Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Day of the Triffids (book)

imageBy John Wyndham
Wikipedia link

Sometimes when you read a book, the thought crosses your mind that it would make the perfect movie.  And anyone reading The Day of the Triffids would agree*.  It is, in many ways, the perfect monster movie, and it remains a classic of science fiction horror.

Triffids was written by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, though with a name that unwieldy, you can understand why he shortened it to John Wyndham.  He was born in a small village in the UK, the son of a barrister. He went through various careers in the 1920s and 1930s, selling an occasional science fiction short story to US magazines.  After World War II, he returned to writing and, in 1951, he produced his best-known work, The Day of the Triffids.

The book, like many of his, deals with a disaster.  Bill Masen wakes up after an eye injury that caused him to be bandaged up for several days, and all around the hospital is eerily quiet.  He removes his bandages -- they were due to come off anyway -- and soon learns that everyone seems to have gone blind.  There had been a magnificent display of meteors the night before, but everyone who watched it cannot see any more.

And, worse, there are the triffids.  They a (possibly) genetically engineered carnivorous plant that can walk and has a whiplike poisonous stinger that it uses to kill its prey.  They are useful, though:  cut off the stinger and they can be raised for their high-quality oil.  When the book begins, the triffids are well-established**.  Some have their stingers docked (though they grow back), but many do not.  Without sight, humans have no advantage over them.  And the triffids are on the march.

The book is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece as Masen has to avoid the triffids, find others who can see, rescue some who can't, and help develop a community and a plan to fight back.  There are many chilling moments, like when a sighted little girl describing how she saw her brother being stalked by a triffid, but can do nothing because one would attack her once she made a sound.  There are scenes of triffids herding people like food animals, and blind humans turning sighted ones into slaves to keep them alive.

The triffids themselves are great monsters.  They communicate among themselves, and their ability to move, as well as their poisoned stingers make the memorable and terrifying.  But many of the worst monsters in the book are human beings who try to take advantage of the situation. In a broken down society, the most ruthless prevail if people aren't careful

You'd think that this would make a great monster movie.  A movie was made, but it's terrible.  The problems were many, but the biggest mistake was coming up with a magic solution to kill all the triffids; in the book, it's not magic, but hard work, and there's a long way to go.  In addition, the darkness of the broken down society is shunted to the far background in place of standard "fight the menace" scenes that have very little excitement.  There have also been two better-received TV miniseries, though they are not well known in the US.

John Wyndham Wyndham continued in this vein for most of his writing career,  His next novel, The Kraken Wakes,*** is nearly as good. In it, there's an alien invasion that no one realizes -- because it takes part in the deepest parts of the ocean.  And the aliens start to make over Earth so it's all deep ocean.

There's also his The Midwich Cuckoos, where all the women in a village all become pregnant one day, only to give birth to silver-eyed children who develop psychic powers.  The book was filmed as Village of the Damned, and is a minor classic of 50s horror.

But Wyndham's most terrifying creating never gained widespread popularity in popular culture.  It's too bad, since there's clearly a space for a great horror film from the book.

*Another one was Gregory Macdonld's Fletch, a book whose cover listed the first few paragraphs of the novel, with the assumption that you'd read that and be hook.  And you were.  It was a tight little mystery thriller.  Hollywood made it into a soggy comedy with Chevy Chase as his most self-indulgent. 

**Masin's eye injury was caused by a few drops of triffid venom, an irony that is noted.

***Retitled in the US to the far less imaginative Out of the Deeps.

1 comment:

Brian Busby said...

In my high school years - in Montreal - our class was assigned Harris/Wynham's The Chrysalids. Another of his post-apocalyptic books, it served to revive my dying interest in science fiction, and had me hunting down anything I could find by the man. All wonderful, not one book disappointed. An unjustly neglected writer.