Friday, 17 August 2012

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I first encountered the infamous triffid when I was a young boy and the BBC were broadcasting Wyndham’s classic catastrophe novel as a six-parter. I think I lasted all of twenty minutes before the killer plants ambled onto the screen and I fled screaming out of the room. It took a few more years for me to summon up the nerve to pick up the book, and even over two decades later when I come to reread it, the sheer horror of the situation, a world blind and at the mercy of carnivorous plants, still retains its ability to shock and terrify.

Bill Masen wakes up in hospital one morning with the acute sense that something is wrong. His head bandaged and his eyes covered, he has been recovering from a triffid sting (the eponymous plants have long poisonous lashes that they use to kill their prey), when one night a fabulous green light illuminates the sky. Said to be the tail of a comet, everyone in the world goes outside to look at the free fireworks. The next morning, anyone who watched the lights has been rendered totally blind and Masen finds himself in a silent hospital, filled with shuffling patients unable to comprehend what has happened to them.

His sight saved because of the bandages, Masen tries to get out of the hospital as fast as he can. The gravity of the situation quickly becomes apparent: London, Britain, the whole world, in fact, is blind. Masen decides he needs a stiff drink:

But one thing I was perfectly certain about. Reality or nightmare, I needed a drink as I had seldom needed one before. There was nobody in sight in the little side street outside the yard gates, but almost opposite stood a pub. I can recall its name now – ‘The Alamein Arms’. There was a board bearing a reputed likeness of Viscount Montgomery hanging from an iron bracket, and below, one of the doors stood open. I made straight for it. Stepping into the public bar game me for the moment a comforting sense of normality. It was prosaically and familiarly like dozens of others. But although there was no one in that part, there was certainly something going on in the saloon bar, round the corner. I heard heavy breathing. A cork left its bottle with a pop. A pause. Then a voice remarked: “Gin, blast it! T’hell with gin!” There followed a shattering crash.

He finds the landlord, who is blind’s a bat, trying to locate a bottle of Scotch:

I took down a bottle of whisky from the shelf, opened it, and handed it to him with a glass. For myself I chose a stiff brandy with very little soda, and then another. After that my hand wasn’t shaking so much. I looked at my companion. He was taking his whisky neat, out of the bottle. “You’ll get drunk,” I said. He paused and turned his head towards me. I could have sworn that his eyes really saw me. “Get drunk! Damn it, I am drunk,” he said scornfully. He was so perfectly right that I didn’t comment. He brooded a moment before he announced: “Gotta get mush drunker.”

The publican has deduced that it was the comets that did the damage, an opinion reinforced by the fact that Masen didn’t watch them and can still see.

I poured myself a third brandy, wondering whether there might not be something in what he was saying. “Everyone blind?” I repeated. “Thash it. All of ‘em. Prob’ly everyone in th’ world – ‘cept you,” he added, as an after thought. “How do you know?” I asked. “S’easy. Listen!” he said. We stood side by side leaning on the bar of the dingy pub, and listened. There was nothing to be heard – nothing but the rustle of a dirty newspaper blown down the empty street. Such a quietness held everything as cannot have been known in these parts for a thousand years and more.

Masen is now faced with having to survive in a hostile world where only a handful of sighted people remain. The void left by the human race leaves space for the triffids, and Masen is suddenly at the wrong end of the food chain...

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