“One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September.” So opens John Wyndham’s 1957 novel THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, an eerie SF/horror novel that I read last week for the first time in years (as prep for watching the film adaptation, Village of the Damned for my Alien Visitors book). I so much associate the story with my mother’s hardback, I was surprised to realize I had this paperback version and not Mum’s copy.
The narrator, Gayford (who explains that by virtue of talking to others about what they did, he’s able to incorporate scenes he wasn’t present for into the story) explains that he and his wife Janet were out of the small, extremely quiet, rather dull little village of Midwich to celebrate his birthday. As a result when something puts everyone in town to sleep and spreads a zone with the same effect for a one-mile radius around the community, the Gayfords miss it until they return. And unlike every woman of childbearing age in Midwich, Janet does not give birth to a golden-eyed baby nine months later. Every other woman does, regardless of whether they’ve had sex or not, married or not; Althea Zellaby, wife of an eccentric scientist/philosopher, is the exception because (I gather) she was already pregnant. In a nice touch, the village leaders (Zellaby, vicar, doctor) work to let all the women know what’s happened, as a group, so none of them has a chance to feel like a freak and nobody starts gossiping about the single ones.
In the best tradition of SF babies, the kids grow super-fast. And while they’re still infants, they demonstrate they can control others: women who left Midwich are forced to return, a mother who accidentally jabs her kid with a diaper pin has to jab herself with the pin repeatedly. As the kids grow older, the responses start to get more violent, which Gayford learns was there was a colony in the USSR and the Russians nuked it. Now the kids are determined to deal with threats as brutally as necessary.
Zellaby deduces that they’re cuckoos, planted in the human nest to eventually push us out. The British government is onto that too, but held off acting to see if they could exploit the alien kids. Now it’s going to be a lot tougher …
Part of what makes this work is that it’s so very low-key. It’s obvious the kids are Not Right (they’re two gestalts, one male, one female) but they aren’t attacking so the government and the village hold off. The response is muted bureaucratic and military observation and discussion rather than direct action (Zellaby at one point contrasts this mockingly with the typical 1950s alien invader film). This could easily produce a dull, talky story, but it’s quite gripping and creepy. A little less so in the last portion when it does get too talky. An argument about how England is simply too democratic and civilized to crush them as the Soviets did feels uncomfortably like the cliches of the Cold War where the USSR has the edge because they don’t respect life like we do.
While one woman does mention this is a creepy violation, Wyndham doesn’t do much with the rape overtones of this. In general, even though the women are the victims they’re acted upon rather than acting (in contrast to the female lead of I Married a Monster From Outer Space, though even there the men have to do the fighting). It’s the men who have Althea address the other women and convince them to stay calm; none of them is as horrified as I think they’d be in real life. Zellaby explains this for the author, saying that while he always deplored the idea of women’s natural role being stay-at-home mom, almost all the women he meets seem perfectly suited for the job. On top of which he adds that women simply can’t imagine the threat: in their simple, calm hearts they think the world just has to go on forever. It’s gratuitous sexism; why not just say the women were influenced by the babies even in utero?
Despite that, this is still an excellent book.
#SFWApro. Cover by Dean Ellis, all rights remain with current holder.