After the post-nuclear war landscape of The Chrysalids John Wyndham’s fourth novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, was a return to familiar (though, as we shall see, unsettling) territory, a possible alien invasion of the world.
It begins with a small ordinary English village being subject to a mysterious force rendering everyone within a circle unconscious for a whole day on Tuesday 27th September (which would have fallen in 1960). The authorities outside cannot get in: an aerial photograph reveals an object in the village with “a pale oval outline, with a shape, judging by the shadows, not unlike the inverted bowl of a spoon.” When the village come back to life the object has gone, while the villagers appear not to have been harmed by what they quickly come to call the “Dayout”.
Some months later, however, every woman of childbearing age, married or single, discovers that she is pregnant. The story is told, partly at least, through the eyes of village resident and writer Richard Gayford and his wife, Janet, who fortunately were not in the village at the time of the Dayout.
Gayford is recruited by an old friend and government intelligence officer, Bernard Westcott, to observe what takes place in the village after the Dayout and report back. He is the typical Wyndham protagonist, intelligent enough, but his wife is cleverer. The novel also has that familar Wyndham character, the older man who sees what is really going on, which in The Midwich Cuckoos is Gordon Zellaby, who lives in a large house in the village, and writes learned books. His daughter Ferrelyn, planning to be married, is one of the pregnant women.
When the sixty-one children are born they appear to be normal human children, except they all have a sheen to the skin, golden hair and golden eyes. Soon, however, they display mental powers, forcing those mothers who have left the village to bring them back so that they can all be together. Zellaby carries out some tests and realises that the Children of Midwich are a single entity, one girl and one boy, who share intelligence, thoughts and learning. Already he suspects what is really going on, but blanches at the course of action that he feels is neccessary :
Cuckoos are very determined survivors. So determined that there is really only one thing to be done with them once one’s nest is infested. I am, as you know, a humane man…As a further disadvantage I am a civilised man. For these reasons I shall not be able to bring myself to approve of what ought to be done. Nor, even when we perceive its advisability, will the rest of us. So, like the poor hen-thrush we shall feed and nurture the monster, and betray our own species.
The novel resembles The Kraken Wakes in that the tension is built up quite slowly as a series of disturbing events occur. Unlike his other novels the whole action takes place within the village, and nowhere else, creating a claustrophobic feeling. One of the odd things about the novel is the chief storyteller up to now, Richard Gayford, whom the reader no doubt expected would take the narative forward, leaves the village with Jane at the end of Part One, and is absent for eight years.
Returning to London for a short visit he bumps into Westcott, and accompanies him on a return trip to Midwich, during which he is brought up to date with what has happened whilst he has been away. The Children grew up much quicker than human children – by the time they were nine, they were the size of teenagers – and eventually the authorities decided that it was best to set up a special school in The Grange to look after them together. Westcott is returning for an inquest into the death of a young man, Jim Pawle, killed when his car hit a wall. The verdict is “Accidental Death”, but Gayford learns the truth from Zellaby, that the car hit one of the Children by accident, and they appear to have somehow deliberately made Pawle crash.
After the inquest Pawle’s brother, David, shoots and wounds one of the Children, who then make him shoot himself. This leads to an attaks by the villagers on the Grange which ends in deaths and injuries when the Children use their mental powers to make them attack each other. Afterwards, one of the Children gives Westcott and the others a chilling warning
I will put it more plainly. It is that if there is any attempt to interefere with us or molest us, by anybody, we shall defend ourselves. We have shown that we can, and we hope that that will be warning enough to prevent further trouble.
Zellaby explains that he believes an interplanetary invasion is under way:
…we have not grasped that they represent a danger to our species, while they are in no doubt that we are a danger to theirs. And they intend to survive.
Westcott now reveals there were other Dayouts in other parts of the world. In most cases the Children were killed at birth, but in the Soviet Union one group of Children survived in a town called Gizhinsk, which he has just learned, has been wiped out by an attack by an atomic cannon, killing the entire population. The Soviets then issued a warning calling on all governments to “neutralize” any such known groups as the Children were “a threat to the whole human race.” Zellaby sums up the dilemma they are now facing:
In a quandary where every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at the conclusion. …It is the right step…But of course, our authorities will not be able to bring themselves to take it…
At the end of the book it is Zellaby who takes on the moral responsibility for dealing with the dilemma. Gayford accompanies him to the weekly film show that he runs for the children at the Grange and reflects as he watches them help Zellaby unload the equipment:
There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now…For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children “had a small ‘c’ too”. Nor was there any any doubt at all that Zellaby’s was a popular event. I watched him as he watched them with a kindly, half-wistful smile. I had a confused feeling that these could not be the Children at all; that the theories, fears and threats we had discussed must have to do with some other group of Children.
Shortly after Gayford returns to Zellaby’s home he sees a flash of bright light and a blast hits the house, smashing the windows, He realised that Zellaby has blown up himself with all the children. His wife Angela finds a note which reveals that Zellaby had a terminal illness and ends:
As to this – well we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the commonplaces of survival…If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does.
The core of the novel is the moral question of how to act against invaders who arrive, not in spaceships or cylinders as in H GWells’s The War of the Worlds, but in the form of children. Step by step Wyndham leads us down the path to a dreadful conclusion, that the Children must be killed. He emphasises the horror of this by making the Children seem, just before this happens, the most like children they have been for the whole novel.
This is not Wyndham’s best novel, but it is certainly his most unsettling one, sonething he perhaps empphasis by placing the action in the archetypal English village, where nothing ever happens. Is there a nod here, perhaps, to Went the Day Well? Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 film in which an English village resists a German invasion (the Germans are disguised as British soldiers).
Films and radio dramatisations
The novel was filmed in 1960 by MGM , retitled somewhat sensationally as The Village of the Damned. The Richard Gayford character does not appears, the film’s hero is Gordon Zellaby, played by George Sanders, whilst his wife is played by Barbara Shelley (who also appeared in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit in 1967) . You can watch a trailer here.
The novel was adapted by William Ingram in three 30-minute episodes for the BBC World Service, first broadcast in 1982. It was directed by Gordon House.
Another adaptation by Dan Ribellato in two 60-minute episodes for Radio Four was broadcast in 2003.
Surprisingly no television version has been made.
In my previous posts I have looked at Wyndham’s previous novels