Dad spoiled the ending of this book long before I ever got around to reading it. And I’m going to spoil it for you too, HA!!!
One day when we were intruding into his study, he got onto the subject of the film version (the 1960 version, The Village of the Damned – because apparently ‘cuckoos’ was far too subtle?) and what he personally thought to be one of the most tense scenes in cinema.
The stage: a school room. The plot: a climatic showdown. The players: a group of unnatural, all-blonde alien children who share a collective group mind and can read/control the minds of normal humans, and a desperate man who has decided he has no choice but to destroy them, for the sake of humanity’s future. The crux of the matter: he has smuggled a bomb into the classroom, hidden in a suitcase – but there’s still a few minutes before it goes off, and in that short space of time the children could read his mind and stop him.
“So he thinks of a brick wall. Nothing but that. And the children pick up his thoughts, and think ‘Hullo, why’s he thinking about a brick wall?’ So they start breaking down the wall in his mind, bit by bit, but he manages to keep thinking about the wall and keep it up, until right before the bomb detonates. And just as they finally break the wall down and realise what he’s done, the bomb goes off.”
“But does he die too?”
“Yes. He had to, or the plan wouldn’t have worked.”
“Yes. But he was very brave, wasn’t he?”
We agreed that, yes, he was. And that was another book that was ‘too grim’ for us to read just then.
In the ensuing years of ‘not reading the book’, I still learned a fair bit about it. Dad probably told me that the reason for the title, The Midwich Cuckoos, was because at the beginning of the book, every woman or girl of childbearing age in the small town of Midwich suddenly discovers they’re pregnant, and subsequently give birth to this disturbing little brood – a batch of ‘cuckoos’, as it were. And either Dad or my sister told me about the scene where a mother displeases her ‘cuckoo’ baby in someway, and is mentally forced by her child to stick her hand into boiling water.
Horror! Terror! Mind Control! Self Mutilation! Virgin Births!
(One of these things is not like the others. Still has the potential to be utterly terrifying.)
And yet I remember Cuckoos was quite hard to get through the first time around. Possibly because I’d read the relatively action-packed The Day of the Triffids before it. (Again, which came first; the triffids or the cuckoos? *shrugs*) Compared to Triffids, this book is far slower. It’s ponderous, it’s philosophical. Everything is examined, discussed, debated and evaluated. It takes seven chapters for the main plot, with the merest inkling of the Children – note the capital ‘C’ – to even get going, and the climax only creeps up on you by degrees, culminating literally on the second to last page.
It doesn’t help that it’s mostly being narrated by a character with little connection to the plot. Richard Gayford and his wife Janet are residents of Midwich but were in London during the ‘Dayout’ which caused the mess, meaning Janet rather dodged a bullet. They start off relatively involved in the way the village comes to terms with this multitude of virgin births, but they fade into the background to make room for Gordon Zellaby, an ageing academic who is briefly ‘grandfather’ to one of the Children, close observer as they’re born and quickly grow up, and consequently teacher, tentative mentor, defender and eventual judge of the ominous brood that Midwich (probably foolishly) chose to shelter and nurture. I was left wondering why Zellaby wasn’t the narrator, even though it’s gratifying when he finally takes action as the stakes become lethal and humanity’s future is thrown into jeopardy.
It’s such a slow, steady build of tension that really makes the story worth it. The extended focus on the ‘Dayout’ – when everyone in Midwich over a two mile radius falls unconscious for a day, facilitating the mysterious mass pregnancy – sets the tone for increasing unease, using a quietly complacent English town as a nest for growing horrors:
In the course of the next fortnight, three of the Midwich young women sought confidential interviews with Mr Leebody. He had baptized them when they were babies; he knew them, and their parents, well. All of them were good, intelligent, and certainly not ignorant, girls. Yet each of them told him, in effect, ‘It wasn’t anybody, Vicar. That’s why I’m frightened…’
It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a miracle so much as a case of forced impregnation/invasion by something unknown. Wyndham has his characters refer to it as xenogenesis, which meant nothing to me then, but I gradually understood that these women were nothing more than forcibly conscripted host mothers. It made my skin crawl. Think of the Alien films, the real life cuckoo itself, the life cycles of certain insects that one character mentions – ‘as for the insects, their lives are sustained only by intricate processes of fantastic horror’. Most of all, think of the constant contemporary political debates over the rights of women’s bodies and their ability to access birth control and abortions. Think of all that, and shudder. Even at ten/eleven, before or just on the cusp of sex ed, this was creepy stuff.
