There's something strange going on in the sleepy village of Midwich (sleepy villages are never quite what you expect them to be, don't you agree?). For the narrator, Richard, and his wife Janet, he's only happy that his birthday happened to coincide with the curious event that took place on the 26th of September. John Wyndham's brilliant 1957 classic The Midwich Cuckoos not only is a remarkable science fiction tale but asks all sorts of questions on what is means to be human--what makes us human, what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, about our laws and culpability and responsibilities and how our morals shape us and guide us, and the collective as opposed to individuality. It can be read on more than one level--simply as a story of dread verging on horror or if you are willing to dig just a little bit deeper it offers so very much more. Lots and lots to ponder here.
A celebration in London takes Richard and Janet away from Midwich for the night and when they try and return they are turned away by the local police telling them that both roads in and out of the village are blocked. As they're residents, however, they're told that literally no one can get into the village. How odd. The pair turn around intending to go back to the next nearest town but decide instead to park and set off across a field in order to sneak back into Midwich. Midwich is a woefully undramatic place to live. Nothing happens there at all. But when they try and walk back into the village proper, Janet first in line, seems to just drop and pass out. Richard stops and hesitates and no amount of urging will get her to stand back up. He thinks at first someone has shot her. And when he continues on, racing to help her . . . it all goes black.
Imagine an invisible dome placed over the village of Midwich. You can't see it or smell it or feel it, but cross some unknown barrier and it fells you. The police bring in the military and they try and demarcate just where this invisible line is by using parakeets. Sort of like the old trick for smelling gas down in the mines. Only when they pull the birds out, they spring back to life, no harm done. Luckily for Richard and Janet, they, too, are quickly pulled back outside whatever line that encompasses the village. And they, too, wake up as if nothing weird happened at all. Shortly thereafter whatever mysterious field that set down over Midwich seems to evaporate and life goes on as normal. With one small difference. Inexplicably all the women of Midwich, no matter age or marital status, if they are of child-bearing age, they have become pregnant!
The 26th comes to be known as "The Dayout". The day time stopped, something set down (at first popular thought is that it was a ploy by the Russians), something extraterrestrial, causing an artificial sleep and changed the face of Midwich. How each woman responds and the men in their lives if there is one, varies greatly. Some are embarrassed or despairing, others (initially at first) embrace the situation. It is decided communally, to not let word seep out into the rest of England, save for what the local police and military are aware of. The townspeople fear scientists arriving on their doorsteps to say nothing of the media and taking over their lives. They think they can just carry on and deal with the problem themselves.
"Problem" is something of an understatement. Janet has been exempted from the condition not having been in Midwich when whatever set down, well, set down and did whatever it did. The women all begin giving birth at about the same time. The babies seem normal--boys and girls, all very random. They share one feature, however, they seem to have golden eyes. When the mothers are all safely delivered of their babies, they just get on with the business of regular daily life. The women who were simply, and unfortunately, passing through Midwich or working there temporarily, try to return to wherever they came from. But something seems to "make" them turn around and return to Midwich. If not the mothers themselves, then some surrogate guardian--as long as the child is returned to the village.
And then things begin to get really weird. I want to tell you more, but I don't want to ruin it for you either. I want you to go and get this book and read it yourself. As storytelling goes, it is first rate. And if you think you are not a science fiction reader, don't worry. Just go get the book. Wyndham seems a really interesting writer. He dabbled in a number of different careers but eventually took to writing short stories, which seemed to be published exclusively in American publications, while also writing detective novels. He served in the army during WWII, then went back to writing but he began writing a "modified form of science fiction that he called 'logical fantasy'." It works. It's not exactly science fiction yet it is not really horror or mystery or just straightforward fiction. Whatever he called it, it works and it works really really well.
A couple of years ago I read and was suitably impressed by his last published work, Chocky. Now after reading one of his other 'lesser' known books, I think I need to read everything else and have been working on collecting the rest of his works. Itchy fingers has me wanting to pick up one of his other books now. I plan on reading everything I can get my hands on. I think he is best known for The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. I will get to those eventually, but I feel like I am in good hands with any book by him I pick up, so there is no hurry.
Just a few other things to tease and/or tempt you. Chocky felt almost light hearted, but The Midwich Cuckoos is decidedly darker. I thought it quite progressive of Wyndham in his treatment of women and motherhood, as he was spot on in their realization and dread and concern over not being true mothers but hosts. He is never heavy handed but he poses all sorts of questions to his readers. A cuckoo, by the way, is a bird which is a determined survivor. They are known for their ruthless sense of survival--a natural instinct. The novel was adapted to film in 1960 under the title The Village of the Damned. This is a story that just flows, and you never really think about it as you are going, but on reflection when all is said and done I see how carefully this story has been crafted. Wyndham was a master and he certainly found his niche.
Companion reads: I meant to add this to my post, but better late than never. One of the short stories that came in my short story advent calendar would make a perfect companion read, Laura Trunkey's "Circumstances of Hatred". Let's just say it is about Nazis who show up in modern Canada. If you can get your hands on the story, it would be a perfect read to go with the Wyndham. You might also like H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau.