The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham (1957)
It is difficult to approach this novel with a fresh eye, since my perceptions of The Midwich Cuckoos are very much coloured by the George Sanders movie, ‘Village of The Damned’ which, although not a bad piece of work, didn’t really convey Wyndham’s vision, and gifted the children with the additional benefit of being able to read human minds, which was a handy conceit to make the cinematic denouement more dramatic.
A more recent version by John Carpenter was set in modern day California rather than in Wyndham’s Nineteen Fifties England but was not even up to the standard of the original British movie.
The narrator of the novel is one Richard Gayford who, on the fateful night when the novel begins, was out with his wife Janet celebrating his birthday and therefore not at home in the quiet village of Midwich where, at 10.17 pm everyone passes out.
The alarm is raised and it is soon discovered that a hemisphere, centred on the Midwich Church is in place within which any living thing is rendered unconscious.
This disappears the next day and – apart from some unfortunate fatalities due to hypothermia and a house fire, everyone recovers apparently unharmed and things go back to normal.
Some weeks later, an unease falls over Midwich and it becomes gradually apparent that all the women in the village capable of childbearing are inexplicably pregnant.
A friend of Gayford’s , Bernard Westcott, who is in Military Intelligence, becomes involved, since a Research Centre, headed by Gordon Zellaby, is also based at Midwich. It is initially suspected that the Dayout, as it comes to be known, may have been part of an espionage attempt. Westcott manages to arrange a Press blackout so that the village does not get deluged with nosey sightseers.
When the pregnancies finally reach fruition, there is an initial sigh of relief, since the babies seem perfectly normal, apart from their odd golden eyes.
However, as they mature, which they do unnaturally quickly, two things become apparent. The children can easily impose their will on human beings and, as Dr Zellaby discovered, although there are about sixty children, there are in fact only two individuals since the boys and girls comprise of a single gestalt consciousness each, divided across thirty or so bodies.
One must inevitably compare this with American novels of the Fifties, many of which featured the theme of ‘aliens among us’ and reflected the anti-communist paranoia of the government and public of the time, such as ‘The Body Snatchers’ or ‘The Puppet Masters’.
It would be useful to know how aware the author was of these works, and whether there was a conscious decision to create the British ‘aliens-among-us’ novel.
Wyndham takes great pains to set the scene, although the narrative is a little disjointed, told from the perspective of Gayford, who is writing the account in retrospect, having later interviewed others involved.
It must have been slightly shocking in Nineteen Fifty Seven to have an entire village pregnant by unnatural means with half of them unmarried. Wyndham deals with these issues remarkably well and, without proselytising, is very clear as to what reaction women in this position may face along with some of the terrible consequences. I always hoped that someone would make another movie, in black and white, set in the Fifties, since I had always though that Wyndham’s work is as much about British society of the time as it is about anything else. As is the usual case with Wyndham however, the middle-class professionals are the protagonists. The working classes are kept to the background and only brought in near the end as an obligatory ‘mob with torches’.
It’s a shame Wyndham didn’t take the opportunity to expand on some of the male villagers’ reactions to the event during the pregnancies and in the earlier sections since there would surely have been some visible masculine angst at the time. He does suggest that there was a brooding resentment among husbands and fathers but it is not really credible that it would take nine years for this to be expressed.
Structurally, again a typical Wyndham technique, the novel takes us to a point where the babies are raising suspicions of their power to will people to take actions, and then jumps ahead nine years where the children – who have been educated en-masse by Zellaby – look like eighteen year olds. There has been a human fatality, and some are suspicious that the children had something to do with it.
Again, Wyndham is exploring the Darwinian concept that man’s position at the top of the food chain is a precarious one. It is Zellaby’s view, for instance, that civilisation has weakened the species and that it would have been better for us if we had evolved alongside a more competitive species.
Wyndham is clear, however, that there can be no possibility of co-existence or, more to the point, of two species sharing a dominant position. This is his perennial theme and can also be seen in ‘The Day of The Triffids’ and ‘The Chrysalids’. Species survival becomes the overriding factor without any recourse to ethics or morality.
He perhaps missed a trick in not giving the children some redeeming features. We only see the children’s attitude to species other than human in their treatment of a bull who threatened them in their early years. If there had been some suggestion that the children would be better custodians of the Earth than humans it would have introduced an interesting moral ambiguity. As it is, the children are portrayed as emotionless, amoral creatures, as cold and dispassionate as Wells’ Martians.
Cleverly, it is not until very late into the novel that we hear any of the children speak. This produces an unsettling effect since the reader has become acquainted with the people surrounding the children, but the children themselves have been kept at a distance, which in turn emphasises their self-imposed remoteness.
Military Intelligence had previously confirmed that the USSR launched a missile at one of their own villages which itself suffered a Dayout event. Other ‘cuckoo’ events around the world resulted in the children being ‘disposed of’ shortly after they were born.
The children, aware that they are the only ‘cuckoos’ left in the world, reason that the USSR puts the state before the individual and therefore have no compunction in killing some of their own people to excise the invaders. The UK on the other hand would not countenance such a move. The proposal would have to be discussed, and liberal voices would be clamouring for the children to be given the right to live alongside us.
The government, Zellaby and the children all realise that if the children survive they will supplant humans as the dominant species. It is clear that they know that our weaknesses are our compassion and our inability to take effective action against them.
Wyndham very cleverly leads us to a point where the children have explained how our own liberal civilisation has boxed itself in and is powerless to defend the species as sections of society will inevitably lobby to protect the children’s right to exist.
Wyndham’s issues would therefore appear to be less metaphorical than his US counterparts. Certainly, there would be no worries over Communism on this side of the channel, although one could raise an argument for Wyndham making a point about the rise of youth culture in the Fifties, when many children were seen as alien by their parents.
It is perhaps immaterial since the main point is the need for mankind to address its complacence. The novel may in fact be more relevant today where many sections of society see their culture threatened by outside influences, be it the Right Wing Nationalists who feel their culture is being lost or the Muslim parents who fear their children being Westernised or radicalised, or the US Religious Right who see teachers and scientists destabilising the beliefs of their children. The genie in all these cases is, for good or bad, out of the bottle and gives Wyndham’s oddly prophetic, albeit slightly flawed, masterpiece a somewhat disturbing edge.
As David Bowie was to say some years later ‘Oh You Pretty Things… Don’t you know you’re driving your mommas and poppas insane?’