the day of the tiffids coverAuthor:John Wyndham

Things You Might Like

  • Man-eating plants. What’s not to like?
  • Hack n’ Slash action (flamethrowers included, seriously)
  • Often genuinely shocking and emotional writing
  • Intelligent (and still applicable) social commentary
  • It was all the Soviet Union’s fault

Things You Might Not Like

  • Sometimes there is too much talking and not enough doing
  • The language is often irritatingly fifties in its style; fine then, less so now
  • Some of the characters are rather emotionless, in a ‘Disaster? What disaster?’ way
  • There’s a strong temptation to label this book ‘sci-fi,’ but it’s okay to hate that, as Wyndham hated it too

Conclusion
In one of the earliest survival horror books ever published, Day of the Triffids still makes you fearful of the undergrowth.

4 out of 5 Militant Nettles

Errol Stephen Philip Flynn needs some weedkiller.

***

Far too many years ago to remember exactly when, I was playing in the woods with a few other kids. I’ve forgotten everything about that day except one thing: I fell backwards into a ditch that was full, literally full, of nettles. I remember this because it hurt a lot. Now imagine that nettles have stings so painful they can kill you. Imagine that nettles can whip their sting out at anyone and anything that gets too close. Imagine that they don’t just sit in a ditch waiting for a hapless child to fall into them. They come to you, they kill you, they eat you. Whoa.

Like a lot of good stories, this one begins in the Soviet Union; the birthplace of the Triffids. Wyndham’s story predates genetic engineering by an impressive twenty-two years, yet that is where they come from, created as a cheap alternative to petrol; their oil being far more efficient. Not only is the oil motif even more poignant today, but it provides a sane and considered reason as to why people keep these wandering, chlorophyll-filled, murderous blind psychos around in significant quantities.

This logic is consistent throughout the book; Wyndham explores every pathway with an interesting rationale that sometimes drags, but more often than not enlightens. He provides reasons, so you never feel as if you’re being left in the dark, yet he never patronises his readers. Simply put: everything has an explanation, a necessary guide in a book so fanciful and imaginative.

The first-person viewpoint throws the reader directly into the action — or lack of it. A terrifyingly quiet hospital is where it begins; blindfolded after an eye operation. Wyndham heightens the tension brilliantly, without reverting to the horrific clich√© of instantaneous panic, drawing us slowly towards the fear and letting it rise up the spine instead. We’re taken on an exceptionally paced journey from normality through niggling fear and worry, eventually arriving at our terminus: all out terror. Don’t think that because the emotion is handled gradually that the story takes a while to get going; the first death of the book occurs amidst a shower of smashing glass just nine pages in, and the jarring moments don’t stop there.

Ask yourself what you would do if you were struck blind in an instant, along with all those whom you love, hate, and haven’t met. It’s impossible to imagine the terror and the chaos, but Wyndham places his readers in an observing role, making this tragedy tangible, yet still beyond the realm of imagination. His prose forms gritty, psychologically disturbing pictures of humanity brought to its knees, an anti-Darwinian reverse back into savage animals, fighting and brawling in the terrifying darkness of the afternoon sun.

Of course, it’s not all tragedy and doom, although it is pretty close. Other people are able to see, and of course have their various excuses for doing so, all more plausible than a simple ‘Oh I had my eyes shut for some reason.’ Even more fortunately, some of these people are girls. Phwoar! Of course, modern films tell us that in an international emergency, your first priority should still be getting it on with whatever foxy, catsuited minx the producer — umm, the emergency — throws at you. Not so in this book; Wyndham explores the problem of reconciling personal desires with an overall human need. The planning sections of the book work with the familiar logic you’ll come to expect, but with a skill that stops them seeming like a dull list.

What does get annoying is the plucky stiff upper-lippedness of some of the secondary characters. A few of these are ludicrously underdeveloped — ‘Sleep with that man I don’t know in order to get pregnant? Okay!’ — which is such a shame considering how it’s possible to connect with other characters that only have a role of a few pages. Fortunately, because most of his characters are so believable, so real, it’s easy enough to overlook the other, flatter shadows that make some scenes drag their feet a little.

Of course, one doesn’t wish to give away the ending, as it’s surprising how many people know all about the Triffids, but don’t have a clue how the book finishes. Suffice it to say that this book is a perfect example of the snowball effect: from a slow-paced beginning it picks up speed and doesn’t look back, getting bigger, faster, and more manic as it goes on. All the while Wyndham keeps the reader on that delicate cusp of losing control, where you always know what’s going on, but still are kept on edge as to what will happen. It’s more than immersive — it’s the best drowning I’ve ever had where still maintaining the room to breathe.

Wyndham detested the labelling of his book as sci-fi, which is easy enough to understand — these Triffids, however alien they seem, are man’s creation. Step back and think. It is difficult these days to appreciate just how forward reaching this book was when it was published almost sixty years ago. It predated gene therapy and manipulation, it predated any oil crisis and worldwide disaster movie. It was even published before people became used to any large scale disasters in books (Well’s The War of the Worlds caused a similar stir upon publication). This book became so popular so quickly because nobody else could have imagined it at the time. Like Thunderbirds or Star Trek, it vastly predates what history became.

Reading this in the modern day takes away some of the magic, and Wyndham’s work should, ideally, be read with this in mind. This would allow the text’s true originality and innovation to shine as bright as a comet’s trail in the sky, especially when we do invent walking plants. If Wyndham had been writing today, he’d have lost some credibility as an imaginative mind, writing about events instead of predicting them, although he’d still have won an immense amount of praise for his observation, wit, and the genuinely thrilling story he created. Yet I can’t help thinking that if those meteors had crossed the sky today, we’d all have been inside watching telly.

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One Response to Day of the Triffids (1951)

  1. New Review: Day of the Triffids (1951) http://bit.ly/c96odx

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