By Ben Arzate
“You need your shot, William. All the children need their medicine. How is our society to succeed if we don’t maintain the health of our children—our precious children? Don’t you see? A child is always loved. And an adult—an adult needs to find love, and it isn’t the same. Isn’t it nicer to be a child, then?’
During the paperback horror boom of the late 70’s to the early 90’s, Zebra Books was one of the most famous and prolific publishers. In it’s heyday, it was more famous for its gaudy, eye-catching covers, often featuring skeletons, than it was for its overall quality output. However, some now famous authors, such as Joe R. Lansdale and Edward Lee, got their start writing for Zebra and some real gems were in between those sensational covers, such as Ken Greenhall’s Hell Hound and this one.
Eric Flanders was a pen name of James Kisner, an author of several horror paperbacks, all of which are now out of print. A pretty sparse Wikipedia page was the best I could find when trying to research Kisner. He seems to have fallen down the memory hole, which is a shame if The Forever Children is any indication of his abilities as a writer.
Dr. Warren Barry’s private town of Jamay Lake was meant to be a paradise. A place where battered women brought their children and, thanks to a new drug he developed, the kids would never grow up. Despite how meticulously he planned this community, a bored and precocious boy named William starts a fire as a prank. It proves to be the first the first domino coming down in a series of events that threaten to destroy his experiment.
The Forever Children‘s horror is heavily psychological, despite the science fiction premise. It reminds me most of JG Ballard’s novels Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights. Like those novels, the story revolves around a planned community that attempts to make itself into a utopia under the watch of an idealistic scientist and which falls because of their failure to mold the people.
Dr. Barry not only gives his experimental drug to the children to keep them from aging, but also sterilizes the mothers and gives them a regular routine of tranquilizers to numb them to the lack of romantic and sexual companionship. He hires former police, veterans, and prisoners to act as the local police, who are the only other men in the town. Finally, he creates a church and acts as minister as a way of keeping social cohesion. Despite his attempts to account for everything, he simply cannot account for the unpredictability of people’s desires.
The characters are very well explored. Dr. Barry is not just a mad scientist. His background in working with battered wives and children makes it easy to see how he would come to establish the town of Jamay Lake and his increasingly erratic mental state as everything falls apart is very believable. William is introduced as a troublemaking boy, but is forced to mature as the secrets of the town make themselves evident. He’s actually very intelligent but is stymied by the town’s rules and lack of education beyond an elementary school level.
For all its psychological insights and character development, it never loses the gripping plot. It moves at just the right pace, making it obvious that the utopian experiment is on its last legs, but keeping the reader guessing what’s going to happen next and introducing many twists that keep things interesting. Readers who picked this up back in the day expecting a fun read were likely not at all disappointed.
The Forever Children is not only an entertaining, often disturbing story that works as page-turning horror, but it’s also a look into what drives children and their parents. This is a book that very much deserves more attention and to be reprinted at some point. Even though it seems to have been lost to people’s memories, I can only hope that the renewed interest in horror books of the mass market boom will eventually bring this lost gem back.
A special thanks to Zakary McGaha for loaning me his copy of this book.
Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com.