John Wyndham & H G Wells

[A talk delivered by CP in December 2000, in Midhurst. This West Sussex town is one which has strong associations with both writers, and although their working lives were many years apart John Wyndham and H.G. Wells have much in common, in their lives as well as in their writing. This long article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.]

Both John Wyndham and H.G. Wells were Englishmen, both have associations with this part of the country, both were successful novelists in their lifetimes, both are now of course dead. Let me begin by briefly describing their respective lives.

John Wyndham was born in Knowle, Warwickshire, in 1903. His father was a barrister and his mother was the daughter of a Birmingham ironmaster. His name at birth was Harris, John Harris. In full, his real name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. In later years this rather conspicuous consumption of first names came in extremely handy, as they provided him with a number of different writing pen-names, all variations or combinations of those Christian names. Little is known of his early childhood, spent in Edgbaston, but when he was eight years old Wyndham’s parents separated and he spent the rest of his childhood at a number of prep and boarding schools, finishing at Bedales School in Hampshire. He left Bedales when he was 18. It’s possible to glimpse, or imagine you can glimpse, something more of him: the child of estranged parents, certainly hurt and depressed by what happened, probably suffering feelings of guilt, sent away to boarding schools. Although not a certain recipe for creating someone who will grow up to become a writer, it’s a familiar kind of background for many writers of that period. After Wyndham left school he made several false starts in badly chosen careers – farming, law, commercial art and advertising – before he began writing in 1925. By 1931 he was selling short stories and serials to American science fiction pulp magazines. Most of this early work was under the names John Beynon or John Beynon Harris, subsets of his full name. War came in 1939, when he was 36. He served first as a censor in the Ministry of Information then joined the Royal Corps of Signals and participated in D-Day, although apparently was not involved in the first days of the actual landings.

After the war he returned to writing. He had a brother, Vivian Beynon Harris, who was also writing and who found some success with light comedy thrillers. By 1951, using the John Wyndham pseudonym for the first time, John Harris had written the novel that was to make his name, The Day of the Triffids. His pre-war writing career was not mentioned in the book’s publicity: most people were allowed to assume that Triffids was a first novel from an unknown writer.

He went on to write and publish six more novels under the name John Wyndham, all of which appeared in his lifetime. He married Grace Wilson in 1963, after a romance that had gone on through most of the wartime years. He died in 1969, and this enabled more of his unsold work to appear. At the same time, much of his early material was also reprinted.

Now let’s turn to H.G. Wells. Describing his life is a much more formidable task. He lived longer, he lived more variously, he was incomparably more famous, during his lifetime he was the subject of many books, he published three long volumes of autobiography and since his death he has been the subject of many different biographies and literary appraisals.

Wells was born in 1866, in Bromley. His father was a gardener-turned-shopkeeper; his mother was a former lady’s maid at Uppark House, at South Harting, near Petersfield. When Wells was 14, his parents too split up, his mother returning to Uppark to become housekeeper. Wells frequently visited his mother there.

His literary career began in the early 1890s, while he was still a student at the Kensington Normal School, which is now Imperial College. He studied biology under Thomas Huxley. After a cautious start – a couple of textbooks and a fictitious memoir of a non- existent uncle – Wells launched into the series of short stories and scientific romances with which he made his reputation. The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau, and others, are still read and enjoyed today, more than a century later. Success came to him, not only in money and fame, but also in gaining a reputation for being a seer and a prophet. Speculative writing was not nearly as common back then as it is now, and the young H.G. Wells presented a considerable novelty.
In some ways this success was his undoing. He began to take himself more seriously as a teacher and prophet, and with a few exceptions his novels became more self-important and unreadable. Most of his novels written after the turn of the century are now more or less forgotten. A few, the exceptions, are still worth searching around for: Tono-Bungay, Ann Veronica, Mr Britling Sees it Through, Christina Alberta’s Father. A few others. Increasingly, though, Wells turned to journalism and encyclopaedic non-fiction, such as The Outline of History and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. By the time he was 60 he was world-famous, had become the consultant to statesmen, the lover of famous women, he had travelled the world, freely gave people a piece of his mind, quarrelled with just about every other major writer in sight, wrote dozens of articles and books … and around the time of the Second World War he was possibly the most famous living English writer of all. He died in 1946, aged 80. Typically, he had two books published in the last twelve months of his life.

