“The Children’s Hour” is a novelette by Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the many pen names of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It was first published in the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!
The protagonist of “The Children’s Hour” is a soldier named Sergeant James Lessing. Lessing has a problem, for during a psychological experiment to use hypnosis to desensitize soldiers against pain, hunger and other hardship (Am I the only one who finds this slightly sinister?), Lieutenant Dyke, the psychologist running the program, noticed that three months of Lessing’s life were simply missing, hidden behind an impenetrable hypnotic block. Lessing, on the other hand, does have memories of those months, memories of a perfectly mundane civilian life as an advertising executive in New York City.
Nowadays, a soldier with three months of his life missing and a hypnotic block in his mind conjures up sinister scenarios along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate. However, the novel version of The Manchurian Candidate was not published until 1959, fifteen years after “The Children’s Hour”. And even though “The Children’s Hour” was written at the height of World War II, it is the product of a more innocent time not yet affected by Cold War paranoia. And so the novelette goes into a completely different direction.
The story catches up with Lessing as he is about to see Lieutenant Dyke for the decisive session, the one where Dyke will finally break through the barrier in Lessing’s mind. Dyke hypnotises Lessing and asks him to go back to the summer of 1941.
At first Dyke sees a shadow and gets the first lines of a poem, “The Children’s Hour” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem is not identified in the story itself. Kuttner and Moore obviously assumed that their readers would recognise it. And since the poem was frequently taught in American schools in the first half of the 20th century, the average Astounding reader of 1944 probably did recognise it. I have to admit that I had to look it up, even though I do own The Complete Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and wrote a paper on “Evangeline” at university.
As a matter of fact, the story is full of literary allusions – not just to Wordsworth, but also to Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, James Branch Cabell and H.G. Wells – that make me wonder whether a contemporary reader in 1944 was expected to recognise them all without Google at his disposal. Coincidentally, it also belies complaints from certain quarters that science fiction and fantasy used to be simple, plain good fun, but now everything is so political and literary. Because here we have an SFF story full of literary references in 1944. But though the literary references enrich the story, “The Children’s Hour” also works without them. In fact, I am now reminded of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, another work full of literary references (reading it as an adult after watching the 1985 movie when I was way too young for it, I was stunned how many references there were) that was a genuine mega-bestseller in the 1980s and was read and enjoyed by lots of people who didn’t get the references at all, but just read the novel as an exciting historical mystery.
Gradually, Lessing remembers that he met someone at a drinking fountain in the park that summer. At first, he has problems recalling that person, then he gets another line of verse – this time a quote from Romeo and Juliet – and finally remembers.
The person Lessing met in the park was a woman named Clarissa. Clarissa made Lessing see the world anew, as if he were a child again, and Lessing was very much in love with her. However, there was someone standing between them. Shadowy guardians, who had snatched Clarissa away and taken Lessing’s memory. Lessing also remembers that Clarissa had an aunt, an aunt who disapproved of him. However, he cannot remember what that aunt looked like or what she said to him on the last day he saw Clarissa. All he remembers is Clarissa and her tears.
Gradually, Dyke and Lessing unearth more buried memories, such as the first time when Lessing noticed something off about Clarissa, when she suddenly vanished in a vortex of pulsating concentric rings, while they were witnessing a car accident near Central Park, only to reappear a moment later.
Strange things keep happening. The next time, it’s not Clarissa who vanishes, but a pavilion in Central Park, where they want to take shelter from a sudden rain shower. Due to being caught out in the rain, Clarissa develops a fever and Lessing does not see her for a few weeks. During these few weeks without Clarissa, life become dull and drained of colour to him. But then Clarissa is sufficiently recovered that Lessing can visit her again in her strange windowless apartment that is filled with mirrors.
Lessing is completely in love with Clarissa by now and they begin making marriage plans. But then, Clarissa begins to slip away. Lessing blames her aunt for keeping them apart. Then, one day he tries to visit Clarissa at her apartment, but no one answers the door, even though he can see a shadowy figure – the aunt – moving around inside. Lessing gets angry and breaks down the door, only to find the apartment empty.
