John Wyndham—or, to use his full name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris—is one of the first science fiction writers I ever read, in the form of his first novel, the post-apocalyptic Day of the Triffids. Wyndham started his science fiction career late in life; he’d started writing as John Beynon in the mid-1930s, but World War II interrupted his career, and shaped his post-war writing toward apocalyptic science fiction. That short career included nine novels and a number of short stories. The most famous of which is probably The Midwich Cuckoos, because it’s been filmed twice now as Village of the Damned.
On September the 26th, a cold silence fell across the village of Midwich: not a soul stirred, and anyone who came within a five-mile radius of the town fell unconscious. This went on for 24 hours, in an event later known as the Midwich Dayout, brought on by the strange silvery disk which appeared in the town. When the effect vanishes, so does the disk, and the townsfolk begin to wake. Nothing seemed to be wrong with them, nothing different save for a few abrasions, a few deaths from the elements, and a few unearthed town secrets. Life in Midwich returns to normal.
Months later, it’s discovered that the women of the town are pregnant—every woman of child-bearing age. With a stiff upper lip, the community bands together to weather this great unknown, preparing for an onslaught of some sixty babies: a flood of blonde-haired, golden-eyed children, though otherwise human-like in every way. But as they grow up, it becomes clear to the village that not all is well with these progeny. As the cuckoo replaces a bird’s eggs with its own, something has inseminated these women, creating a mutant strain of cold, emotionless children… the future inheritors of the Earth.
Wyndham’s writing is dry, formal, and distinctively British in that early post-Edwardian vein. He has a great grasp of setting and character, though, and his fiction reflects the dramatic changes the UK underwent during the 20th Century—the Pyrrhic victory of winning two World Wars, only to see the economically destitute British Empire collapse, ceding its center role on the geopolitical stage to the United States. Wyndham’s novels have dark, terrifying, and oppressive threats, but unlike his contemporary George Orwell, his novels always seem to end on an uplifting note, leaving the characters (and reader) with a sense of hope despite any crushing loss.
That element was a major part of Triffids, though it is also a strong element in The Midwich Cuckoos. Here, the characters are affected on a basic and private level—the women and children of a small rural village. These are everyday, normal people whose lives are altered by an outside force. It’s little different from a lost Luftwaffe bomber dropping its cargo on the small village on accident, only unlike a rogue bomb, the devastation left behind is slow and insidious, and affects the community’s most vulnerable:
She told me: ‘It’s not knowing, not understanding, that frightens me. I don’t suppose a man could really understand how it feels. To have such a thing happen to you, without any idea why or how, is terrifying.’
That is the true horror of the novel: the loss of culture, the erosion of humanity, feelings of traumatic violation after cosmic rape (Theodore Sturgeon aside). The horror angle is not something Wyndham overplays—in fact, it’s under-used throughout the novel, and of those themes Wyndham only gives real depth to the loss of culture—though it’s clearly what film producers saw in the novel.
Given the novel’s pedigree for launching said staple horror flicks, it comes as a surprise how damn dull the novel really is. The first chapters are ablaze in confusion and light suspense, as a madcap scramble of Briton after Briton descends into Midwich; as one falls unconscious, another is sent to look for them. As soon as the alien cuckoos have vacated the area, the novel begins a nose-dive into tedium: townsfolk going about their daily routine, talking about pregnancy, or holding conversations about morals and ethics that can be thought-provoking but are often half-baked. For ninety-some pages, the book consists of pairs of people having dull conversations… sometimes about events that just happened, sometimes about events to come, sometimes about things happening right that second just off screen. (Such as the finale, which we hear but don’t see.)
This burdenous tedium is made worse by the protagonist, a flimsy and passive observer who contributes nothing of interest and fails to impact anything, plot or otherwise. The narrator can also recall entire conversations—in great detail I might add—which he never was a part of, fading in and out of the story as the plot necessitates. It’s as if Wyndham wanted to write the novel in third-person omniscient (since he switches to it every few chapters), but was compelled to keep his first-person narrator because that’s how the novel started. The narrator’s sole reason for existence is to ruin the pacing, obscuring any of the creepy interesting things by standing in front of them and listening to people talk.
So, to recap. The middle two-thirds of the novel is less-than-stimulating conversations about nothing, while the interesting bits occur off-screen. The narrator-protagonist has the depth of a leaf, and is so uninteresting that Wyndham abandons him whenever convenient in favor of a third-person perspective. What about the aliens, you ask, the titular cuckoos? Well, we don’t see much of them to begin with, and they vanish forever about the time the novel becomes burdensome, never to be explored again. And I’d argue the book regains its momentum when the half-human spawn reach maturity, and their cold, compassionless motives reveal their sinister nature… Meanwhile, they are kept miles away in the background, as our pointless narrator-protagonist faffs about.
I’ve read several of John Wyndham’s novels and a couple of his shorter stories, and liked all of them. Despite an engaging beginning and some taught moments near its explosive finale, The Midwich Cuckoos didn’t do it for me. The novel’s plodding center makes me think it would have worked better as a novella—or, as a film, case in point. Alternately, had the novel used its middle sections to build dread and mystery and not meander around, it could have been a knockout. (Wyndham’s earlier novel Out of the Deeps used the same kind of arm’s-length distance to better effect.) Instead, it’s lesser fare for Wyndham—a brain fart, an off-moment—a rather unflattering attempt by a quality writer.
The Midwich Cuckoos was the longest 189-page novel I have ever read. Like sitting in the waiting room right before dental surgery, time seemed to slow down, as each second ticked off its miserable existence with increasing slowness. If for some reason you feel the need to challenge my opinion, and find yourself bored to tears by the novel… well…
Motion Pictures Dept.: I’ve seen both versions, each faithful to the novel in its own way. The 1960 version is a bit stilted due to the style of its age, though is perhaps the more chilling adaptation; its cultural impact cannot be understated, even managing to influence a Simpsons episode (in the form of “The Bloodening“). The 1995 remake is John Carpenter doing a budget ’90s horror film, and while the suspense can be pretty good and the acting passable, the overall quality is wildly inconsistent.
Interesting to note, both films worked to overcome the things I complained about. The children have a more visible role in both movies, making them into looming but active threats and not have them lurk as background scenery. The protagonist in both cases—veteran English actor George Sanders, and Christopher Reeve in his last pre-paralysis role, respectively—are remade into proactive men of action rather than the novel’s void that speaks. In fact, the protagonist in both films becomes the hero of the tale, a necessary alteration to make the finale occur on-screen.
I’m a diehard Carpenter fan and like his movie a lot more than I should, as saying it’s a lackluster attempt does it great favors: it’s one of his weaker works in his weakest decade. The 1960 version is necessary watching for the horror fan, and even spawned its own sequel (1963’s Children of the Damned), and while it feels like a product from a bygone age, that was also an age of classic horror films.