They May Not Mean To: Family in the Horror Fiction of John Wyndham
We all know the famous line from Philip Larkin's poem 'They f*ck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do'. Part of the joy of horror lies in the many ways that parents (or the act of becoming a parent) can produce so much chaos in people's lives. No one proves that better than horror and science fiction writer John Wyndham.
Horror fiction quite often involves a plot where family members see things through by sticking together (or some survivors manage to constitute the final girl when others of their clan are killed).
After all, one of the most affirmative aspects of horror is the notion that, no matter how bad things get, there is safety in numbers. A survivor provides that essential element of the horror narrative: the opportunity to feel thankful for what you have when the story has concluded.
One of the saddest families in John Wyndham's fiction is the family had hardly even was. In The Kraken Wakes, Mike Watson and his wife Phyllis are on their honeymoon cruise when a group of fireballs fly over the ship and crash into the water. Similar sightings follow around the world, and later other strong events too, but before the waters start rising courtesy of what turns out to be an alien invasion melting the ice caps and global population levels plummet due to the cold, Mike and Phyllis start a family.
Their baby son William dies eighteen months later. From then on, they throw themselves into their work as journalists, reporting on the strange events to take their mind off their grief. Later on, just surviving takes all their emotional and physical strength. However, there is an immense sadness in the small paragraph devoted to the details, and to the one reference to it afterwards when Phyllis is very distressed about something and Mike refers to not having her seen so upset since the baby.
There is a particular poignancy to these small details. Although John Wyndham frequently portrays families in his work, and often explores fatherhood in his novels, he actually didn't marry until very late in life and never had any children. For the whole period he was writing his novels, he was a bachelor. Yet his longing to marry and have children is evident from his work.
Although horror is more usually about reclaiming the serenity and peace of life you enjoyed before terror struck, the pair will never be able to regain what matters most of all - their little boy. However, Phyllis and Mike show a redoubtable survival instinct, and we can only hope that the family life they crave lies ahead for them after mankind's fight back against the bathies who have arrived from space and destroyed our natural world is concluded.
It isn't unusual for writers to supply something lacking in their own life via their fiction. In The Day of the Triffids, the hero Bill Masen teams up with a confident and assertive young woman he meets by accident when most of the world has gone blind after a meteor shower. The triffids break free when there aren't enough sighted people to keep them under control.
While still in the early days of their acquaintance, Josella Playton and Bill consider joining a group aiming to repopulate the world with sighted people via enforced breeding. The idea is for men to father children with as many women as possible. They leave the project, which thankfully doesn't get very far, and are separated by circumstances.
Later, they reunite, with Bill having rescued a young girl whose brother was killed by the poisonous lash of the triffids. Their own child later follows as the plot turns to their efforts to keep the triffids at bay and rebuild their lives on a farm.
In The Day of the Triffids, the formation of a nuclear family of two parents, a son and a daughter is something that must be tenaciously fought for in the face of multiple threats, some (like the blindness) are the result of extraterrestrial challenges, and others (like the escape of the triffids) arise from mankind's meddling with science to create the danger that will seek to destroy us.
In some of John Wyndham's work, the act of becoming a parent introduces chaos into otherwise well-ordered lives. You don't need to live in a horror story to know that more or less any child achieves that! John Wyndham's focus is usually on the act of becoming a parent in a non-standard manner: the 'wrong way'.
Although John Wyndham is not a censorious or sanctimonious person (far from it), he lived in a profoundly conservative society and wrote most of his longer works during the 1950s. Sources of fertility other than the usual married or cohabiting couple fascinated John Wyndham, and in his short novel Web, the protagonists travel to an island in the Pacific to embark on a utopian project that will involve setting up a community, having children and trying to build a better world. The founder of this community is spurred on by the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident, a misguided but sympathetic motive.
The individuals in Web who go to the island to start a new life are mostly strangers, other than some married couples with children, but breeding lies at the heart of the project. Thankfully, it is not as forced as the one tentatively suggested in The Day of the Triffids. The settlers encounter serious problems on the island, coping with the unfamiliar environment and then being attacked by aggressive spiders in massive numbers.
Underlying Web is the message that staying home in our flawed but familiar society and having children there is a better bet (even with the risk of a road accident to rip it all away) than the hidden dangers of a superficially idyllic island on the other side of the world. Once again, horror's central message is profoundly conservative.
The enforced breeding programme that fascinates John Wyndham isn't always mankind's doing. In The Midwich Cuckoos, the female residents of Midwich, an otherwise quiet and peaceful village in the West Country, all fall pregnant in the course of a single night. The whole village becomes comatose and is physically cut off behind an invisible barrier, in a literal rendering of the metaphor of village life being sleepily detached from the real world.
When the inhabitants come round, there is no immediate sign of anything wrong, but it subsequently becomes apparent that every woman of childbearing age who was present in the village that night is expecting a child. The children are born exactly nine months later, all on the same night.
Every child turns out to bear a profound resemblance to each other and to have more affinity with each other than with the adults who raise them. The source of the male DNA is never adequately resolved, but the children grow at a greatly advanced rate, can communicate using telepathy and have some sort of shared brain function. We could reasonably deduce an alien cause since these are frequently features of alien civilisations in fiction.
The Midwich Cuckoos is interesting beyond the consequences of near-identical pseudo-alien children with odd powers. It also considers what happens when no one is exactly sure of the identity of a child's father, applying it multiple times to create real chaos in the otherwise sedate lives of a community. Midwich stands as a proxy for society as a whole. It is ironic that John Wyndham uses such unlikely mother figures as the ageing postmistress and one half of what appears to be a lesbian couple as examples of promiscuity.
This is far from being a free-love experience gone wild, and the involuntary nature of the process is clear from the start. Although the text is in no way censorious (and I often think about how easy it would be for a lesser writer to have turned this novel into a moralising tract), the assertion of a profoundly conservative truth is clear: married or cohabiting faithful couples produce children daily without incident, but depart from the socially accepted mores at your peril.
John Wyndham utilises a variety of scenarios to explore becoming a parent, producing many tense narratives as a result of the unusual circumstances in which it occurs. He fulfills our expectations in satisfying ways by understanding that horror entertains by breaking through the ennui of the mundane to produce thrills from exploring its subversion, leaving us thankful for what we have as the entertainment concludes and the danger is over.
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If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Magicians’ Guild by Trudi Canavan here.