The Death of Grass by John Christopher

John Christopher’s Death of Grass (published 1956) came out five years after John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Both are about how the precariousness of modern life can so easily give way to a tooth-and-claw battle for survival when civilisation breaks down. Christopher’s chosen disaster — a virus that destroys all grass-related plants, including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice, and which soon threatens the world with starvation — isn’t as instantaneous as Wyndham’s, but that’s only to give its English characters a brief chance to look on in combined pity and superiority as China, where the virus originates, descends into chaos. As the virus spreads, the Brits tighten their belts and roll their eyes at the thought of going back to war-time rationing, sure they’ll handle the situation with the same dignity:

“Yet again,” a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph, “it falls to the British peoples to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail.”

But when our hero, John Custance, learns the government’s latest efforts to combat the virus aren’t working, he, his family, and a small but growing band of taggers-along, head for his brother’s farm in the north. Situated in a narrow-entranced valley, it should be easy to defend as the country goes feral — as long as they can get there in one piece.

They certainly can’t do so peacefully. Leaving London, they’re faced with a military roadblock. By this point, Custance is convinced the government are planning to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities, including London, to bring the population down to the sort of levels that can be maintained with new levels of food production, so he knows it’s a matter of kill or be killed. This close to WWII, Custance is the sort of man who has had some experience of this:

He brought the rifle up and tried to hold it steady. At any fraction of a second, he must crook his finger and kill this man, unknown, innocent. He had killed in the war, but never from such close range, and never a fellow-countryman. Sweat seemed to stream on his forehead; he was afraid of it blinding his eyes, but dared not risk disturbing his aim to wipe it off. Clay-pipes at a fairground, he thought – a clay-pipe that must be shattered, for Ann, for Mary and Davey. His throat was dry.

The most significant addition to Custance’s group is Pirrie, an older man whom they encounter when they try to first buy, then rob, guns for their trip up north. After the robbery fails, they explain what they know and Pirrie agrees to provide them with guns in exchange for him and his wife being able to come along. He proves to be a crack shot, and soon becomes their most valuable asset. He is also quite ready to take advantage of the new lawlessness to his own advantage — not to the point of betraying the group, but certainly in getting his own, sometimes brutal, way. His pragmatism quickly becomes the embodiment of what this new world is going to be like. John Custance comes to rely on, and trust him, more and more.

There’s an uneasy air of compliance, in the book, in Custance’s shift from civilised man to survivalist leader. Perhaps because we started it off by taking his side — he was the reasonably-sounding, civilised one in the early chapters, as opposed to his friend Roger’s pessimism — but as we rarely get to see inside his head, we don’t witness the inner moments when he gives in to the way the world is going to be. We just see his actions getting darker and darker. At times it’s hard to tell if Custance is taking a certain pride, or grim satisfaction when, for instance, he finds his children being that much more obedient to him — and the women too — now he’s taken on the role of leader of a band of survivalists.

So, it’s an uneasy book. But, of course, it’s meant to be.

Day of the Triffids was far more about the ecological disaster, the loneliness of the survivors, and the many different types of challenges they’d have to face in order to survive. Although it addresses the same sort of moral issues as Christopher’s book, Christopher’s is more wholly, and brutally, about the moral issues alone. In Death of Grass, there’s no real concern for the idea of trying to preserve civilisation, or mourning its loss, just a cold looking on as it dies. As Roger says, “We’re in a new era… Or a very old one…” and everyone seems quite happy, after an initial inner tussle, to take that as read and join in:

“It’s force that counts now. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has got as much chance as a rabbit in a cage full of ferrets.”

It’s easy to see Christopher’s characters as the sort Wyndham’s might meet, try to talk to, and quickly need to escape from. Wyndham had no illusions about the depths human beings could sink to, but he did believe that some might (successfully) choose not to sink all the way — which is, after all, the basis of civilisation. Christopher’s book doesn’t really debate the point. The pragmatists are the most eloquent, and they are the ones with the guns. They survive, but we do, at the end, get to see some of the cost of that survival. (It should also be said that Christopher’s characters suffer more than Wyndham’s. Not only do they kill others, but two of the women are, early on, kidnapped and raped, something that Wyndham would never have included in a book. It’s not dwelt upon, but it certainly sets a grim tone for the mental state the group falls into.)

