Thursday, January 27, 2011

100 Books 8 - John Wyndham's THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS

The Midwich Cuckoos - By John Wyndham - Ballantine Books

Originally published in 1957, well before much in the way of feminist literature was hitting the racks, The Midwich Cuckoos frames, in its weird, pulpy way, a lot (though certainly not all) of the issues that the feminist movement would soon be bringing to everybody's attention, at least in the novel's first third or so.

Since the book has been made -- twice -- into Major Motion Pictures retitled Village of the Damned, I imagine most everyone who might be part of its target audience knows its premise: a tiny English village's people (actually, all of its life forms) mysteriously loses consciousness for a day or so, and when everyone wakes up, all the women of childbearing age are pregnant, even the determined spinsters and the younger member of a delicately hinted at lesbian couple. That a number of these women are young and unmarried raises early moral issues within the small and very traditional community, as one might expect for 1957, but the wife of a community leader quickly calls a meeting and successfully talks the village around so there will be no posturing, no sniggering, no remarks about dirty girls having premarital sex, because all of the women are in the same boat -- and their men along with them, even before it becomes obvious that the children Midwich is bearing are not the biological children of Midwich's women.

It's a fine line between pregnancy and parasitism, really, and the line is mostly drawn by social means. A woman who sought motherhood and tried (whether the old-fashioned way or by the various modern means available to us today) and succeeded in becoming pregnant is happy, if anxious, anticipating the longed-for day with joy and cautious preparation (even more so nowadays in our age of pre-natal vitamin regimens, lamaze and other classes, hundreds of books on what to expect, even Facebook plug-ins that display for anyone who wants to look an approximation of what the fetus looks like on any particular day of its own personal gestational timeline). A woman who didn't, who erred into it or was forced into it, experiences it as an unwelcome hijacking of her body and her life. Every unwanted or unplanned pregnancy has in it the seeds of a very personal horror story.

Though The Midwich Cuckoos has a male narrator and is mostly told from the cuckholded men's perspective, the horror of this second kind of pregnancy experience seeps through every page, even before the kids are born, start growing at twice the normal rate, and exhibit their bizarre interconnectedness and frightening power to compel and inhibit their host-parents' behavior. The anecdote, second-hand, of course, of a female PhD who was a researcher at a government facility situated within the "Dayout" zone illustrates this brilliantly: not only did she strenuously object to the imposed pregnancy, to the compulsion to return to Midwich she experienced a week or so after the baby was born, but also, and rightly so in my opinion, to the far greater imposition of childcare and rearing, on her time and on her financial resources. Disowning the child in no uncertain terms and ready to make a stink that would shatter the cone of silence the government has barely managed to settle over the village, she escapes and probably just in time, for the worst, in pulp-fiction terms if not in the secret feminist sympathetic terms of the early novel, is yet to come, though even then, as we learn of other affected villages around the world, there's more to chill the uppity woman's heart: while in a few places mere infanticide occurred, in at least one other location the pregnancies provoked what we now refer to as honor violence.

All that aside, if all you're looking for is good old-fashioned British sci-fi, small in scale, skeptical in tone but still provocative of wonder and curiosity, you can't do a whole lot better than John Wyndham. Day of the Triffids delighted me early and often, both in book and TV miniseries form, after all. That it took me so many years and rather a round-about path to come to The Midwich Cuckoos is weird and possibly shameful; I finally came round to it because of Warren Ellis, very likely my very favorite comic book writer, whose webcomic (drawn by the remarkable Paul Duffield) Freakangels is in part based on the idea of "what if the Midwich Cuckoos had gotten to grow up?"

Yeah, spoilerish there, but the blurb for this blog does warn you to 'ware spoilers, and this is such an old book now, twice filmed, that even I already knew more or less how it ended before taking it up -- and I've seen neither film as yet, though I plan to remedy that tonight, as the John Carpenter version is streaming on Netflix (the earlier film, alas, I must wait for a pysical DVD to come into my hot little hands, but it will, it will). That's a subject for a whole 'nother post, maybe, though I imagine it's been written about plenty before: how some books or films or otherwise-told tales are so deeply a part of our collective cultural knowledge base that their big surprises are no longer surprises at all (I still maintain it's a mark of high quality that a culutural production can stand up even if its big secret is blown). We know what Soylent Green is made of; we know what Rosebud really is. We know Dracula is gonna get staked and that Ahab is going to regret getting his whale (speaking of which, I've not yet read Moby Dick, but shall as one of my 100 Books this year).

I approached this book expecting to be entertained: I love pulp fiction and sci-fi, especially with a good whiff of horror or an apocalyptic bent thrown in. I wasn't expecting, though, to get the genuine chills I did from the predicament of the poor women of Midwich, some of whom, sadly, go on loving their cuckoos right until the end. And I don't mind it a bit when my fun makes me think!

ADDENDUM: the next day. Early this morning I did, indeed, watch the John Carpenter remake of Village of the Damned. I am usually a fan of Carpenter's special brand of sci-fi/horror cheese (In the Mouth of Madness is a film over which I chortle often, and the phrase "John Trent laughter" has become a personal synecdoche for a state of horror so profound you can only laugh through it), but in this instance I found it mostly inappropriate to the subject matter, and found the ending especially laughable. The film so badly glossed over the extreme moral pickle into which the children maneuver the village and the external authorities with their demands (and, arguably, by their very existence) that the decision the (largely invented for the film) main character takes, which in itself is sorta-faithful to the book, makes no sense at all except in that it is faithful to the book. Without the arguments for it being presented, however, it's a quixotic and melodramatic gesture even without all the silly brick wall mental blocking theatrics. Pah!

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