The lives of these two Englishmen are therefore different. Wyndham’s success came fairly late in life; his books were popular but not all that important, he lived quietly and modestly. Wells is the epitome of the successful author, with a lifestyle to match. In some ways it would be a false exercise to seek connections between the two, other than a few coincidences of area or similarity of story ideas. However, it is possible to draw some parallels and I believe they are genuine.

The way to understand this is through John Wyndham’s career and his outlook on what he was doing.

Because of the war, Wyndham became one of a group of British writers whose careers were overshadowed by those violent years. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Rex Warner, H.E. Bates, Elizabeth Bowen, William Sansom, Eric Linklater, several others … these are the writers who had to break off from their work, or at least who saw publication of their books delayed or postponed. Wyndham was one who actually benefited by the break – although to him, it probably didn’t feel like it at the time. A rest was as good as a change, and the Wyndham material that appeared after the war was incomparably better than what had been published before.

The stories that Wyndham sold before the war, the ones as Beynon or Beynon Harris, were not particularly well executed and were of their period, not giving much idea of what the writer might later become capable of producing. They were for the most part adventure stories about rocketry, death rays, voyages to other planets, lost races living in subterranean worlds, and so on.

These were, in fact, the very subjects which were to haunt science fiction writers for years to come. Stories about Martians chasing young women wearing no more than a bathing costume and a fish-bowl over their heads created what seemed to be an obsession with unlikely scientific developments or incredible beings from other worlds. Wyndham’s early work is not substantially different from that of other writers of the period, although some might feel they were told and written slightly better than the average stories.
All the evidence is that in his later years Wyndham was uncomfortable with his early stories, even embarrassed by them.

However, writers are encouraged to improve their craft and expand their horizons, and we should judge them by their best work, not their least. The rebirth of John Beynon Harris as John Wyndham was not just repackaging. His work after the war was mature, accomplished and deservedly popular with a wide audience.

It’s worth mentioning the early material for two reasons.

Firstly, John Wyndham often went to some pains to distance himself from the rest of science fiction, making defensive comments in his rare introductory pieces and if not writing his descriptive book blurbs himself, at least probably having a hand in them. Many of his early Penguin paperbacks, for instance, went out with a line which said, ‘[He] decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as “science fiction”.’ This has the authentic melancholy tone of Wyndham’s own utterances on the subject.

As well as this, John Wyndham either sought or found publishers not readily identified with science fiction. In the UK he was published by Michael Joseph and Penguin, neither of which in the 1950s was thought of as a publisher of genre fiction. Many of his short stories were published in magazines like Woman’s Journal, Everybody’s and Argosy … quite a difference from the pre-war days, when he was selling to magazines with titles like Thrilling Wonder Stories! This is not literary snobbery: Wyndham believed he was addressing a different audience, and he was right to do so.

Secondly, by fastidiously shrinking back from the sensational, Wyndham found a unique literary voice. He described the odd rather than the fantastic, the disturbing rather than the horrific, the remarkable rather than the outrageous. He dealt in menace, not terror. This quietness of tone was to prove effective and likeable.

Science fiction has for most of its existence been identified as an essentially American form, with many of the best and best-known writers living and working in the USA. Wyndham had learnt in the prewar years, of course, that it was possible for a British writer to mimic the American idiom, and to do it successfully. But as happens when anyone speaks with a put-on accent, a certain conviction is lost. In moments of tension, drama or suspense, things don’t always ring entirely true.

The irony is of course that to a large extent modern science fiction was invented by a Briton: H.G. Wells himself.

As I have said, Wells wrote most of his best science fiction in the last decade of the 19th century. By 1926, aged 60 and a world-famous author, he had largely outgrown the writing of scientific romances, but in the USA a small but significant revolution was stirring.