There was a 1970 film adaptation, named No Blade of Grass (after the US retitling of the novel), which is mostly faithful, and fits in neatly with the 70s fascination with ecological disasters and survival scenarios. The smaller cast changes the dynamics of the group, even improving on Christopher’s plot at one point, when Pirrie (here a younger rather than an older man) chooses Custance’s daughter Mary to replace his wife (instead of, in the book, another young woman picked up on the way), which makes Custance’s acquiescence all the more damning — or it would, if only Custance (played by Nigel Davenport) wasn’t so stolid and matter-of-fact throughout the film. The whole mood of the film really depends on how Custance is portrayed, and Davenport doesn’t bring the slightest hint of moral doubt to the role. The group might as well be out for a country stroll, for all the horrors (made all the more horrific by being depicted in lurid 70s fashion) they meet with, and perpetrate. (It doesn’t help that, with his eyepatch, jacket, and moustache, he’s the mirror image of Julian Barrett’s 80s action-star parody Mindhorn.) Plus, there’s a rather silly stand-off near the end with a motorcycle gang, who seem to be there simply to use up the film’s stunt budget. You can see its trailer at Trailers from Hell.

Nigel Davenport’s Custance, Julian Barrett’s Mindhorn

The Damned

There was more than radiation in the fallout from the first atomic bomb — there was an awful lot of science fiction, too, peaking in certain eras (the 1960s and 1980s) as though that cloud of glittery dust, lingering off the cultural coast, had been blown in again by adverse, probably cold, winds. I’d never heard of The Damned — a fittingly black & white little masterpiece from Hammer, released in 1963, though filmed two years earlier — till I happened upon it late, late one night when I couldn’t sleep (one of the best times to happen upon a film, particularly a black & white one), and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before.

The sculptures in The Damned were created by Elisabeth Frink

The sculptures in the film were created by Elisabeth Frink

Its approach to the science fictional core of its story is oblique — it’s a good half hour before there’s a hint of anything strange going on. Before that, it could be a slice-of-life seaside drama. It starts with a retired US insurance man, Simon Wells (played by Macdonald Carey, who I’ve only just realised played the good-guy cop in one of my favourite films, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, two decades earlier), thinking he’s getting the come-on from local girl Joan (Shirley Anne Field), but in fact is being lured off the sea-front to get mugged by her gang-leader brother, King (Oliver Reed). The motorcycle gang, fingersnapping in black leathers, seem halfway between the danciness of West Side Story and the smartly-dressed nastiness of A Clockwork Orange: Reed’s character carries a brolly; it’s got a knife blade in the handle.

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Meanwhile, further up the coast, freethinking Freya (Viveca Lindfors) has a remote, clifftop cottage where she makes some fractured-looking sculptures (glimpsed in the movie’s opening shots, they look uncomfortably like the victims of an atomic bomb blast), unsuspecting that the “public servant” Bernard who lives next-door (and who is, I think we’re supposed to infer from the way he leans familiarly on her bed, her lover, though they’re an odd match) is running a dangerously top-secret operation in a bunker beneath the cliff. The first glimpse we get of this operation is when Bernard turns on a TV link and starts talking to nine very British schoolchildren living in total isolation. When Joan and Simon, on the run from the possessive King, fall from the cliff to the sea below, they’re rescued by the children — who aren’t supposed to be able to get out, but have found a way. Starved of any interaction with other people (one of the boys believes their bunker is actually a spaceship, transporting them to another world), the kids are as excited by the hope this couple they’ve fished from the sea might be their parents, as they are to find they’re warm to the touch — the children themselves are ice-cold. When King arrives and touches one of the boys he backs off, scared, saying the children must be dead. In fact, the children are, in a way, the key to a new life — born out of a freak accident involving a strange kind of radiation, they may be able to survive in a post-bomb-drop future. The only thing is, they can’t live with us normal humans. Or, we can’t live with them. Not for long, anyway.

