“One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September,” begins John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. “But for that we should both of us undoubtedly have been at home in Midwich on the night of the 26th-27th, with consequences which, I have never ceased to be thankful, she was spared.”
It’s interesting that in so many dystopian novels, or novels that contain dystopian elements, the protagonist is shunted forwards into the hero space. Our protagonist is so often the one that rails against whatever nightmarish situation is unfolding, the one who, for whatever reason, has the metier to triumph.
Wyndham, on the other hand, looks very much towards not only the ordinary, but often the uninvolved. In The Day of the Triffids, for example, the protagonist misses being part of a global blindness pandemic by virtue of being held up in hospital. In The Midwich Cuckoos, Richard and Janet Gayford happen to be away on the night that a mysterious force descends upon the town of Midwich in what becomes known as the “Dayout” event, an event that effectively freezes the population in time–and after which every female resident of child-bearing age, Janet excepted, finds herself pregnant.
The extreme ordinariness of Wyndham’s protagonists, their almost irrelevance in the scheme of things is, I think, in part what makes his books so chilling. When we have a heroic protagonist at the helm of things, it’s easy for a book to feel vicarious and removed. Those sorts of circumstances affect other people, after all. Other people who aren’t us. Wyndham’s, in contrast, have very much a “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect. There’s nothing special about them. They’re just people like us.
Richard speaks the truth when he says, reflecting on the events, that “even the most ordinary-seeming day is special for someone.” But there’s an irony to it. For him the Dayout (and what an ordinary name that is) is special because it’s his birthday: for the others it’s not the ordinary thing of Richard’s birthday that’s special, but rather the Dayout event. His phrasing is so ambiguous that his irrelevance in the whole affair is hard to ignore.
Wyndham’s focus on the uninvolved doesn’t stop there, however. Non-participants Janet and Richard aside, even the town of Midwich itself is extraordinary only in its ordinariness. It’s “almost notoriously a place where things did not happen.” The narrator adds that the town “it appears, at some unknown time, simply to have occurred.” It’s a place that’s largely been ignored for a millennium or so.
Even after the Dayout, though, the town doesn’t suddenly screamingly claim a place on the map. The invasion is something that’s hushed up and kept quiet: right to the very end, and despite all that goes on, Midwich remains completely unknown. Even its possible “chosen one” status is deflected by the fact that, unbeknownst to the residents, towns all over the world have apparently been afflicted by similar occurrences. There’s something that feels so small and somehow so British about the whole scenario: the idea that unpalatable things be ignored, to be spoken of perhaps only quietly during a parlour tea. (Kazuo Ishiguro should get right on that.)
The invasion itself is disappointing in its dullness: “it had not even been an interesting experience, since the prime requisite of interesting was, after all, consciousness,” complains Mr Zellaby. Mrs Cluey’s reaction to the whole event is to complain about having her telephone call disconnected; Mr Leebody is disgruntled when his radio signal is cut off.
It’s an odd blend of denial and of a determined desire to find normalcy in distinctly unusual events. But it’s familiar: just two weeks ago, I put down a series of bloodcurdling screams outside my apartment to a drunkard fooling around. It was only when I saw the police cars outside that I began to wonder whether I’d been honest with myself about what I’d heard.
For me, this is in large part what makes the horror of the novel. It feels almost humble, almost personal in its scope, rather than the overblown Orwell- and Huxley-inspired scenarios we’ve become so familiar with. It’s terrifying because it’s such a small thing, and small things, surely, are so more easily able to occur than large things. For that reason, they’re so much more readily able to be identified with.
There are myriad themes in this one that I could spend hours teasing out–the government censorship and interference; the Darwinian aspects of these strange xenogenesis-type pregnancies, and the uneasy pre-emptive justice that the children see as essential to their survival. The idea of attempting to apply a justice system to individuals who may not be human, and indeed, what even makes a human. It’s something that brings to mind Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human; a similar notion is looked at in YA novel 1.4 by Mike Lancaster, which I reviewed recently. As a women I also found it possible to ignore what is effectively an instance of systemic rape, as well as the circumstances surrounding it. I personally took this as a representation of the sexual aggression and dominance that is wielded as a weapon against women; I also found it interesting that Wyndham depicted this in such a way that it is impossible to resort to victim-blaming.
I have to admit that when the book began using Mr Zellaby to expound these various theories, the intimate nature of the horror began to fall away slightly; the same, too, when the book zooms out to show the worldwide nature of the invasion. The sheer terror of the event is in its seeming randomness, its smallness, its closeness and its insurmountability, and by taking a step back, I did feel that some of these elements were lost.
Still, even with this weakness, the book continually asserts the lack of reason and logic and personal vendetta in all that happens. One character says, “Well, I mean, it is an adversity, isn’t it? After all, a thing like this wouldn’t happen to us for no reason, would it?” to which there are no few raised eyebrows.
Because that’s exactly the case. Things can happen (or not happen) for no good reason, and to ordinary people who don’t have the wherewithal to do anything at all about it. Because, honestly, if such a thing were to happen to you, what would you do?
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Other books by John Wyndham