The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham

john wyndham002

There’s an awful lot of post-apocalyptic material out there, if you know where to look. From the
explicit, everything-tied-up Hollywood stuff such as Reign of Fire (2003) to the oblique microcosm
Book of Dave (Will Self), you can get your fix through science, magic, natural disaster and
everything in between. Frankly though, many of them are just proof that there is nothing new under
the sun – everything steals from everything else.
Consider this: a man wakes up in hospital to find the world around him changed. Almost the entire
populace have been struck down, leaving a tiny minority of healthy people to face a crazed world
which turns into a fight for increasingly scarce resources, all the while having to face a pervasive
and deadly enemy of our creation. I could be talking about 28 Days Later, or The Walking Dead, or
Reign of Fire (which is a bad film, but it’s a good mad film, even if the accents are appalling). In
fact I’m talking about John Windham’s* The Day of the Triffids, a 1951 novel set in the
contemporary UK. It’s a book by an English author which served as a direct inspiration for Boyle’s
28 Days Later and had a profound effect on me while growing up in West London.
(Spoilers from here.)
The protagonist, Bill Masen, is a sort of chemical engineer-cum-horticulturalist, who works with the
triffids of the title: carnivorous plants which have the ability to draw up their roots into mangrovelike
stumps and go rocking slowly off on their three little legs. Their flowering stem also has a long
whippish stinger, the end of which is covered in poisonous blisters, and while they have something
of a penchant for human flesh, they’re quickly found to have a fantastically useful oil yield, and will
grow just about anywhere. Large cages and pens quickly spring up across rural England, and indeed
the world, full of venomous carnivorous plants. Did I mention that they can communicate with each
other too? They beat out a sort of morse code on their bodies. Of course nothing could possibly go
It’s while tending these that Bill Masen is hospitalised, only to wake up one morning and discover
that most of the population has been blinded by an unexpected meteor shower, which may or may
not have been the result of orbital weapons going horribly wrong. With only a few sighted left, the
book then launches into what the modern reader will recognise (but which was at the time fairly
innovative) as the usual to-ing and fro-ing around desolate cities populated with roving gangs of
sighted humans and their blinded serfs, with the sighted banding together to try and maintain
civilisation. Things get factional and feudal pretty quickly, with many of the blinded killing
themselves in despair – plot points which will seem familiar to viewers of The Walking Dead.
Suicide is not the only human response Wyndham examines in the book; one passage covers the
conflict between tradition and the new world heralded by the end of the second world war. One
group tries to organise itself on traditional Christian lines with (to my mind) distinct similarities to
the Leveller communities of the English Civil War, while a second is proposed for mainly sighted
men and blind women, aiming to rapidly rebuild the human population through polygamy. Later it
becomes apparent that a third group has set up a feudal system, aggressively recruiting through
regionalised hostages in something akin to the Dark Age treaty systems.
Thankfully, something turns up to keep us busy before we all kill each other: shortly into the book,
Masen finds himself beset by a group of triffids, freed from their confinement and looking to feed
on human flesh. As the human population has other things on their mind than gardening, they
eventually take over the countryside and become a very real menace, having no natural predators
and being pretty useless to humans in their new low tech existence. Ultimately it is only by
withdrawing to the Isle of Wight that humanity are able to clear an area of the lethal plants and
begin to rebuild the remnants of society.
The Day of The Triffids laid the groundwork for much of what we associate with popular zombie
franchises – the hospital start of 28 Days Later, the fortified enclaves of that film and the cruder
compounds of The Walking Dead, the persistent threat of shuffling, predatory death. But while the
zombie menace is now familiar to us, I’d argue that the threat posed by the Triffids is altogether
more dread.
Yes, a zombie wants your brains. Good for it. But a triffid? The triffid is willing to patiently sit
outside your house while you panic and scream. When it eventually kills you, it declines the mad
frenzy of the zombie’s feast, instead patiently settling down its roots in your still-warm corpse and
waiting for nature to do its job and make you soft enough to tear into pieces and digest in its funnel,
or else be sucked up from the ground. Killing a zombie? Easy – head shot or a nice sharp blow to
the cerebellum with that club you’re carrying. Killing a triffid? Well, you can shoot off the stinger
with your frisbee gun (yes, these are a thing in the book) and it will patiently wait two years for the
stinger to regrow, photosynthesising like other plants, before trying to kill you again. In fact it will
probably kill the zombie too, which it probably sees as some sort of pre-digested human. Triffids
are patient. They can hide anywhere there’s foliage, and they can reproduce entirely independent of
the human population. Triffids are scary.
Wyndam’s world is scary, confusing, and filled with a multiplicity of vague and contrasting threats.
In particular it focuses on the entropy of human knowledge: the acceptance that it’s not enough to
know how to plough, sooner or later you need to know how to make a plough too. Reading it at the
tender age of twelve caused me to seek out and memorise The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency, a
1970s book in my school library** which covered everything from crop rotation to how to build
almost every structure or tool you could possibly need, including the basics of blacksmithing,
masonry, basketry and maintenance of firearms. This may explain why I now study engineering. It
probably explains why I spend many of my nights worrying about the collapse of civilization as we
know it.
In conclusion, The Day of The Triffids is an excellent book which presents a fuller view of a post-apocalyptic
society than many of the books I’ve come across. I would highly recommend it to
anyone looking for a change of pace from zombies. The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency is an
excellent book which explains how to do almost everything needed to survive in a world dominated
by mobile flesh eating plants. I would recommend it to anyone with insomnia from thinking to
much about the end of the world.
*or John Wyndam Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris to his mother. The English have odd habits when it
comes to naming.
**I grew up in urban West London. I have no idea what that book was doing there.

Written by Edward Bilson Esq


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