There is also a ‘good doctor’ who comes initially to take care of the children’s health, and a firm friendship develops between Morgan and Crane, as they try to understand where the children have come from, who they are, and what is the purpose which Morgan is playing out in their lives.

steam train in snow

There are also sinister forces outside, figures of authority, who threaten the children.

Lambert’s great skill is to start his story in the sweet and light, and by increments to turn those lights down, to create shadows, twilights, rustlings, and slowly leave the reader feeling more and more unsettled and uneasy.

As others have noted, this book crosses genres – it is a literary fiction, post-apocalyptic, science fiction-ish horror fantasy thriller digging around in dark myths and imaginings.

figures in the mist

And its knotted up genres are brilliantly woven together. Lambert leaves the reader (well, for sure he left this one) with the feeling that there are probably further allusions to be found. There is some very dark and shocking stuff – but the darker Lambert gets the more delicately and subtly he describes things. He understands that less is far, far more, he really does

it set me thinking about those books we were given to read as children, about travellers and shipwrecked sailors. How they found themselves in strange lands. magical lands where time went backwards or animals spoke their language. But they weren’t strange or magical to the people who lived there, were they? The people who lived there were normal. How formless it all is until an outsider gives it form

I recommend this strongly – and suggest it is best read when the nights are still quite long, for full uneasy hairs up the back of the neck effect!

I was very happy to receive this as an ARC, from the publishers, Aardvark, via Charles LambertNetGalley. This is the second book I’ve read from Aardvark – on this showing, a most interesting publisher, going outside the mainstream

I was alerted to this wonderfully satisfying and strange read by Fiction Fan. You can read her great review with unsettling graphics here

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