The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Just as The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes make a neat pairing as a couple of catastrophe novels, Wyndham’s next two books, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, are both about an evolutionary leap in the younger generation that threatens to usurp “normal” humankind. A lot of people say The Chrysalids is Wyndham’s best novel, but I prefer Midwich. In it, Wyndham’s writerly craft has progressed along several lines to a point of mild perfection. Those who accuse him of merely writing “Cosy Catastrophes” may feel justified in damning him for his “analgesic” style, but it’s precisely his urbane, mildly comic tone that allows him to smuggle in a very dark tale addressing some uncomfortable issues.

The Chrysalids by John WyndhamThe Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos are almost shadow images of one another. The Chrysalids, set in a post-nuclear-holocaust future, is about a human society struggling to re-establish itself in the remnants of a radiation-scarred world. A rigid religious dogma protects it from all mutations whether plant, animal or human: anything which doesn’t conform to its scripture of normality is destroyed. Into this world comes an invisible mutation, a handful of children who are telepathically linked. But if these children let their new ability be known, their own parents will banish them to the Badlands, if not hunt them down and kill them. The Midwich Cuckoos, on the other hand, is set in the author’s own era, when the (literally) sleepy English village of Midwich finds itself visited by a plague of pregnancies, resulting in the birth of about sixty alien children, all (again) telepathically linked, but this time able to coerce “normal” humans into doing whatever they will them to do — and therefore, though a minority in numbers, this time the mutations/aliens are in the position of power. Also — and again in contrast to The Chrysalids, which is narrated by one of the telepathic children — from the point of view of Midwich’s narrator, it is the mutations/aliens who are the “others”, the enemy.

The Midwich CuckoosMidwich works, for me, in large part because of its style. Throughout his previous books, Wyndham used a first-person narrator to present his tales of “logical fantasy”, allowing him to humanise his essentially idea-led tales, while distancing his narrator from the wilder implications of those ideas (intelligent plants, invaders from another planet). The disadvantage of having a narrator, though, is that world-changing catastrophes require the relation of a lot of world-wide events, so Wyndham’s narrator gets stuck reporting a lot of things outside his immediate experience, with the result that things get told of rather than shown. This isn’t a problem in Triffids, which is mostly immediate action, but it makes Kraken a very un-involving novel, for me. In The Midwich Cuckoos, though, Wyndham strikes on two ideas that allow him to describe his incipient, worldwide catastrophe entirely in immediate terms: he first of all shrinks “the world” to the bounds of an English village, with only suggestions of similar things going on in other countries, and secondly, he gives his narrator licence to describe all the scenes at which he isn’t actually present as though he were, rather than the stricter approach of Kraken, where everything not witnessed by the narrator is reported secondhand.

Another Wyndham strand that achieves a sort of culmination in Midwich is the prophet/theoretician character he employs in all his novels (Coker in Triffids, Bocker in Kraken, Uncle Axel in The Chrysalids). This is the person who gets to speculate (always accurately) on the exact nature of the menace — the triffids’ intelligence, the fact that there is an alien invasion going on in Kraken — and also to indulge in a little thematic lecturing about the precariousness of man’s position atop a Godless evolutionary tree. In Midwich, Wyndham finds his perfect prophet/theoretician in Gordon Zellaby, a rather dufferish, doddery old writer, whose genial air of absent-minded reasonableness puts the reader off their guard, giving him complete licence to lecture at will:

“But, my dear fellow, if one is not blinded by a sense of indispensability, one must take it that we, like the other lords of creation before us, will one day be replaced. There are two ways in which it can happen: either through ourselves, by our self-destruction, or by the incursion of some species which we lack the equipment to subdue. Well, here we are now, face to face with a superior will and mind. And what are we able to bring against it?”

(Zellaby seems to be a sort of idealised version of Wyndham himself. Zellaby says he was “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next.” Wyndham grew up during WWI, and as a result thought of that as “his” war, meaning he felt oddly dislocated when he found himself serving in WWII (not his war), as a temporary Civil Servant in Censorship, and later with the Royal Corps of Signals in a cipher office.)

