Their Bloody Instruments
By Craig DiLouie
Gallery Books, 2014
Terror may be universal, but horrors are specifics. I have never been frightened by clowns, though I know people who actively avoid circuses for this very reason. I am personally phobic of losing my mind, though I know for some people this thought has never occurred. Craig DiLouie’s novel Suffer the Children explores a very specific horror – that of losing a child. And while I neither have a fear of losing a child nor a single maternal bone in my body, DiLouie manages to create a world where this horror scares me. The book starts with a countdown: “23 Hours before Herod Event.”
As each of the four main characters is introduced to us, the countdown is kept at the top of our minds. This ticking clock hangs over each chapter both literally and figuratively. We know that there is a major inescapable event coming.
The Herod Event is not a secret to the reader. The event is described early and gruesomely in the book. The Herod Event sees all of the children around the world die. It sweeps across the globe in an orderly and predictable fashion, killing everyone who has not yet gone through puberty. When it first strikes it causes panic and chaos as parents watch helplessly while their children drop dead before their eyes.
Megan’s head flopped against his shoulder. She felt much heavier than when he’d carried her this morning. He’d tossed her laughing in the air like she was nothing. He picked up Nate’s limp form with his other arm. Dead weight.
He stumbled toward his truck in a daze. He didn’t make it. He fell to his knees with a long, primal cry of anguish. Behind him, panic had given way to shock and grief, the park now quiet except for intense sobbing and the odd scream.
Across the entire park, not a child was still alive.
After the Herod Event takes place in Michigan it moves across Europe as Asia waits for it to cross as well. The entire world is paralyzed with fear of losing all of their children. Unlike a fear of clowns, this fear is real and imminent.
As someone without children, and no close children to hypothetically mourn, this is not the aspect horror that affects me. While it would be incredibly sad to watch, I cannot fathom what it would be like to lose a child. It even crossed my mind that it would be offensive to a parent for me to even feign empathy with their situation. Here is where DiLouie takes the reins of the story and steers it back toward fears that are more universal. Losing a child does not frighten me, but the collapse of society does.
Society simply cannot handle death in such quantities. Mass graves are dug, in suburbia, near playgrounds. Children are picked up from their homes in giant trucks, driven by off-duty sanitation workers and volunteers. Anyone with a medical degree is wrangled by the Centers for Disease Control to do autopsies as rapidly as possible to try to find a possible explanation for this massacre. It is too early to hope for a cure, but their swift action is hasty and necessary. Though I cannot relate to the loss of a child, the suspension of society as I know it is something I can relate to and dread.
With such a widespread death toll early in the book, it is an interesting twist that the real horror has not yet. Just as we are examining the cultural ramifications of losing all of the world’s children something more horrifying happens: they wake up.
Just as unannounced and sudden as their deaths, all of the world’s children reanimate with a whimper and not a bang. They crawl out of their body bags and wander home. Parents blindly accept them with open arms, but the scene of the resurrection in the morgue shows the reader the unnatural truth.
Jonathan Ford’s eyes snapped open and turned to gaze at him. The boy’s mouth opened.
David dropped the phone and retreated until his back met the wall
“OH JESUS CHRIST.”
The boy rasped, “You’re not my daddy.”
Screams rolled across the recovery ward as Jonathan and about a third of the other children in the room sat up and looked around. The remainder, already cut open, didn’t move.
“You’re alive,” David said.
The boy sucked in a rattling lungful of air and said, “Home.”
Two of the children hopped down from their beds. The rest followed. They formed a grisly parade toward the exit. David saw a pathologist gripping a girl’s wrists and struggling to hold her down, another screaming against the wall, another with his hands in the air as if surrendering. Most stood at their tables in shock, still holding their bloody instruments.
Like an undead army marching to war, the revived children all make their way home. Parents rejoice and cannot believe their luck. Their children have returned, and they will not question how or why they have been given them back.
Within hours, the children return to being comatose and unresponsive. Though not dead again, they are simply bodies taking up the space that they once occupied while living. When the first child demands blood as sustenance from their mother, it is clear that DiLouie has much grander plans for terror in Suffer the Children than he initially lets on.
These children are not vampires or zombies, but revenants. While revenants have a folklore and literary history going back to the 12th century, modern horror writers and filmmakers have largely ignored this iteration of the undead. They are not as sexy as vampires, and do not include a long list of rules (such as garlic, or sunlight) and therefore cannot be overcome with strategy. And unlike zombies they do not move in massive hordes. Revenants are often sent to terrorize one specific person or family and not society as a whole. DiLouie takes the trope of the revenant and reinterprets it on an enormous scale with his host of creepy children.
Using children as the bodies delivering terror to the world is effective as children can be quite creepy. DiLouie is relying on the reader to be familiar with films that showcase the unsettling visuals of children acting unnaturally.
Fear tingled along David’s spine. The children filled him with a superstitious awe. He kept expecting them to stop in unison and stare at him, like something out of a horror movie.
From Village of the Damned to Lost Boys, and more recently in Let the Right One In, children have been easy markers for horror. Children should be exploring the world with open eyes, high energy, needy, and mischievous. Though all of us were children at one point in our lives, their unpredictable nature along with their undeveloped facilities to express themselves can give you pause. Combining childlike innocence with the monstrous is a recipe for terror. Even though I cannot relate to the potential fear or losing my child, the fear of children acting oddly in general is a more universal terror that DiLouie taps into.
Considering all of the disturbing imagery and thirst for blood in Suffer the Children, none of the grossness is flagrant. There is most certainly gore and body-horror in the book, but it is never splashed into the plot without context. The description of the smell of rotting children is only mentioned in the context of a mother’s denial of the smell. And the sounds of the bodies being dropped into the mass graves are described by the father who is leaving his children in these pits, but trying to self-medicate his pain away with whiskey. The disgusting is there to emphasize the misery of these characters, and not to simply churn the stomachs of the readers.
DiLouie typically structures his books to follow a small group of figures who are all going through the same event, but bring different histories to their experiences. Here he has chosen to have us follow the young mother and father of two children, a single mother, and a doctor who lost his own son in a car accident the year before the Herod Event. This story structure is effective on multiple levels. The readers are able to experience this horror from different angles. Rather than hypothesizing the various ways that the Herod Event might affect different families we are able to step from family to family to see for ourselves. Also, it gives the reader different opportunities to identify with a character in Suffer the Children. I found myself more sympathetic to the doctor’s perspective. Not only is David childless, like I am, but his scientific mind is less prone to getting swept up in the emotions of the resurrection. He tries to logically piece together the event and his neighbors’ actions following it, and fully admits when things do not add up. Other readers may have a similar relationship with the father who lost two children, or the single career mother who is going through this alone, and the fact that the book gives the opportunity for these connections is a strength.
There are powerful emotional currents in Suffer the Children, but make no mistake- this is a classic horror novel. It is startling, disturbing, and not for the faint of heart.
Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.