Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
“The Happy Children” by Arthur Machen
Card picked: Eight of Hearts
From: Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye
The story I had originally scheduled for the eight of hearts is 180 pages long. Since I’m in the middle of a novel that I’d like to finish by the end of the month, I didn’t want to take it on too and decided to pick a new story. Stories from Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown are my “fill-in” stories this year, so I figured I’d pick the next in its Table of Contents.
Thoughts: It’s the day after Christmas, 1915. A journalist is sent to “the north-eastern district” (Machen’s quotes, not mine) to investigate the rumor that the Germans have a secret mini-base near Malton Head. He quickly learns that the story is based on some kids playing make-believe, thwarting imaginary German spies as good English youth would want to do. The journalist chalks the whole thing up to fools–the same kind of fools that “got cross with anyone who expressed a doubt as ‘the Angels of Mons.'”
To make something of the day, the journalist then decides to take the train south to Banwick, a lovely village that straddles a river. On one side of the river, the inn and other main dwellings take up the flat part of the valley. On the other, red-roofed houses and a Norman church sit perched among the bluffs. The journalist doesn’t reach Banwick until near sunset. Since this is late December, that isn’t very late. He decides to take a walk, noting that the village is very dark, but there are a great number of children playing in the streets.
When asked about it, the innkeeper replies that many of the children in Banwick have lost their fathers or father figures and the women of the town are being lax with them. The journalist takes another walk after dinner, closer to midnight. Even more children are about, some seem to have strange wounds, and all are making their way to the old Norman church. The journalist then remembers what day it is: the eve of the Holy Innocents’. The children are simply going to a late-night Mass, and the surely pretend wounds are part of some medieval observance. The journalist mentions *this* to the innkeeper and “he drew away from me as though I were a messenger from the dead.”
The intricacies of this story are quite subtle. By the end of the story, Machen subverts the journalist’s skepticism toward phenomena like the Angels of Mons. (As an extra twist, it was Machen himself who had penned the story “The Bowmen” which was a forerunner to the Angels myth.) He turns the notion of children playing pretend on its ear, as well as the thought that it was only adults who were being killed during the War.
About the Author: I knew the name Arthur Machen, but I couldn’t remember from where. The introductory note to the story offered no clue. Finally, one of the first mentioned works on his Wikipedia entry is The Great God Pan, which is on the Obscure Literary Monsters list.