Master of the Cosy Catastrophe

One hundred and ten years ago, today, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris was born, and the world would never look at meteor showers or blonde-haired children in quite the same way again.

Prior to the Second World War, he wrote and published under a bewildering array of pen names – John Beynon, Wyndham Parkes and Lucas Parkes to name but a few – but it is for his extraordinary post-war novels, published under the name John Wyndham, that he is best known.  And once you hear the name ‘John Wyndham‘, the famous titles start to rattle out automatically: The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, Chocky, The Kraken Wakes and, of course, there can scarcely be a reader alive who hasn’t at least heard of The Day of the Triffids, if not read it.

I’m trying to remember how I first discovered John Wyndham, but there are two possibilities and I’m afraid I can’t collapse the memory waveform:

The first possibility is a source I’ve already mentioned here: the short-lived ’70s SF anthology comic Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, wherein I discovered the work of Bob Shaw, thanks to Tony Isabella and Gene Colan’s adaptation of his wonderful Slow Glass story ‘Light of Other Days’; for this also included an adaptation of The Day of the Triffids, by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. The second possible entry point was a compendium of four great SF books I was given at the age of eleven or twelve. This was a mock-leather-bound hardback containing Isaac Asimov‘s I, Robot, Arthur C. Clarke‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Day of the Triffids and Robert Silverberg‘s A Time of Changes (definitely my first exposure to Robert Silverberg).

However I started, my first exposure to John Wyndham resulted in a concentrated orgy of backlist reading (a pattern that would repeat itself throughout my next two decades with Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Guy Gavriel Kay among others – not to mention any number of musicians). To my great delight, I found John Wyndham‘s work quite easy to find in the Australian bookshops of the late ’70s/early ’80s – not always the case when I’d discovered a new writer – and before long I’d enjoyed all of the titles listed above, as well as Web, Trouble with Lichen, The Seeds of Time and Consider Her Ways and Others. As a young boy, entranced by The Tomorrow People, who desperately wanted to be telepathic, The Chrysalids was definitely my favourite – although The Midwich Cuckoos is the book that remains most strongly in my mind.

I’ve not re-read John Wyndham in all the intervening years, so his books remain an integral part of my childhood – locked away in the Vault of Formative Influences – and I wonder how I would view his work today. I have regretted re-reading or re-watching some old favourites – as I’m sure many of us have – but I’ve also been thrilled to rediscover the odd gem that is every bit as shiny and multi-faceted as it was back when the world was newer and more mysterious. In those cases, I’ve found that the sense of nostalgia is nicely complemented by a mature appreciation of the work in question, and I strongly suspect that would be the case with Wyndham.

But there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?

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