And there’s no relief when the Children come out perfectly human shaped but golden-eyed, clearly identifiable as another species and with already potent psychic abilities, tormenting their host mothers in ways that the male authority figures initially pass off as hysteria. (Big shock there.) There’s no case of a woman being forced to plunge her hand into boiling water, a scene only found in the 1960 film, but it obviously took inspiration from this nugget in the book:
On the occasion she was referring to, Mrs Brant had gone into Mrs Welt’s shop one morning to find her engaged in jabbing a pin into herself again and again, and weeping as she did it. This has not seemed good to Mrs Brant, so she had dragged her off to see Willers. He gave Mrs Welt some kind of sedative, and when she felt better she had explained that in changing the baby’s napkin she had pricked him with a pin. Whereupon, by her account, the baby had just looked steadily at her with its golden eyes, and made her start jabbing the pin into herself .
‘Well, really!’ objected Willers. ‘If you can cite me a plainer case of hysterical remorse – hair-shirts, and all that – I shall be interested to hear it.’
‘And Harriman, too?’ Janet persisted.
For Harriman had one day made his appearance in Willers’ surgery in a shocking mess. Nose broken, couple of teeth knocked out, both eyes blacked. He had been set upon, so he said, by three unknown men – but no one else had seen these men. On the other hand, two the village boys claimed that through his window they had seen Harriman furiously bashing himself with his own fists. – and the next day someone noted a bruise on the side of the Harriman baby’s face.
No screaming monsters, no black-eyed aliens, not even any triffids. Just beautiful but unnatural children, forcibly inserted into a town that nourishes and sustains them. They pull strings and make themselves as comfortable and protected as possible, manipulating and compelling those around them, until they’re ready to leave the nest and go on to carry out their undisclosed but sinister destiny. Subtle, insidious, deadly. Considering the time it was written, an older reader might almost suspect overtones of Communist agents and Red Scares. However, to add to the doom and gloom, those behind the Iron Curtain are just as terrified of the potential of the Children as those in the West, and just as vulnerable unless steps are taken to combat these fledgling invaders.
If you were wishful to challenge the supremacy of a society that was fairly stable, and quite well weaponed, what would you do? Would you meet it on its own terms by launching a probably costly, and certainly destructive, assault? Or, if time were of no great importance, would you prefer to employ a version of a more subtle tactic? Would you, in fact, try somehow to introduce a fifth column, to attack it from within?
I don’t remember Dad ever reading bits of this book to us, but then this story isn’t the best one to read aloud unless you’re doing it all the way through, and definitely not to two small girls. And despite his approval of the film, especially the ending, I don’t remember ever seeing it in his film collection. Let me check.
*cheerful lift music*
*further cheerful lift music*
Nope, apparently not. Dad wasn’t a big fan of horror or science fiction films. Although he did have The War of the Worlds, which I suspect he bought with us in mind.
Also Dead of Night.
(Better than it looks. With Halloween on the way, I might just give it a re-watch.)
So, to sum it up: The Midwich Cuckoos. Long winded, waffling and with an ending that falls a bit flat compared to the filmed version, this is still an unnerving story, frightening in just how it can make telepathic, hive-minded aliens so plausible, so commonplace in daily life (if not part of it) and so…almost human.
Next: with Halloween on the way, what’s more appropriate than a ghost story or two?