1926 was the year the first real science fiction magazine was published. It was called Amazing Stories, and it was a “pulp” magazine. It was called this because of the paper on which it was printed: it was extremely cheap paper manufactured from wood and fabric pulp, with a high acid content and, as a result, a distinctive smell.

There weren’t enough science fiction writers around to fill Amazing Stories at first, and as rival publications quickly appeared there was soon a real scarcity of material. For the first three or four years, then, these science fiction pulp magazines reprinted almost everything H.G. Wells had written some three decades before.

New writers emerged and they naturally used the Wells stories as their models. These stories were then copied by others, and then those were copied again. This is how genre fiction grows and develops, by writers producing material for a specific market with clearly identifiable editorial demands.

It was to this market that the young John Beynon Harris began selling before the Second World War. He came in fairly late: by the time he sold his first stories the idiom had been established for at least five or six years and the link with H.G. Wells was already fairly remote. Science fiction had become distinctively American. Beynon Harris was simply a small part of a huge business which was selling escapist fiction to popular audiences during the days of the Depression in the USA.

Incidentally, there were many different kinds of pulp magazines: romances, thrillers, Westerns, spy stories, navy stories, air force stories. Many of the modern fiction genres which still exist today, in paperbacks, were created in those days. The pulps gave birth to several well-known writers: both Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler began their careers in the pulps. The pulps also had an influence on Hollywood, because many of the writers moved out to California. Some of Hollywood’s finest films were made from scripts written by former pulp writers. I’ll give just one example: the classic thriller The Big Sleep is based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, and scripted by a young woman who had made her name writing pulp science fiction, Leigh Brackett.

In the UK, these pulp magazines were largely unknown. In fact, for many years the only way they came into the country was when they were used as padding or packaging materials around other goods. As a result they were usually dismissed as trash when they were seen. Even by the end of the 1940s they were despised and misunderstood over here.

In 1951, not much was known therefore about science fiction, when The Day of the Triffids appeared. Any Englishman writing a book close to science fiction was likely to be given the benefit not so much of doubt as of ignorance, and would be swiftly compared with the only science fiction writer anyone in Britain had ever heard of. So it was with John Wyndham. Escaping identity with the pulps, he was hailed instead as H.G. Wells’s only and true successor.

At first sight this is a glib comparison, convenient shorthand for hard-pressed newspaper book reviewers. But if you look closely there are definite similarities.

The most striking instance is Wyndham’s second novel The Kraken Wakes, which can be seen as a modern version of The War of the Worlds. Dig even deeper, though, and you will find there are just as many differences as similarities. There was always a spikiness to Wells’s fiction that isn’t found in Wyndham, and his satire is more heavy-handed. Some of it is even indignant. By contrast, John Wyndham was a sly and unobtrusive satirist, and was much the deadlier for it. Political and social satire has always been a strong theme in science fiction.

When you look back at H.G. Wells’s early stories, though, further similarities of approach and theme do become apparent. Throughout most of them you pick up the ambience of Wyndham, a modern observation that is obviously aided by hindsight. This is not, though, a case of Wyndham’s plagiarism or pastiche on the earlier writer – you sense instead a common purpose between the two writers, a love of landscape and a fondness for English place-names, an interest in ordinary people as characters, an English disquiet with the wilder fringes of science and discovery. All this finds expression in subtle and disturbing imagery. Wells and Wyndham were working more than half a century apart, but both writers had personal pasts out of which they were trying to grow.

To turn to their actual storytelling methods, most of Wells’s early fiction was couched within a narrative frame. The main story, the one that remains with us long after the book has been closed, is told within a minor surrounding narrative. What we remember of The Time Machine is the adventure in the future with the Morlocks and the Eloi – what we forget about it is that the story takes the form of an after-dinner narrative, told over cigars and port from the recesses of an easy chair, in the Time Traveller’s smoking room. Many of H.G. Wells’s short stories occur in one or another variant of this form: travellers’ tales, anecdotes recounted in bars, seafarers’ yarns, and so on. It again bespeaks an author’s hesitancy to tackle the fantastic head-on.

Wyndham is never so transparent, but the effect is much the same. His four best novels are all told in the first person singular. This is a gripping way of telling a story, and is well suited to novels of ideas or action. Raymond Chandler was a noted first-person novelist, for example.

