Dad may not have been interested in vampires and monsters, but he loved more subtle types of horror. He recommended plots and stories that could feasibly happen, and were all the more creepy for it.
“There’s a book,” he told us once, “which starts with everyone on the planet staying up late to watch a meteor. Green. The brightest meteor shower anyone’s ever seen – and when all the people who saw it wake up the next morning, they’re blind.”
“All of them?”
“All except the few people who didn’t see the lights; there’s one man who didn’t see them because he’s in hospital with his eyes bandaged up. His nurse is describing the meteors to him the night before, and he’s hearing about it on the radio until he has to turn it off. But when he wakes up at the start of the book, everyone in the hospital is blind. Almost everyone else in the whole world is blind. And to make matters worse-”
“-before the meteor happened, people had been growing and farming huge plants called triffids. They have three legs that help them to walk, and a poisonous sting that can kill you. At one point, the main character’s talking to a friend who claims that the triffids can can talk to each other; he believes they can actually think. And now that nearly everyone is blind, the triffids start to break loose.”
(I sometimes wondered about suggesting just how much The Day of the Triffids is a forerunner of the zombie apocalypse genre. I like to think Dad would be dubious, but also find it funny as hell, especially if I’d sat him down to watch the opening scenes of 28 Days Later before allowing him to escape to the study.)
Dad deemed the book ‘too grim’ for us just then, so I didn’t actually read this one until round about 2001. It couldn’t have been before I was ten or eleven, because I remember a year 5 English text book (Nelson English Student Book 5, as it turns out) with exercises based on excerpts from science fiction books. And there was one ‘alien’ monster I recognised right away:
My introduction to a triffid came early. It so happened that we had one of the first in the locality growing in our garden…
Nobody, as far as I knew, had any misgivings or alarm about them then. I imagine that most people thought of them – when they thought of them at all – in much the same way that my father did.
I have a picture of him in my memory of examining ours and puzzling over it at a time when it must have been about a year old…My father leant over, peering at it through his horn-rimmed glasses, fingering its stalk, and blowing gently through his gingery moustache as was his habit when thoughtful. He inspected the straight stem, and the woody bole from which it sprang. He gave curious, if not very penetrative attention to the three small, bare sticks which grew straight up beside the stem. He smoothed the sort sprays of leathery green leaves between his finger and thumb…Then he peered into the curious, funnel-like formation at the top of the stem…
While reading this, I remember constantly waiting for something to happen – maybe the triffid would suddenly snap shut on the father’s hands or face, or sting him? – but nothing. Just a slow building of tension, a clinical description of the book’s major monster. It left me wanting more; particularly the picture the text book included of the titular plant monster.
I also remember the sequel, The Night of the Triffids, being published at round about the same time. I walked by a Waterstones’ display, spotted this cover with the offending plant front and centre
and got curious about what actually happened in the original. Either that or Dad had gotten me to try The Midwich Cuckoos, and this book was the next step. The triffids or the cuckoos, which came first?
Wyndham apparently described his books as ‘logical fantasy’, which this 1971 reprint capitulates on, as well as the book’s extensive print runs (fourteen since the first publication by Penguin in 1951, fifteen if you count the initial publication by Michael Joseph in 1951!)
Brian Aldiss insulted John Wyndham’s books by labelling them as ‘cosy catastrophes’, where civilisation might come to an end but the main characters are still able to live in relative ease and comfort in a country haven. Admittedly true for the first half of the book, where there’s plenty of pickings for the main characters to loot in London. There’s actually a whole scene where the two of them have one last night of indulgence, barricaded in a glamorous decadent flat while the rest of the city presumably descends into chaos even worse than the awful day scenes.
But did Aldiss even get to the final chapters of the book? Wyndham deconstructs the very idea of any cosiness in the collapse of civilisation, going into great detail about just how difficult it is to keep even a small haven going when only a few of you can see, you have to loot increasingly decaying cities for supplies, and there are killer plants waiting just outside the fence for you to leave some skin exposed. Admittedly killer plants are probably not going to be an issue in our case when the end inevitably arrives, but I came out of this book aware of the need to hoard the petrol and flamethrowers.
This book made a constant migration between Dad’s study and the communal shelves in the kitchen, before he got fed up of us asking for it or trying to find it ourselves and him taking it back, rinse and repeat. We compromised and it ended up in the living room (still out of reach unless I stand on a chair, though). We all wanted to have it readily available to dip into or read all the way through in one go, because Dad was right and so is the jacket cover: sometimes the most plausible stories are the most frightening, when there’s nothing supernatural, the humans turn on/exploit each other or abandon huge groups of those without sight to certain death, and the giant walking carnivorous plants are really just there to mop up the mess after the fact. I ‘enjoy’ reading this book for the way it captures the confusion and terror of waking up in a world that’s had its throat cut and is slowly bleeding out…and still manages to be hopeful, come the end.
Coming up next: after putting the subject matter back on the shelf, I balanced precariously for a moment and thought; Weeeeeell, while I’m up here…