The Kids Are Not Alright

Good kids gone bad

The survival of the human species presumably depends on us mostly liking children. And yet we seem to produce countless narratives about kids that are at best rather creepy and at worst, literally the spawn of the Devil. We’ve all seen plenty of scary-child films – The Shining and The Omen have left me with a strange phobia of small children on tricycles – but the creepy kid appears frequently in literature too, presumably because we fear the slightly grotesque juxtaposition of innocence and evil.

John Wyndham is one of those authors known for a book that is far from his best, Day Of The Triffids. However, I firmly believe him to be one of the best science-fiction authors of the 20th century. His 1950s classic The Midwich Cuckoos begins, chillingly, with an entire English village grinding suddenly to a mysterious temporary halt, its inhabitants dropping unconscious where they stand. Only afterwards do all the women of childbearing age – married or unmarried, fertile or not – realise they are pregnant, and all the babies are due at the same time.

So, rather than one creepy kid, we’ve got fifty or sixty, and it’s the numbers that make the Midwich Cuckoos so sinister. Each of them eerily alike, with their white-blonde hair and silvery-pale skin, they grow into a quietly megalomaniac alien hive-mind. And yet somehow, it’s not their intention to conquer Earth that’s so scary – more the chilling matter-of-factness with which they go about it. The themes of mind control and alien-possessed children recur in Wyndham’s later novel, Chocky, adapted for television in the 1980s, but it’s The Midwich Cuckoos that will make you shudder.

The Midwich Cuckoos, of course, have the excuse of being aliens. The screaming, fractious, difficult baby born to ambivalent new mother Eva Khatchadourian in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a human child, but there are times when Eva appears to doubt it.

I wouldn’t recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin for pregnant women. Kevin’s clever, subtly calculating methods of undermining and tormenting his mother are nightmarishly inventive, gradually escalating as he gets older as if he is engaged in a non-stop, sociopathic battle of wits with her. By the time we realise the appalling end to Kevin’s story – the whole book is told retrospectively through a series of letters, with a plot device that isn’t so much a twist as a smack in the back of the head with a brick – he certainly appears to be unequivocally sociopathic, a demonic ‘bad seed’ with an innately evil nature.

And yet, there are doubts. Eva was reluctant to have a child, and lacks maternal instincts; moreover, Kevin has scuppered her career as a travel writer. When the newborn Kevin cries incessantly and angrily and Eva feels nothing but suspicion and fear, is he simply a distressed baby picking up on his mother’s resentment? Does Kevin hate his mother because he’s a vicious sociopath, or because he believes she hated him first? Ultimately, could it be possible that Eva has made Kevin what he is?

Full of unsettling ambiguities, We Need To Talk About Kevin takes every nagging anxiety and doubt any woman has had about mother-baby bonding, and weaves them into a dark tangle of a novel that manages to be relentlessly, oppressively sinister and yet also desperately sad. The book ends with Eva continuing to stick by the son who has tormented and terrorised her since the day of his birth. Is she martyring herself to make amends, or is her strange, apparently unloving compulsion something more akin to Rosemary’s reaction to her new born demon child in the famous Levin potboiler, Rosemary’s Baby?

Amanda Coe’s What They Do In The Dark, on the other hand, is pretty unequivocal about what it takes for a child to commit the sort of crime that brings to mind CCTV images of two little boys leading a toddler out of a shopping centre. Set in the uniquely seedy 1970s, the days of the Yorkshire Ripper and Lena Zavaroni winning talent shows at nine years old with a vaguely age-inappropriate song about men flirting with her, What They Do In The Dark is a novel about the destruction of innocence.

Pauline and Gemma are very different girls: Gemma is materially spoilt, snobbish and complacent, while Pauline is an unloved bully from a squalid, chaotic household, yet they are both vulnerable and appallingly let down by the adults charged with their care. The consequences of this are a denouement so shocking, and yet so sickeningly credible, that I found it almost unbearable to read. The horror actually comes less from what the girls do (although this too is gut-wrenchingly awful) but the way it’s shown, through the eyes and language of a child. What They Do In The Dark is a bleak novel about the complexities of childhood and the failures of adults. It makes you feel almost guilty for being a grown-up in a society that can be so negligent in its duty to kids that they can be driven to commit such acts.

There’s something peculiar about Liz Jensen’s Bethany Krall in her gripping eco-thriller, The Rapture. In many ways she’s a typical teenage emo-brat, self-harming for a hobby and doing her level best to grab attention in the most obnoxious of ways. On the other hand, she’s also confined to a psychiatric hospital after stabbing her mother to death with a screwdriver and has exhilarating apocalyptic premonitions brought on by the electric-shock treatment to which she’s become almost comically addicted. In between begging for ‘the volts’ and subjecting her psychiatrist Gabrielle to disablist abuse, Bethany occasionally lets slip the odd detail here about her life before she was sectioned, and it soon becomes obvious that Bethany has quite a tale to tell about her father, a charismatic evangelical preacher.

Bethany is almost unceasingly dislikeable – even hearing about the abuse she suffered at her parents’ hands, I still struggled to sympathise – and there is much of the troubled-teen cliché about her, but she’s oddly convincing nonetheless. Like all teenagers, she can think with the mind of a calculating adult at times, and yet is simultaneously and desperately childish: the world after the imminent environmental disaster she correctly foresees, she says, will be called Bethanyland. And in Bethanyland, Gabrielle realises, there will be ‘no green fields, no safe place for a child to play, nothing but a struggle for water, for food, for hope.’

More evil children:

The Bad Seed by William March – adapted into a rather good film in the 1950s, The Bad Seed could be easily dismissed as a mid-20th century schlock pulp novel (and was reissued around a decade ago with a cover that hinted as much). However, it was in fact nominated for the US National Book Award for Fiction, and tells of a pretty little girl, Rhoda, who appears to be a murderous sociopath. One of the all time evil-child classics, this novel appears to have been a major influence on a number of other authors, and I strongly suspect Lionel Shriver must have read it.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty – we’ve all seen the rightly lauded film, of course, but I maintain that Blatty’s novel is criminally underrated. The slow build-up of scratchings in the attic, imaginary friends and Ouija board games that eventually culminate in the demonic possession and torture of poor, sweet, all-American 12-year-old Regan really is nerve-jangling stuff.

Boy A by Jonathan Trigell – admittedly, Boy A’s protagonist, Jack, is a young man. However, he’s a young man who’s just been released from a young offender’s institute, where he has spent the duration of his teens after murdering a child. Boy A raises all manner of questions about how we treat child criminals, and will inevitably evoke parallels with the case of the two Bulger Killers. Ultimately, I don’t think Boy A answers the questions it asks, but it’s a gripping and often moving read nonetheless.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James – are charming Flora and Miles just vulnerable children in the hands of a delusional, unhinged governess or creepily knowing, impossibly precocious kids in league with the dead? And just why was charismatic little Miles expelled from his boarding school? Henry James lets us decide in this pioneering psychological thriller. And when you’ve read it, try John Harding’s brilliantly clever homage, Florence & Giles.

Joanne Shepard

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.