The narrator in John Wyndham’s novels, though, is not the protagonist. Although he is usually central to the main events, the narrator is there as a close observer, to describe the actions and ideas of others.

In The Kraken Wakes the protagonist is the narrator’s enterprising wife. In The Day of the Triffids it’s a left-wing intellectual called Coker whom the narrator runs across.

A distance is created between the events and the reader, making room for a certain amount of satire and irony to develop. It also allows an occasional shift to describe events not immediately within the experience of the narrator. The narrative becomes a frame to the main story. It also incidentally frees the novelist to keep the story going, dealing neatly with a problem often faced by Chandler: whenever his Philip Marlowe was knocked unconscious the story had to stop until he woke up with a headache. Wyndham’s unobtrusively crafted alternative is a dexterous, effective and immensely readable literary device.

In The Midwich Cuckoos, a Wyndham novel for which I wrote a new introduction when it was published earlier this year as a Penguin Modern Classic, the same technique is used. The narrator is called Richard Gayford, but he is present at only a few of the main incidents. He is there simply to tell the story.

The story of Midwich – the similarity of the name to the town in which we are meeting today is surely only a coincidence – the story is probably familiar, as it has inspired two or three well-known films.

The English village of Midwich is unexpectedly visited by some kind of alien presence which cuts it off from the rest of the world. An invisible force field hangs over the village, under which the inhabitants are all knocked unconscious. During this period, every woman of childbearing age, married or unmarried, is inseminated. Nine months later, when everything else appears to be back to normal, the children are born. These children, who are both beautiful and deadly, suddenly present a threat not only to the rest of Britain, but also, by implication, to the whole world. They are indeed cuckoos, laid in another bird’s nest.

What is exceptional about this novel, like all of Wyndham’s books, is the quiet tone. His description of the village evokes a long bygone age. In fact, it is so long bygone that by modern standards it seems to be almost comic opera. We have the busybody in the Post Office who runs the village switchboard, called Miss Ogle. The local policeman rides around on a wobbly bicycle and is called Constable Gobby. The village itself represents a sort of long-lost ideal, a kind of English heaven in heavenly English countryside. The early pages almost remind you of Enid Blyton’s children’s books. But look more closely and you find the whole thing was being gently satirized.

This tone continues throughout: the reader is both taken into the events of the story and kept at a distance from them. It’s a delicate and effective way of writing a horror story.

H.G. Wells and John Wyndham both came to prominence at times of profound but orderly social change in Britain. Wells appeared at the very end of the Victorian age, the height of the British Empire. Of course he lived and worked beyond that. His career almost defines the way the first part of the twentieth century was to bring social, scientific and military change.

John Wyndham was writing in the period of seeming political calm that settled on Britain after the Second World War like an invisible and repressive dome of inertia. Overseas, British influence was fading fast and the Empire was slipping away. Wyndham’s stories are about global catastrophes, glimpsed locally. In The Kraken Wakes the polar ice-caps are melted and the whole world is in thrall to unseen monsters of the oceanic deeps, but we are concerned with speedboats in Oxford Street and icebergs in the English Channel. In The Day of the Triffids almost everyone in the world is blinded by some kind of orbiting Star Wars defence system, while genetically modified carnivorous plants take violent advantage of the new situation. Meanwhile, John Wyndham takes his readers to seek refuge with the characters in a fortified farm on the South Downs in Sussex. The characters worry about the damage to the English countryside, the way the south coast towns are falling into ruin.

All these novels are clearly metaphors, unconscious or otherwise, for the upheavals and concerns of the period. While they gave readers a pleasurable chill when they were new, John Wyndham’s novels have survived topicality. They are today not merely a fascinating look back at that transitional world, but they remain gripping and imaginatively energetic, deceptively mild in tone, worrying to think about and utterly readable.

Other books by John Wyndham, currently available, are Consider Her Ways, Chocky and Trouble With Lichen. Not mentioned in the talk above are H.G. Wells’s Complete Short Stories, which are amongst his best work.