The Day of the Triffids

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.

The hero of The Day of the Triffids is Bill Masen, an ordinary man who escapes the meteor-induced blindness because he happens to be hospitalized with eye injuries. While virtually everyone else in London is gazing in wonder at the eerie green shooting stars, Masen is stuck in his hotel bed with bandages over both eyes. When sudden mass blindness paralyzes the city the next morning, he removes his bandages and stumbles, confused, into a collapsing world. He meets a similarly fortunate young woman, Josella (who missed the meteors while sleeping off a nasty hangover), and they band together to face the mobs and plagues and dread triffids.

Masen, frankly, is the weakest element of the book. He’s a blank, inert character: he doesn’t grow, he doesn’t change, and he rarely arrives at any real insights. He’s boring, useful only as a portal into the world Wyndham creates, but the secondary characters fare better. Their upper lips might be less stiff, but their trials make them interesting and give the narrative some dramatic movement. Josella, for example, evolves from a directionless, dissatisfied party girl into a courageous, resilient pioneer woman. (The extent to which she does so by collapsing her identity, defining herself solely as a wife and mother, makes me uncomfortable, but at least it’s an arc.) Wilfred Coker, another sighted survivor, struggles to find the best way to realize his socialist ideals in a world in which, all to often, individual rather than collective survival is all that can be realistically attained. Susan, an orphaned girl Masen adopts on his travels, must cope with extraordinary loss at a remarkably young age, and the ways in which she does so are both inspiring and unsettling. These characters are intriguing, their humanity endearing. Masen is nothing but a narrative device.

I suspect Wyndham leans on Masen—using him to supply exposition or to define ethical conflicts—because the author is less a storyteller than he is a practical philosopher. Triffids has a lackluster plot, merely serviceable prose, and few vivid scenes, but it’s a memorable, remarkably timeless exploration of human reactions to disaster. Wyndham uses his scenario to explore adaptation versus preservation, individual need versus collective need, the impulse to survive at all costs versus the impulse to end suffering. Coker is but one stand-in for a sociopolitical idea: Triffids also gives us embodiments of fascism and theocracy. Everything is quite neatly diagrammed.

It’s not action-packed, but it’s not dull, either. The ideas and fears and human tendencies the novel explores are intriguing enough to more than make up for the lack of, say, rampaging zombies or climactic showdowns. And those triffids—well, they end up being much more frightening than any plant has any right to be.