The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Updated: 4 days ago

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (Michael Joseph, 1953)


What makes John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes one of the horror genre's first postmodern novels?


Journalists Mike and Phyllis Watson have their honeymoon cruise interrupted when a spate of fireballs shoot across the sky. More fireballs crash into the water all over the world until a pattern emerges: they are aiming for the deepest parts of our oceans.


Exploratory diving loses lives and state-of-the-art equipment. Everything up to and including nuclear bombs are dropped to destroy them. Then the mysterious alien visitors who have taken up residence at the highest bathymetric conditions on Earth start to fight back.


The unreliable narrator (a frequent feature of the postmodern novel) is a role played in The Kraken Wakes by the Press as a whole. Mike and Phyllis frequently reflect on the tension between high and low culture, and their role as journalists in producing stories that sacrifice accuracy and integrity for advertising revenue. If a 'scare' can generate enough revenue by circulating more magazines, they'll put the money into investigating. If not, they just drop the story. Neither public interest nor the people's right to know factor into their decision-making.


The cover of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham shows an orb falling from the sky into the ocean.
The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Parodying modern style is essential in the postmodern novel. Hack journalism designed to frighten and entertain, but which has scant regard for getting hold of the facts, is fair game for John Wyndham. He considered himself a quality novelist rather than a slush writer, even though he wrote in horror and science fiction genres and often for popular magazines. He definitely felt that writers, in whatever medium they worked, had a responsibility to the public to investigate and explain. He's evidently amused when the newspapers in his fictional world cannot explain the phenomena of the bathies' sudden arrival on Earth. In a rush of convenience, all the newspapers he creates for The Kraken Wakes storyline gravitate to explaining the abandoned ship Yatsuhiro in terms of the Marie Celeste when they have nothing more constructive to report.


Any self-respecting work of postmodernism needs to be aware of itself as a work of art or literature. In The Kraken Wakes, the authorities seek to control the narrative with twists and turns that change as their agenda develops. One minute, we're supposed to be afraid of the bathies and stay out of the water. The next minute technology's winning the battle, and we're supposed to be piling back into ocean liners.


The whole novel develops along these lines. Mike and his wife, at times seeming almost aware that they are in a work of fiction, mock the shifts in their own story. As consummate professionals, they tailor their copy to blame the Russians or aliens, as their editor requires. And of course the authorities are ready to jump on the bandwagon in the interest of keeping public attention deflected from more pressing worries. There's a lighthearted amusement here, but Wyndham could be very cool in his attitude towards government even though he was never an overtly political writer.


The Kraken Wakes doesn't come close to being the first postmodern novel. Cervantes' Don Quixote published in 1605 takes that honour, but all the same it was pretty quick off the mark. Postmodern novels were all the rage in science fiction in the postwar period but few horror novels used its narrative techniques. I'm not sure why, because The Kraken Wakes amply justifies that horror and postmodernism are very natural bedfellows.


See you on Friday. Thank you for reading my review of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham.


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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Woods by Harlen Coben here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe here.


If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Texts from Jane Eyre by Daniel M Ortberg here.



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