And suddenly, Lessing sees Clarissa enveloped by a golden shimmer and begins to fall through a portal of mirrors, until he is suddenly somewhere else. Two men armed with strange weapons threaten him, protecting a group of women, one of whom is Clarissa. The armed men are as surprised to see Lessing as he is surprised to see them. Only Clarissa isn’t surprised. She smiles at Lessing and tells him that he doesn’t have to bother explaining where he came from, because they would only forget anyway. One of the guards attacks Lessing with a whip and suddenly he is back in the real world, lying flat on his face outside Clarissa’s apartment. He chalks the whole episode up to bumping his head, while he tried to break down the door.
However, Lessing’s adventure in the mirror world was so vivid that he plans to talk to Clarissa about it, forcing his way past her aunt by any means necessary. He comes to the apartment again, but this time the door is open and the only person at home is Clarissa, who is standing there in a shower of golden stars. Lessing, who is rather erudite, is immediately reminded of the antique myth of Danae, locked away in a tower from all men, only for Zeus to transform himself into a golden rain and impregnate her.
Lessing comes to the conclusion that the strange occurrences surrounding Clarissa must mean that she is being courted by a godlike being just like Zeus once courted Danae. Lessing also muses whether the Greek legends have a basis in experiences like his own with Clarissa. However, he cannot tell Clarissa what is going on, because she does not seem to be aware of what is happening and he has no idea how Clarissa will react, once she learns the truth. However, Lessing plans to open her eyes, before his supernatural rival comes to claim his bride, so that Clarissa can choose freely. Whatever else you think about Lessing, you have to admire his guts, considering he believes that he is about to go up against a god.
The next evening, Lessing takes Clarissa dancing at a seedy nightclub. He is determined not to get drunk, but a mix of alcohol, drugs (marihuana is namechecked) and the intoxication of love make him decide to take Clarissa away from New York City, away the aunt who keeps her imprisoned and his godlike rival. So they get into Lessing’s car and drive along the Hudson River.
It’s interesting that neither Lessing nor Dyke nor the authors sees anything wrong with Lessing driving, while drunk (and the story makes it very clear that he is at the very least drunk, if not high as well). Considering how strong the taboo against drunk driving and the respective laws are today, I have to admit that I found that scene jarring. Investigations reveal that New Jersey, just across the river from where “The Children’s Hour” is set, had a law against drunk driving as early as 1906. The state of New York followed in 1910. So Lessing’s drunken ride along the Hudson River was no more legal in 1944 than it would be today.
In the end, Lessing and Clarissa’s drunken flight is for naught anyway, because the powers guiding Clarissa’s life force them back via traffic jams, road closures and Lessing suddenly realising he is going the wrong way (Uhm, are you certain that’s not just because you’re drunk?). The golden rain appears again to envelop Clarissa and Lessing suddenly finds himself in a forest, watching a procession of sombre figures in black hooded cloaks. One of them is Clarissa, who is oddly, deliriously happy. Lessing tries to approach her, but before he can, a person in a red hooded cloak embraces her. Lessing cannot see that person’s face, just a golden glow, and assumes it’s his divine rival. Then the world starts spinning again and he is suddenly back in his car, double-parked (Lessing really is intent on violating traffic laws, is he?) outside Clarissa’s apartment. Clarissa bids him good night and tells him to phone her in the morning.
However, it’s Clarissa who calls Lessing and asks him to come at once. She seems upset and point blank asks him, if they did something wrong last night, because she had a feeling that they did, only that she cannot remember. Now Lessing tells her everything, all the strange occurrences surrounding her and that he has the feeling that someone is guiding Clarissa towards something.
Clarissa tells Lessing that she never really noticed before how she was being guarded and guided, but that she cannot unsee it now. She also tells him a fairy tale she heard from her aunt, about a princess who grew up among the blind in the woods, never opening her eyes, even though she can see, because the sun would still be too bright for her. Clarissa has no idea how the fairy tale ends, but she knows that she is the princess. She also tells Lessing that the powers have always protected her. Lessing is doubtful about their true intentions, but Clarissa insists that they are benevolent and that of course, the powers will let them get married.
But then, one of the guardians – the unseen aunt – appears and tells Clarissa quite clearly that there will be no marriage and no future with Lessing. Clarissa cries, while Lessing is paralysed as the aunt tears them apart. A voice tells Lessing that he has served his purpose and shall now forget, which he promptly does, until Dyke recovered his missing memories.
