This review originally appeared in Horrified, February 2021.
Graham Masterton needs little introduction to British horror fans. Although never attaining the high profile of the late James Herbert, or the notoriety of Shaun Hutson – with both of whom his work shares a level of gore – he has a similarly impressively backlist. Managing to both pre-empt and survive the 1980s Splatterpunk enfants terribles with whom he was (erroneously) bracketed and despite the vagaries of horror publishing across five decades, Masterton is still enviably prolific at the age of 74.
The Children God Forgot is the second in a series of horror/crime novels, following Ghost Virus, but although the returning police investigators (Jerry Pardoe and Jamila Patel) make handily spoiler-free references to the events of that book, it turns out there’s no need to have read it first. There’s a burgeoning sub-genre of occult detective novels, but that’s not what The Children God Forgot is: the police here aren’t specialists, just everyday cops who, having once dealt with something out of the ordinary, now seem destined to get landed with anything similarly supernatural. The conventions of both horror and crime genres make for a fast-paced, page-turning read.
Across south London, an initially unconnected series of events takes place. A team of drainage workers are spooked by weird goings-on in the sewers; one of them vanishes and turns up later, horribly mutilated. Weirdly malformed children appear, seemingly under the protection of a mysterious hooded female guardian who materialises in a spiral of smoke and green light. Elsewhere, women who have recently undergone abortions find themselves pregnant once more, but this time with tentacled foetuses bearing the face of an angel and with a supernatural will to survive. The hooded smoke-figure menaces anyone who interferes with the pregnancies or comes near her brood of misfits. Jamila and Jerry are dragged into these seemingly separate cases, and events begin to spiral out of control.
The malformed children and their sinister mother-figure use the sewers as a refuge, and the police team up with drainage engineers Gemma and Jim to explore the underworld. Meanwhile, an elderly tramp-like figure seems to haunt Jerry, dogging his every move. He sends warning shots that the policeman must ignore, with horrific consequences, if he and Jamila are to get to the bottom of the mystery. The key lies in centuries-old witchcraft, which – thanks no doubt to Masterton’s research (which we’ll come to shortly) – feels really convincing.
The ending, however, felt a bit sudden. The detectives are still floundering with only forty pages left, and with just five pages to go, I still couldn’t see how everything was going to be tied up. Ultimately, the resolution came at the expense of tying up the minor characters’ stories. The book zips along so fast that they’re easily forgotten, which is a shame because I felt that an extra twist of horror could have been obtained by going back to the poor women whose pregnancies had turned out so horribly. But in terms of the plot they aren’t really important, and in this book plot is everything: only cursory attention is paid to (for instance) the detectives’ personal lives.
There are other flaws, though, which get in the way from time to time. I said that Masterton has plainly done his research, and he doesn’t want any of it going to waste (if you’ll pardon the pun). This manifests as pedantry, with characters explaining things well beyond the bounds of what would be realistic, or is necessary for the novel:
This map was used by Mr J. Clarke who ran a night-soil business – in other words, he employed men to go around at night and empty people’s cesspits. They called them ‘nightmen.’ A ‘holeman’ would go down into the cesspit with a wooden tub and shovel up the human waste, a ‘ropeman’ would haul it up, and two ‘tubmen’ would carry it between a pole to their cart. They would take it back to Mr Clarke’s yard and he would mix it up with manure and rotting vegetables and sell it to local farmers as manure.
Now, that’s all very interesting, but it’s irrelevant to the plot. Additionally, no unfamiliar term or phrase is allowed to pass without a full explanation: sometimes the sense of something could be implied rather than clumsily spelt out. At such moments we lose the voice of the character and hear only copious research.
Also, some things just don’t quite ring true: a reference to Playboy, in particular, feels dated and almost quaint; some of the slang feels old-fashioned, as if the author’s idea of what goes on inside a thirty-something’s head is several decades out of date. In places, mobile phones notwithstanding, the book reads very much as if it could have been written in the 1980s.
However, it’s a more progressive book than much of the pulp from that era: Masterton seems to come down squarely on the side of pro-choice in the abortion debate. Also, even though Jerry is the point of view character, the fact that Jamila – female, and of Pakistani heritage – is the senior officer (and the object of Jerry’s unrequited love) is to be welcomed, and something that certainly wouldn’t have been the case if this had been written in the 80s.
Further in its favour, Masterton really puts the reader in the midst of the action to the extent that – and I realise this is an unusual recommendation – you can almost smell the shit. One particular set piece, where a character undergoes an attempted abortion, is pure skin-crawling body horror, reminiscent of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and early Cronenberg.
Masterton’s pacing – pedantic explanations aside – is superb, and the story races along. Although there’s little character development on display, there’s no reason Patel and Pardoe’s continuing adventures couldn’t run for many more books. A few niggles aside, The Children God Forgot is an efficiently written, gripping and grisly piece of pulp that you could devour in an afternoon.