Fear in the fifties – John Wyndham and The Day of the Triffids

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John Wyndham’s science fiction appeared throughout the 1950s into a world gaining perspective on the second world war and the epic destruction of the atom bomb.

Many of the novels take place in a recognisable England of leafy villages with a rooted capital. The previous decade had seen the certainties of this world swept away forever – whole streets and communities could be removed overnight. Now the world could be a toxic wasteland at the press of a button.

Science was no longer just paving the way to a brighter, cleaner place. It could be a dangerous future, beyond control. Fears became epic – what if the universe turned against us with alien invasions? What if we doctored nature and unleashed wraths we couldn’t imagine? What if this life-force mutated and fought back?

Wyndham might be criticised for a ‘cosy’ setting, but this everyday, unchallenging backdrop makes his disasters literally strike home. Shattering domestic comfort is a speedy device to make human catastrophe individual. It’s universal: everyone recognises a base that feeds immediate needs of food, rest, respite – whatever the form. But placing a storm in a teacup, far from sanitising it, exaggerates the impact.

Here are great examples of mid-century illustration for editions of The Day of the Triffids, and one from the 21st century (click to enlarge).

The Dolphin version (middle, bottom row) reflects atomic design, and suggests a nature modified, alien and scientific. It’s aeons away from the lush and dependable Romantic restorative.

Wyndham’s Englishness is signalled often. There’s the Tower of London (bottom left), turrets echoed in the forest of triffids massed in front, a bulwark of old England smothered in a threatening future. Elsewhere it’s Piccadilly Circus, with citizens scattering under eerie skies – let down only by the representation of the triffid as a friendly, furry diplodocus. The mass-market paperback (top left) is more direct – we perish in tendrils, the triffid humanised with demonic face.

Most interesting is the 21st century issue from Penguin (bottom, far right). Here is proof that some of the best examples of book cover art are coming out in the present, just as we’re appreciating what we could or will lose to the digital book. Visual representations of content speak more directly than the sharpest caption, but far more deeply.

This edition says as much about our own time as it does about the fifties. It’s a much more subtle image than the others that encapsulates the vulnerability of the human race. The body is oddly stilled, neither dead nor alive; the tendrils are neither benign or malicious, but the power over man is tangible. The eyes are accepting something inevitable, with infinite sadness and hindsight, in paralysis – echoing the stylised postures of any Renaissance sculpture.

The illustration is by Brian Cronin: more of his work is here.

PS: Looking around at other John Wyndham covers I found this beautiful example of The Midwich Cuckoos here from the blog Inkspills Inc.

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6 thoughts on “Fear in the fifties – John Wyndham and The Day of the Triffids

  1. Great post – and really interesting covers… Somehow, I’m drawn to the top right hand one… I read quite a bit of John Wyndham when I was in my teens and twenties, and those books still haunt the memory powerfully. I studied ‘The Day of the Triffids’ at school (in my pre-O Level year) and that got me started on my John Wyndham reading journey… I read the 1970 Penguin edition on this link:
    http://www.penguinsciencefiction.org/covers.html#0993

  2. I read it from my parents’ bookcase – pretty sure it was the bottom left version as well!
    The Brian Cronin interview is interesting & his work too. It has a sort of 30s & Chinese/Japanese influence brought into the contemporary world feel about it

  3. Lapinbizarre

    The wrapper of the 3/6 Penguin reminds me of Flook, which cannot be the effect they were aiming for. Top centre is the first, isn’t it?

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