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I love this slow-start approach, where the fantastic only begins to intrude once a real-seeming, recognisable world, and real-seeming characters, have had a chance to establish themselves. If only films like The Damned had been a success (neither Hammer, nor its distributor Columbia seemed to know what to do with it), we might have had more of them. Its bleakness is made all the more tragic by the way that, before the characters enter such a hopeless situation, they’ve been grappling with their own, more normal-worldly, versions of hopelessness already.

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It’s a little odd that 1963 saw the release of another UK film featuring apocalyptic kids that had the word “damned” in the title: Children of the Damned, a sequel to the 1960 John Wyndham adaptation, Village of the Damned. (The Damned is also an adaptation, but the 1960 novel it was based on, Children of the Light by H L Lawrence, seems rather difficult to get hold of.) In the US, the film was retitled These are the Damned, but I think The Damned is a better title, as it leaves room for the question: who are the damned? Is it the kids isolated in their underground bunker, or is it us, aboveground, exposed to the constant nuclear threat?

John Wyndham and The Catastrophe of Cosiness

John WyndhamReading through John Wyndham’s novels in order, I’ve been surprised to discover how a minor theme that emerges in The Day of the Triffids quickly takes over as the dominant note in all his subsequent novels. This is the way that people resist, suppress, or even attack change, difference and new ideas. In Kraken, it’s in the way the media, and its readership, are unwilling to accept they’re in the midst of an alien invasion, and simply disbelieve it, or at best blame it on the Russians. In Trouble with Lichen, it’s the way society turns completely antagonistic, even murderous, to protect its various self-interests in the face of what ought to be a widely-welcomed discovery that lengthens the span of human life. In the more emotive and compelling of his novels, Wyndham ties the forces of change/difference directly to children and childhood, so that both the “cuckoos” of The Midwich Cuckoos and the telepathic children of The Chrysalids are actual embodiments of this force of change, with the added vulnerability of being children, thus making the horror of victimisation by their own societies all the more vivid. What I feel is Wyndham’s most personal novel (and the last published in his lifetime), Chocky, is about a young boy who enters into telepathic contact with a highly advanced being from another planet. But Chocky’s attempts to prompt the boy towards a new understanding of humankind’s future does nothing but attract unwanted, uncomprehending, and sometimes even antagonistic and controlling, attention.

1963 Penguin edition of Day of the Triffds, from The Art of Penguin Science Fiction.org

1963 Penguin edition of Day of the Triffds, from The Art of Penguin Science Fiction.org

As I said when writing about The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, Wyndham is often dismissed as being a writer of “Cosy Catastrophes”, with the implication that there’s nothing genuinely challenging or meaningful in his books beyond their value as fantasies of self-indulgence in a depopulated world (or “a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking” as Brian Aldiss put it). But, to me, it’s obvious there’s something more going on. All artists, at their most successful, I think, are dealing with a clash of unresolvable forces within themselves, and it’s undoubtedly true that Wyndham’s novels contain such a conflict. He has an evident longing for the cosiness offered by the society he lived and wrote in — 1950s and early-1960s Britain, on the recovery from the second of two World Wars, and riding a wave of steadily growing prosperity — but it’s also true that he had a deep conviction that this cosiness was bought at the expense of ignoring very real, and potentially overwhelming, dangers. The cosiness of Wyndham’s age was perhaps a left-over from the Victorian era’s confidence that humankind was the pinnacle of God’s created world, but the mid-twentieth century was suffering the intellectual and spiritual fallout of the Nazi death camps and the use of the atom bomb, shorn of divine protection and exposed to a greater and greater knowledge of what Lovecraft called the “black seas of infinity” — the cold, un-cosy realities of a world of “sheer accident”, “blind chance” (Triffids), a world where “Life in all its forms is strife” (The Kraken Wakes) and where “Nature is ruthless, hideous, and cruel beyond belief” (The Midwich Cuckoos). In Chocky, we have “a vast, adventitious cosmos… the horrid wastes of space”. The longing for the cosiness is there, yes, but so is the knowledge that it’s by no means a guaranteed, but in fact a highly parlous, state. As someone says in Triffids:

“…how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”

And this, I think, is what Wyndham’s writing is really about. Not “Cosy Catastrophes” merely, but the Catastrophe of Cosiness: how living ensconced in a superficially successful society can blind you to the fact that civilisation is hard-won, and needs to be constantly guarded, regenerated and re-made, lest it should be lost altogether. And not just civilisation, but something deeper and more fundamentally meaningful:

“But intelligent life is rare… very rare indeed… the rarest thing in creation… But the most precious… For intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured. Without it nothing begins, nothing ends, there can be nothing through all eternity but the mindless babblings of chaos…”

Chocky coverAnd it’s not just man-eating plants, invaders from Neptune, satellite weapons and post-nuclear wastelands that contribute to the danger Wyndham is warning of. It’s what we do to each other, day-to-day, within the confines of our supposedly cosy society. Particularly, it matters to Wyndham what we do to our children. Granted, in The Midwich Cuckoos, he goes out of his way to make those children something to fear, but in Chocky — Wyndham’s most positive novel, in that for once the fantastic element isn’t a monster, invader, or cold-minded evolutionary successor but an advanced intelligent being, wanting to help — there’s nothing to fear, but everything to exploit. Chocky’s gift to mankind (the possibility of a new and infinite source of energy) is withdrawn, or at least delayed, because of how the forces in control of our society, the people who sit atop the status quo, grasp at it so greedily. Cosy to the point of stagnation, society becomes a danger to itself, with the most innocent — children, the natural agents of change — also the most vulnerable to repression, to enforcement of “conformity with peoples’ expectations, the desire to prove that one is normal, the belief that it will establish status… the obligation of holding one’s own in competition with the neighbours.”

I can’t help but feeling Chocky is Wyndham’s most heartfelt statement about his own life. In the chapter on him in Seekers of Tomorrow (written after correspondence with Wyndham himself), Sam Moskowitz says:

“By the time he was 11, John learned that the easiest way to get along with other children… was to pretend enthusiasm for majority interests.”

Chocky (cover)Wyndham was obviously a highly-imaginative child, but being moved around to a lot of different schools in his early years meant he had to learn to fit in quickly, and the easiest way to do this was to fake it. Faking it becomes a dangerous habit of self-repression. (In contrast, his repeated fantasy of telepathic contact with other, similar beings, seems to point to a desire for a deeper sympathy with his fellow human beings than the mores of his time allowed.) I can’t help wondering how much his own childhood’s lowest points can be glimpsed in the few sentences in Chocky where the narrator’s usually laid-back and mellow tone is punctured by a sudden bitterness:

“I have been astonished before, and doubtless shall be again, how the kindliest and most sympathetic of women can pettify and downgrade the searing anguishes of childhood.”

(Of Wyndham’s relationship with his mother (his father was absent), Moskowitz says: “He saw his mother primarily during school holidays and attended seven schools in all as she impulsively changed her places of residence.” Which seems to imply a certain indifference to her child’s emotional needs.)

Also:

“I felt a poignant memory of those desolate patches of disillusion which are the shocks of growing up.”

Chocky can also be read as a story of the birth of the artistic impulse, with Chocky a sort of science-fictional muse, teaching young Matthew new ways of seeing things. The most affecting moment in the novel, for me, is the point at which Chocky, realising the danger she’s placing both her mission and her human contact in, withdraws. “It’s like losing part of me…” Matthew says.

‘It’s going to be a bit dull,’ he said. ‘She sort of made me notice things more.’

‘Can’t you go on noticing things? The world’s quite an interesting place. There’s lots to notice.’

‘Oh, I do. More than I did, I mean. Only it’s kind of lonely, just noticing by yourself…’

‘If you could get what you see down on paper you’d be able to share your noticing with other people…’ I suggested.

And thus, perhaps, a writer is born.

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.