Does anyone remember John Wyndham? His post-war novels set the stage for science-fiction to come, and despite H.G. Wells‘ prescient War of the Worlds, he is known to this day as the godfather of the disaster novel.
The influence of his seven stories of terror and disaster have been felt across time and medium, being seen in future novels and films for decades after his lifetime. In particular, his first three novels, The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids set the stage for apocalypse and disaster, and the strength of human survival in the wake of mass disaster.
Imagine the terror of waking, blind in a hospital, to nothing. No sound, no smell, no sight. Wandering through the streets of London, and discovering that every other person in the great city is equally blind. Some run in fear; some capture the few sighted in violence. Many are dead. All civilization is crumbling around you.
Then, quietly and in the distance, the whisper of monsters approaches. Towering, flesh-eating monsters that ought never to have been released. That ought not to exist. That ought not to be able to move, for they are plants. Yet move they do, and their advantage is great, for among the blind, they sense the movement of the frightened, and strike them down. Poison, stings, death and rotting flesh. Tearing humans limb from limb.
The 2002 film 28 Days Later… pays homage to this brilliantly, with Jim awaking in a hospital to the sound of silence. Stunning scenes of entirely empty London streets reflect the confusion and fright of Bill Masen, suddenly thrust into a twisted reality from which there is no waking, no escape. The fight for dominance among the few survivors parallels the dictatorial colonies of Wyndham’s post-apocalytic vision.
Paramount to these tales is the gut-wrenching realization that there is no return to normality. The world as we know it is gone, and the primal laws of evolution rise: the survival of the fittest. The weak die; the world diminishes. Hope is forsaken, and the sole thought is to make it to the next dawn.
When I first read these stories as a child, I was terrified; I saw tendrils of barbs and poison pushing gently at my window in my nightmares, insidious and threatening. I saw movement in the bushes walking home from school, and ran past the rhododendrons in fright. I haven’t read the novel again since.
However, the most heartbreaking tale of strife remains, to me, The Chrysalids. Here, the apocalypse is long-gone, and the survivors have settled into a rural, medieval society, where preservation of the normal is the law of the bible, and the deviants are hunted down and destroyed. Deviants, however, are abundant. Some are hideously deformed; some are barely noticeable. A single extra toe is cause for banishment and death. And in this setting, a new strain of human comes into being: ones who can sense the thoughts of others. The horror of being driven out by one’s own parents dominates the mood of the story, and I cried bitter tears when David, Rosalind, Petra and the others – mere children, naive and alone in the world – are gradually discovered and hunted in violence by their own families.
Wyndham had his finger firmly on the pulse of despair and hopelessness, inspired perhaps by his horrific experiences in the war, including the storming of the Normandy beaches. Such visions are indelible, and it is possible that these novels were his catharsis; the only way he knew of exorcising these demons.
His terror, his fright and his visions of destruction have inspired generations of creative artists; the world is fortunate to have had such a bleak storyteller.