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Night of the Triffids (2001)


Hodder cover 2001

Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2001, ISBN 9780340766002 hardback

New English Library, UK, 2001, ISBN 9780340766019 paperback

At the end of The Day of the Triffids, the hero, Bill Masen, his wife and baby son join a new colony on the Isle of Wight. Temporarily safe in its island fortress, this tiny community begins its work to eradicate the triffid menace and lay the foundations of a new civilisation. Throughout the world similar colonies struggle for survival, while the implacable triffid plant continues its march, seemingly intent on wiping out humankind.

The Night of the Triffids takes up the story twenty-five years later. David Masen, the grown-up son of Bill, is a pilot who eventually manages to reach New York where a very different colony has been set up, a colony whose members seem to be immune to the triffid sting and where David comes face to face with an old enemy from his father’s past…

2001 is the 50th anniversary of the first publication of John Wyndham’s classic novel, which is fittingly celebrated by the publication of The Night of the Triffids, and a new edition of the Penguin Press original.


They’re Big, They’re Green, They’re Baa-aack…

The road to writing The Night of the Triffids was a long and turning one. Here, Simon takes a look back at part of that journey.

All pilgrimages should be difficult. Convention dictates they involve long, arduous journeys splashed with setbacks, adventures, self-denial and moments of epiphany.

Mine was no different. To reach the John Wyndham archive at The University Of Liverpool Library meant a train journey of surreal difficulty from my hometown of Doncaster. Rain in torrents. Points failures. Heart pounding platform dashes. Missed connections. Delays. The Pennines became goblin haunted wastes beneath wretched skies. There were compensations. I finally get to jot notes for a new novel. Meanwhile, a pair of Japanese tourists turned a tin of chopped ham into an exotic delicacy. Eyes gooey with delight they suck the jelly from plastic spoons, making heartfelt mmmm and ooooohh’s.

Three years ago on another rail journey a bird collided with my train outside Swindon. During the wait for repairs I found myself thinking about The Day Of The Triffids. Wyndham married together two disparate ideas. One: a plant that walks, that consumes flesh, that kills with its fifteen-foot sting. Now, that’s a nifty science fiction yarn. But then idea two. Wyndham introduces an apocalyptic plague of blindness. One night mysterious green flashes in the sky leave the whole world blinded with the exception of a few survivors who must rebuild society from scratch. As I sat there in an express train, built from four hundred tons of muscular steel, stopped dead by a sixty-gram bird it was easy to appreciate Wyndham’s parable that exposed the fragility of civilization. When Day Of The Triffids appeared in 1951 Britain was suffering its own mid-life crisis. Without her allies it couldn’t have won the Hitler war. Its global empire had dissolved. Like the suddenly blinded in Wyndham’s novel Britain had lost its way. Frightened, it groped through the ruins of the old world order.

In such a mood the country seized on Day Of The Triffids. It was a metaphor for the state of the nation. It told its reader that they had lost their power; that sinister predators lay in wait in their own back yards. But shining through this story of epic disaster is hope. That the human spirit is indestructible and will build new if radically different societies.

As the man with the mop dealt with remains of the bird I suddenly thought: “Why don’t I continue the Day Of The Triffids story?” Yeah, right. As if!

At the time, it seemed as fanciful as selling a film script to Spielberg. But it was an idea that just wouldn’t quit.

“Leave it with me,” said my agent when I revealed my plan. “I’ll see what I can do.” It helps having a brilliant agent like Bob Tanner. Within weeks The Night Of The Triffids was born. Boy, oh boy. I felt like the humble football supporter being called to play in the Cup final when his team is a man down. Before I even worried about plot I realised I had better develop a style that would be a fusion of my own and Wyndham’s easy-going – deceptively easy-going – prose.

From day one I knew that to slavishly imitate Wyndham would be a disaster. I’d find myself writing a clunky pastiche. Ghastly to write and ghastlier to read. Instead I’d tell the story from the point of view of David Masen, the son of the hero in the original story. Now I could legitimately appropriate Wydham-esque turns of phrase, yet write in a way comfortable for me. To do this I read Wyndham’s constantly. Not from end to end but the same page over and over as if learning a song. Absorbing sentence structure and rythmn. This was no hardship. This was a labour of love. Day Of The Triffids had been a revelation when I’d bought the paperback with my first paper round wage.

John Wyndham’s style is ingeniously homely, chatty even. It’s like a favourite uncle recounting some personal anecdote as he warms his feet in front of the fire. In Day Of The Triffids Wyndham happily dumps the conventional literary phrase. Instead of saying ‘The rain fell heavily’ he was apt to declare ‘It was getting a bit damp out.’ Then, when the story requires it, Wyndham soars into the poetic. Here he describes The Houses of Parliament after the collapse of civilization. ‘Let it shower its crumbling pinnacles onto the terrace as it would … the roofs could in due course fall; there would be none to stop them, and none to care.’ Read that and you can almost hear the raw fury of the Sex Pistols and Anarchy In The UK picking up the Wyndham vibe.

Armed with my new hybrid prose-style I began my story, setting it twenty-five years after the close of Day Of The Triffids when hero Bill Masen and family evacuate to the Isle Of Wight, leaving the mainland to the conquering triffid. Partly in homage to the original where Bill wakes to find a human race gone blind and partly inspired by legends of darkness heralding the onset of the apocalypse David Masen wakes to find that the world has been plunged into total darkness. Something of the ominous absurdity of a bird crippling the train must have stayed with me, because in another scene a seagull downs the plane David is piloting by shattering the propeller (happily, no experience is wasted when you’re a writer).

As I sat on the train bound for Liverpool and the Wyndham archive I envisioned the Britain of 1950 brought to a sudden, juddering halt. Just moments before the disaster it would be world of debutante balls, steam hauled trains; high tea. BBC Radio, not television, still ruled the airwaves. So I imagined that my survivors in their Isle of Wight fortress would cling to the old ways as best they could. Recordings of Arthur Askey, Charlie Chester and Noel Coward would still entertain them. On the other hand, rock and roll, flower power, moon landings and Television soaps would never happen. Without the resources to manufacture from scratch this post-apocalyptic society would ride in carefully maintained thirty-year-old boneshakers; they would be consummate in the art of re-cycling and repair.

I sat scribbling notes. By this time the train had been delayed so much I might not even reach the archive. The Japanese tourist’s enjoyment of the tinned ham appeared short-lived, also. He scrambled from his seat to the toilet, which occupied the main carriage of the train, not the connecting corridor. As I wrote I heard his companion gasp. Everyone in the carriage stared at the toilet in horror.

The electronic door was misbehaving. Unlike HAL 9000 that refused to open the airlock door, a rogue computer chip refused to keep it shut. Face blazing with embarrassment the man pounded the button to close the door. At last it slid shut. Minutes later the door flew open again. Everyone in the carriage stared at the anguished traveler. With his trousers well south of midnight, he clutched a fistful of tissue while he battled the renegade machine. We did the polite thing and looked away from his ghastly predicament. But of course we saw it all too vividly reflected in the train windows.

Frankenstein technology. Man’s struggle against the man-made. This man’s struggle with the toilet door. They shared a curious symmetry with the novel I was writing. By now my pilgrimage was nearing its conclusion. The train pulled into the station. And after dashing through the rain to The University Of Liverpool Library I found myself gazing in awe at the fifty-year-old manuscript that had brought me here. There I saw the corrections in Wyndham’s own hand, and those opening words that had hooked me as a child: ‘When a day that you happen to know is a Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

At last. Journey’s end.