Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: “Children of the Kingdom” by T.E.D. Klein

T.E.D. Klein
T.E.D. Klein is one of the great could-have-beens. He wrote some of the best and most memorable horror stories of the seventies and early eighties. Derived from his first published story, “The Events at Poroth Farm”, he wrote the masterful, if lengthy, novel, The Ceremonies (1984). His 1985 novella, “Nadelman's God” won the 1986 World Fantasy Award for best novella. It, along with three other novellas, was published in the 1985 collection, Dark Gods. And then he started to fall silent.

According to his entry at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, he only published a few more stories. Wikipedia credits him with co-writing the screenplay for Dario Argento's 1993 Trauma. A second collection of stories, Reassuring Tales, finally appeared in 2006 to little fanfare. Over the years, it was reported he was working on a second novel, but writer's block kept it from ever materializing. Despite considerable acclaim over the years from writers like S.T. Joshi and Thomas Monteleone, he's just faded away, someone known to horror connoisseurs but little beyond their circle.

Klein's “Children of the Kingdom” (1980), is a tale of urban fear and subterranean terrors. It appeared first in Kirby McCauley's important anthology, Dark Forces. In it, the gnostic gospel of St. Thomas, lost races, secret histories, and urban despair are woven together into a dark and terrible tale, that can still disturb after nearly forty years.

In the summer of 1977, when the Son of Sam still stalked couples and the Bronx was burning, a massive blackout hit the city on July 13th. Unlike earlier blackouts, this one led to massive looting and destruction. Watching the chaos unfold from the sanctuary of his apartment balcony, Klein wondered what it would be like there were terrible things lurking in the hidden places of the city and they used the cover of the blackout to their own ends.

The tone of the story is set at the very beginning when, as the unnamed narrator travels home to Manhattan by bus from Boston, he passes through one half-deserted rotting town after another. What he sees, the “crumbling rows of tenements, an ugly red-brick housing project, some darkened and filthy-looking shops,” reminds him of “those great Mayan cities standing silent and abandoned...with no clue to where the inhabitants had gone.”

The people he does see on the streets, disgust him. Their actions unnerve him.

“Except for my reflection, I saw not one white face. A pair of little children threw stones at us from behind a fortress made of trash; a grown man stood pissing in the street like an animal, and watched us with amusement as we passed.”

When the narrator's grandfather has a stroke, he is forced to find him a place to convalesce. Despite his fear and hatred of so much of the city and its non-white citizens and their alien cooking and music, the closest and most affordable facility is located uptown in a heavily black and Puerto Rican neighborhood.

His grandfather has none of the narrator's fears and prejudices. Bored with his fellow residents dreary conversations, he makes friends with a pair of people he meets while wandering the neighborhood. The first is a middle-aged black woman named Coralette. The other is an aged Costan Rican man called Father Pistachio for the white clerical collar he wears and the ever-present bag of red pistachios. He is also a man with novel theories on the origins of mankind and its subsequent dispersal across the planet. Quoting Henry James, the narrator sees the old priest as someone who clearly “followed strange paths and worshipped strange gods.”

Slowly, odd events begin to happen around the rest home. A washing machine in the basement is mysteriously moved, exposing an old drain into the sewers. A young girl is nearly raped in her apartment by a prowler who somehow escaped through a window, even though it has bars on it. As the summer starts, strange, worse things occur. Increasingly scared by “white boys” smashing the lights in her apartment's halls, Coralette flees the city for the South. A Daily News article gives details about one of these worse things.

The article - “Watery Grave for Infant Quints” - was little more than an extended caption. It spoke of the “five tiny bodies...shrunken and foul-smelling” that had been discovered in a flooded area of the hotel basement by Con Ed men investigating a broken power line. All five had displayed the same evidence of “albinism and massive birth defects,”

While the narrator doesn't make the obvious connections, the reader can tell something awful is coming. When the blackout strikes, it does as well.

To the narrator, Father Pistachio's theories seem cut of the same outlandish material as Von Daniken's and Velikovsky's. Like their theories, the old priest’s is composed of fragments of facts swaddled in blankets of the unbelievable. As stranger and stranger things happen, though, he begins to wonder if maybe the priest is right after all.

“Children of the Kingdom” is a slow burning story. The accretion of details slowly builds a vision of New York City from a time when it was literally falling apart, relations between the races were terrible, and no one believed it was safe to walk the streets. Almost until the end, it's never quite clear which creepy event is real or created. It is the dark portrait of a battered city, teetering on the precipice's edge, that's so viscerally real and terrible, that it becomes only too believable that something wicked lurks awaiting its moment.

Klein is a scholar of horror as well as a writer. He wrote his honors thesis on Lovecraft and The Ceremonies is a tribute to Machen and numerous classic Gothic novels. He brought much of that knowledge to bear in “Children,” drawing on it to craft a supremely chilling story.

I absolutely love this story. It takes hold of the reader and slowly pulls him under the waves of growing fear and, ultimately, pure terror. Klein took himself out of the picture way too soon. I cannot recommend this story enough. Even used paperbacks of Dark Gods sell for nearly ten dollars. For half that price you can get it by buying the e-book of Dark Forces. While that's a book every horror reader should own, it deprives them of three more of Klein's exquisitely crafted tales.

Fletcher Vredenburgh: A lifelong Staten Islander, I read my very first Lovecraft story, “The Festival,” on the night of the Great Blackout of 1977. It wasn’t the first horror story I read, or the best, but it remains one that affected me the most, making me a life long fan of the Old Gent from Providence.

Several years ago, I started a blog titled: Swords & Sorcery: A Blog. As my interests have drifted about over the past few years, I’ve renamed it Stuff I Like.

Most of my writing, though, is done for Black Gate. Most of it is about swords & sorcery and historical adventure stories, especially the older and forgotten works. You can find a new article there each Tuesday morning.

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