However, “The Children’s Hour” is still a story published in Astounding and so Dyke now takes over to deliver the solution to the mystery, complete with the requisite technobabble, including equations. Dyke theorises that Clarissa is a young human superior. As adults, human superior are so highly developed that ordinary humans cannot even perceive them, just as Lessing could never truly see Clarissa’s aunt. Meanwhile, human superior children are about as developed as ordinary human adults. And that is what Clarissa was, a human superior child come out to play in the world, a four-dimensional being in a three-dimensional world. Once she has become mature enough, she was returned to her own people, while Lessing had his memories wiped.
However, Dyke also has another, more likely theory. After all, both Lessing and Clarissa were caught in the rainstorm in Central Park. Clarissa fell ill, developed a fever and experienced delirium. But maybe Lessing fell ill as well and simply imagined all the strange things that happened afterwards.
Lessing decides to settle the question once and for all. He will go back to the apartment and pay Clarissa a visit. After all, she might be waiting for him. Dyke does not think that this is a good idea, but goes along with it. So Lessing heads for Clarissa’s apartment and rings the doorbell.
The door opens and Lessing sees the mirrors, but he can no longer see Clarissa. She is an adult now, to evolved for him to even perceive. Lessing briefly grasps the truth. Clarissa is not just homo superior, but a multi-dimensional being existing in many worlds and places at once. Those were the visions of other Clarissa’s in other worlds that Lessing saw. Once all of these different Clarissas have developed, they will combine to form the full, adult Clarissa. This is exactly what happened and not only can Lessing no longer even perceive Clarissa, to her he is merely a child’s toy, a plaything to be put away for more adult pursuits.
The story ends with Lessing getting into a taxi (at least, he’s not driving drunk or high this time) and asking the driver where to find a good nightclub. He has forgotten everything once more and this time, the memory block is complete, which is probably for the best.
“The Children’s Hour” is a very beautiful and very strange story. Not a lot happens, the bulk of this very long (likely close to the novella borderline of 17500 words) novelette consists of two men sitting in a psychologist’s office, while we are treated to a long flashback of one of the two’s doomed romance with a superior being. And while there is a mystery to solve, there is no huge world-threatening menace involved. Lessing was hypnotised and had part of his memories taken not for some sinister purpose to sabotage the war (and it’s very clear that the story is set during WWII, even if the war never impinges on the narrative except via brief mentions of military ranks, barracks and marching soldiers), but to protect him from a truth to great for him to understand.
Even though “The Children’s Hour” is a love story between an adult man and what is essentially a child, it manages not to be skeevy. For starters, Lessing has no idea that Clarissa is a child, even if she does seem childlike at times, as Dyke points out. Furthermore, Clarissa appears to Lessing as a woman of his own age. Physically, they are similarly developed, even if Clarissa will evolve and Lessing will not. Finally, there is also no indication that Lessing and Clarissa ever had sex – mostly they just walk hand in hand through the parks of New York City. Of course, there is very little in the way of sex in golden age science fiction in general and in Astounding in particular. However, in C.L. Moore’s earlier Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories, it’s very clear that both Northwest Smith and Jirel have sex at times, even if the scenes are vague and the sex only alluded to. There is nothing along those lines in “The Children’s Hour” and I also suspect that if Lessing and Clarissa’s romance had ever threatened to go beyond handholding in public parks, Clarissa’s unseen guardians would have intervened – just as they did when Lessing attempted to elope with Clarissa.
A lot of people have claimed that with Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s collaborations, it’s difficult to tell who was responsible for which parts. And reprint anthologies and collections have frequently attributed their collaborative stories to Kuttner alone. However, I have never had any problems telling Kuttner’s and Moore’s contributions apart, because their solo writing styles are quite different. And the dreamlike quality that suffuses the entire story, particularly the flashback scenes of Lessing and Clarissa, is highly reminiscent of C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories of the 1930s. After all, both Jirel and Northwest Smith spent more time exploring strange worlds and having nigh psychedelic experiences than swinging swords and firing blasters, something which regularly exasperates those who prefer their SFF with a large dose of fighting action. But fighting action is not something that C.L. Moore delivers. However, she could create otherworldly landscapes and moods like few other writers of the era. At times, the story feels almost psychedelic, like a drug-fuelled dream. Steve J. Wright calls it a 1940s fairy tale in his review.
