Triffids and Krakens and Chrysalids and Cuckoos, Oh My!

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was an English science fiction writer who died in 1969. He started off writing for the pulps in the 1930s under a slew of pen names, mostly derived from his impressive and what must have been extremely useful selection of given names: John Beynon Lucas Parkes. He wrote as John B. Harris and Johnson B. Harris before finally publishing novels as John Wyndham.

‘Cozy catastrophe’ was what Brian Aldiss termed a bunch of Wyndham’s books, meaning less Big Picture boom boom Independence Day alien attacks end of the world aaah! and more experiencing a catastrophe on an individual level and the long process of dealing with the aftereffects.

My first introduction to Wyndham’s work was in middle school with THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, about ambulatory poison plants. Think big honkin’ Venus flytraps with an attitude: they have poison-tipped whip-like appendages and three thick roots they can scoot around on. Slow? You betcha. But if you’re trapped and can’t get away? Face it: you’re plant food.

Of course, when the triffids first appear, crafty corporations find out they’re useful sources of animal feed…so naturally, they start farming them, because fields and fields of six-foot tall poisonous walking plants is always a good idea. Sure, they start off removing the poison sacs…until they find out the quality of the feed declines, so they simply teach their factory farms how to ‘be careful.’ Because that always works for corporations.

But were acres of walking poison plants the catastrophe? Nah. The disaster really kicks in when the Earth enters a ‘meteor field’ that exposes everyone who’s watching to pretty green lights in the night sky. Ooh! Ahhh! Pretty lights!


The next morning, everyone who watched the spectacle wakes up blind. The triffids escape. Cue the catastrophe.

THE KRAKEN WAKES is an alien invasion on a muted, very English scale. Balls of light are seen falling into the sea. A short time later, sea levels begin to rise, and heavy little armored tanks trundle onto beaches. It seems the lights were ships containing creatures that can only live under very high pressure, hence their descent into the deep sea. They’re invading to turn good old Terra into something more suitable for their needs. The protagonist is a reporter struggling to survive in a slowly flooding London.

THE CRYSALIDS is less about a catastrophe and more about its aftermath. Centuries after a nuclear holocaust, society has reverted to a medieval level, and anything mutated is considered evil-with-a-capital-E and either killed or banished—even a little girl with six toes on one foot. Pragmatically, huge horses are A-okay, as they’re useful around the farms.

A group of children, however, have developed a mutation that isn’t visible—they’re telepaths. Cue the burning torches.

One of Wyndham’s most impactful books is THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, turned to the movie(s) CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED…with varying degrees of success. Another alien invasion, but with a clever twist on the aliens’ part.

One day, an invisible dome settles over the small English village of Midwich. The people inside are all sprawled out as if dead, and anyone who steps inside the perimeter of the dome collapses. Twenty-four hours later, the dome dissipates and everyone who looked dead wakes up. Whew! They were just asleep all along.

Then every woman of childbearing age who’d been inside the dome find out she’s pregnant, regardless of her marital status…or even her virginity. Nine months later, they all give birth to eerily similar blonde kids with glowing eyes.

Awww, cute helpless children, right? Uh, not so much. The kids grow up fast, always travel together in a pack, show no emotions, and are able to protect themselves by mind-controlling anyone who messes with them. One guy who’d insulted them runs his car ‘accidentally’ into a tree.

Oh, and apparently they can read humans’ minds. And Midwich wasn’t the only town this happened to: a native village in in the far north had stoned the mothers and their offspring as soon as they were born. And reports from Russia—the book takes place in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War—tell of a town nuked to nonexistence.

Neither of these would be typical English reactions to this little problem. But Wyndham’s protagonist manages to confront the issue.

Wyndham wrote other books, most of which I recommend mostly because I love his low-key, intimate and usually first person POV style. I think you might enjoy ‘em too. You can grab a bunch of his public domain work–Canadian public domain–at Faded Pages.