The Midwich Cuckoos coverFor most of the novel, The Midwich Cuckoos reads like a light, and very English, comedy about a rather awkward social problem — an entire village’s worth of women finding themselves unaccountably and simultaneously pregnant, with the result that certain types (a pair of live-together spinsters, a wife rumoured to be carrying on with another man, an engaged but not-yet-married couple) have some serious explaining to do. But as the novel progresses, though it keeps the same civilised, faintly amused & bemused tone, the story becomes steadily darker. The children hit out at those who threaten or accidentally hurt them. Early on, a woman is found repeatedly, and helplessly, sticking herself with a safety pin because she unintentionally pricked her golden-eyed baby; later, a man is forced to drive his car into a wall because he knocked into one of the children; later still, the village men are forced to fight each other, and everyone is telepathically forbidden from leaving the village.

The Village of the Damned (1960)

By this point, Wyndham’s “comforting” narrative tone is totally at odds with the story he’s telling. It all reads so urbane and cosy, but this is a very nasty sort of war, between parents and children — and therefore a war that hits at the most fundamental note of what binds a society together. But as the children explain, there is a “biological obligation” at the heart of it:

“This is not a civilised matter… it is a primitive matter. If we exist, we shall dominate you — that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded, and start on the way to extinction without a struggle?”

It’s a case of kill or be killed, a sort of Cold War from within, with one generation set against the next, a war of “social rules” versus “elemental struggle”. The narrative, though, keeps to the tone of “social rules” and mild social comedy, meaning the reader has to, at some point, detach from the narrator’s tone and realise for themselves just how dark a story The Midwich Cuckoos is. If you don’t question that tone — if you read it merely as a “Cosy Catastrophe” — you’re not getting the full impact.

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Maybe the very cosiness of some British horror is what makes it so effective – the content plays against the delivery? Although I read both ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The Kraken Wakes’ – I remember liking the Tennyson poem at the beginning of the latter so much, I learnt it off by heart – I don’t think I ever read ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, possibly because I saw ‘Children of the Stones’ around the same time and it was a case of ‘been there, done that’. That said, I wonder – on the basis of your piece – if the book doesn’t also, however unconsciously, reflect the very real anxiety with which Wyndham’s generation would have regarded the Fifties generation, the progenitors of the whole Sixties counter-culture? One generation is always supplanted by the next but the schism between the two (in terms of values etc) must have been particularly pronounced.

    Read ‘It’ on the basis of your piece btw. Then watched the film again. Both were pretty good. The book is a real page turner, if ultimately unsatisfactory, and that got me thinking about King’s limitations. It seems to me that King creates characters you can invest in, then puts them in jeapordy. You could say this is true of any work of fiction. The problem – for me – is that’s all he does. His work doesn’t really transcend its genre. By extension, the story doesn’t really resolve its issues because the creature the children ultimately confront is nothing like Pennywise.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, that thing about the coming generation. Watching the film of Midwich Cuckoos (Village of the Damned), I thought how much the kids were dressed like little versions of the sort of hip young people who hung around in coffee bars and talked about Existentialism — black duffel coats and serious looks. And a later cover for The Midwich Cuckoos shows them like a bunch of bovver boys leaning against a wall!

    Interesting about King & his characters, too. That does explain my feeling that I can really get into his novels, but his endings are usually a let-down. And yes, “the creature the children ultimately confront is nothing like Pennywise” – I didn’t notice that, but it is true, and it’s definitely part of the let-down. I’m really convinced that so much of the art of good storytelling involves a good set-up followed by a proper pay-off.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    No harm in having a giant alien spider lurking down in the sewers – spiders lurk down in drains all the time, and I’m guessing this was intended to be the association from the start; they are also inherently creepy – but a spider that still spoke like Pennywise, made wisecracks like Pennywise and had some of Pennywise’s sly malice. That might have worked. Or so I reckon.

    Fascinating how the book cover and the film underlined the theme of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’!

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