Because the rest of the story is so dreamlike, the infodump towards the end, complete with equations, sticks out like a sore thumb. I strongly suspect that Kuttner wrote that part, if only because Moore’s infodumps sound very different as can be seen in “No Woman Born”. I also don’t think the story really needs the infodump and that it would have worked just as well, if the mystery of Clarissa’s true nature had remained vague. But Astounding editor John W. Campbell liked his infodumps and since he paid well and upon acceptance, his writers obliged him.
Talking of which, “The Children’s Hour” is yet another highly atypical Astounding story. In his review, Paul Fraser says that while he was reading “The Children’s Hour”, he kept wondering what this story was doing in a 1940s issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Frankly, I had the same reaction. Because while the other atypical Astounding stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project such as e.g. the City stories by Clifford D. Simak are still very much golden age science fiction stories, “The Children’s Hour” doesn’t feel like a story of the 1940s at all and certainly not like a science fiction story, technobabble infodump complete with equations notwithstanding.
I know that I say this a lot, but I’m very surprised that Campbell bought and published this novelette, because it is so very much not the sort of thing you’d expect to find in Astounding, even if the character who cracks the mystery is a psychologist who uncovers hidden memories, a subject Campbell had a keen interest in. However, “The Children’s Hour” is very much the anti-Astounding story, if there is such a thing. Once again, the mood is bittersweet and melancholic, which is remarkably common for Astounding in the 1940s (see also the City stories or Moore’s own “No Woman Born”). There is a mystery to solve here, but science and technology do not help to solve it, even if Dyke throws around some equations towards the end. Never mind that Dyke’s efforts have been for naught, because Lessing has his memories wiped again at the end and most likely that pesky meddler Dyke will receive a visit from a shadowy presence as well. Nor are the humans triumphant or superior in this story. To superior multi-dimensional beings like Clarissa’s “aunt”, humans are little more than children, to be used to socialise and educate their own young. And yes, Dyke and Lessing refer to the adults of Clarissa’s species as homo superior, a popular concept in Astounding during the golden age, which eventually found its way into the Marvel comics of the 1960s and beyond. But we have no way of knowing if they really are human, since Lessing cannot even perceive the adults of the species. And while the adult beings are not malevolent, unlike Alexander, the homo superior baby and psychopath in training from Kuttner and Moore’s “When the Bough Breaks”, they are simply so far above humanity that they barely show any interest in us at all, except as playthings for their kids.
Maybe “The Children’s Hour” was left over from Unknown Worlds, Astounding‘s fantasy-focussed sister magazine, which fell victim to WWII paper rationing the year before. This might also explain why the technobabble infodump feels so tacked on, because it was retrofitted to turn into a science fiction story for Astounding.
However, if I had read “The Children’s Hour” blind, I would have assumed it was either a fantasy story from an early 1930s issue of Weird Tales (and of course, Kuttner and Moore both got their start writing for the unique magazine) or a New Wave story from the 1960s. The fact that “The Children’s Hour” is either fifteen years behind its time or twenty to twenty-five years ahead of it may also be the reason why the story is not particularly well known. Adventures Fantastic points out in their review that it has only been reprinted a handful of times over the past seventy-five years. It does not show up in either Moore’s or Kuttner’s Best of collection. Nor was it included in Isaac Asimov’s and Martin H. Greenberg’s anthology The Great SF Stories Vol. 6 – 1944, probably because they already included “When the Bough Breaks” and “No Woman Born” and felt that “The Children’s Hour” would be one Kuttner/Moore story too many. Even though I vastly prefer “The Children’s Hour” to “When the Bough Breaks” and will have a hard time deciding whether to rank “No Woman Born” or “The Children’s Hour” in first place on my Retro Hugo ballot, because they’re both very good, if very different stories. That said, 1944 readers seem to have liked the story, even it is highly atypical, and voted it in first place of Astounding‘s reader poll for the March issue.
“The Children’s Hour” is a beautiful, almost dreamlike fantasy romance. I’m not sure if Retro Hugo voters will go for this story over the better known “No Woman Born”, “City” or “The Big and the Little”, but do I hope that it will do well, because it is story that deserves more recognition.