John Wyndham (1903-1969) was type-cast as a science fiction novelist. While his high fantasy novels struck a somewhat science fiction note, it was clearly not scientifiction’s rayguns, BEM’s, and Babes.
He wrote in the mid-1930′s under the name John Beynon and hit with a notable book called The Secret People, a sort of derivative novel about an underground and marginalized civilization. It fell historically in line with H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as others. As usually happens with authors of this type, his fantasy blended easily together between popular genres of mystery, detective, scientifiction, with a touch of horror.
World War II interrupted his output as he became a minor minister (Information) and a soldier in the signal corps. To all eyes, his day was done as a writer.
The 15 year gap must have built up to a crescendo within his psyche as his next book was a score that shook the genre and our culture. Producing a true 20th century classic, The Day of the Triffids (or Revolt of the Triffids) Wyndham again built on tangents derived from H. G. Wells (i.e. The Kingdom of the Blind, War of the Worlds, Day of the Comet) but to masterful effect.
A man who had an accident fortuitously was protected from rays that blinded every other member of the human race. They were immediate victims of a mobile plant species that enslaved humans for nefarious purposes. Obviously much of this played out as metaphor for the early Cold War as terrible news of many and varied atrocities trickled out of what had happened in obscure corners during WWII.
On the surface one might think this a silly premise – Brian Aldiss was a notable critic – as walking plants with whip-like appendages seized people. The real horror was what the remaining humanity did to each other. Exposing civilization as a thin veneer over barbarism most cruel, Wyndham poked a hole in the propaganda that the allies had proposed while winning the War. The Allies were supposed to be destroying the axis of evil for liberty, freedom, and oter wonderful things. In fact the post-War West was only vaguely different in their imperialism than The Soviets, or the recently destroyed Nazis. It was only colors in shades of black.
The hero of the story constantly is stunned to see one horror after another in this apocalyptic nightmare, and which was worse? An alien spore, a capitalist militia, or a barbarian rapist? Each was equally dehumanizing.
The book itself (1951) appears quaint to us today in yellow with black stick images. And, of course, Hollywood later had its turn at making a movie of it. The frustrating thing is that authors get typecast as one thing or another. Was Mary Shelley really a horror novelist, or was Frankenstein early science fiction? One could argue that The Day of the Triffids plays out better as a horror novel, but as horror sold poorly in the 1950′s, it was marketed as science fiction. It is still hyped as Sci-Fi, even though in today’s market it is one of the lowest selling of genre. Perhaps it was neither, or both? Certainly Simon Clark, a notable purveyor of horror, did a loving tribute and an authorized sequel Night of the Triffids (2001) to mixed reviews.
In any event, Wyndham left a long legacy of wonderful fantasy fiction and frequently sent horrific shudders through his readers imaginations.