By John Wyndham. Published in 1951.
I remember thinking, after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s widely ridiculed The Happening, that his choice to make plants the villains was a fatal flaw. Even the most sensitive allergy sufferer isn’t going to recoil in mortal terror from the image of a tree releasing pollen into the air. And carnivorous plants, as every scientifically inclined kid soon accepts with disappointment, are much more exciting in theory than practice. Plants, I believed, simply can’t be scary.
But I was wrong. Decades ago, author John Wyndham made predatory plants a key element in his post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids. (Forgive me. I’m still on a post-apocalyptic kick.) Wyndham succeeds where Shyamalan fails, I believe, because his triffids are still recognizably plants. Rather than giving them wild, goofy powers, Wyndham ratchets up familiar plant traits—poison, digestion of carrion—and hints that the triffids’ truly bizarre attribute—their ability to “walk,” however awkwardly, for limited distances—likely developed from reckless genetic modification. It’s just this side of plausible, just enough to burrow its way into the imagination.
Even more effective, though, is that triffids don’t become a serious threat until people are already rendered vulnerable. The “apocalypse” of the novel is not a single event but a series: one catastrophe paving the way for another and then another. The initial catastrophe—the meteor shower (or was it?) that blinds virtually the entire population—is perhaps the least plausible but certainly the most nightmarish: what it lacks it raw credibility it makes up for with its play on primal fears. Yet Triffids never feels exploitative. Wyndham’s writing is coolly matter-of-fact, and he excels at merely suggesting horrors, giving just enough to let the reader’s imagination run wild. The result is a weirdly reserved yet oddly effective exploration of the breakdown of human civilization—compelling, thought-provoking, and quintessentially British.