Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich CuckoosThe Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I realized after I picked up this book that it was abridged, and that the only unabridged audio is a performance. I have no idea what I missed, but I did listen to a compelling story, worth delving into the source material.

If you've heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, you've probably seen one of the Children of the Damned movies. I've heard of it through Seanan McGuire's InCryptid books. There's a race of cryptids called Cuckoos, and they're much like the creatures described in this book, with a greater variety in appearance. Sarah gets her last name from Gordon Zellaby, the layman who studies the strange children.

The book describes a small town in the English countryside, struck mysteriously by a sudden sleep that lasts a day and a half. Anyone passing into the radius immediately falls asleep, and wakes up when dragged back out, usually by a hook. Our narrator escapes the daylong sleep because he and his wife are away celebrating his birthday.

Soon after what everyone calls the Dayout, all of the women of childbearing age realize they're pregnant. Initially they make these discoveries separately, but, when they start risking their lives in ever more desperate measures, the town doctor talks Angela Zellaby into rallying them around for mutual support. When they're born, all of the children have a particular shade of blond hair, and golden eyes. And their mothers start to do their bidding, whether they want to or not. As the children grow older, at twice the rate of normal children, Gordon Zellaby starts to notice some other remarkable things about them.

Despite the book's overall patronizing tone (the women are "hysterical," and not in the funny way), it captures the crux of many pro-choice arguments. The women lament being used as a container, remark they feel used, and there's palpable tension as the due date grows near. Many of the women unsuccessfully try home abortion techniques, and risk their lives in the process. Surely even the most staunch abortion foes wouldn't argue the world was better off with these fictional children in it.

Mostly, Midwich Cuckoos evokes Cold War panic. The notion that the children are there to destroy society within is hard not to see as a parallel. The truly terrible events in the story are triggered by actions taken by the Soviets.

The book, then, is dated in some ways. It most shows its age when one of the characters remarks that, at least the children aren't black. I can only hope he wasn't meant to be an author mouthpiece.

The choice of narrator for this book is a curious one. The narrator participates in very little of the story, and serves only to tag along and observe the most interesting parts. He even has a convenient job in Canada that takes him away from the village for the 8 years where nothing much happens with the children, and he returns for a visit just in time for things to come to a head. He doesn't add any commentary or opinions that enhance the story.

This book is well worth a visit to the original material, despite how dated it is. If nothing else, it's a glimpse into how classic scifi/horror was crafted. The genre hasn't changed much in the intervening decades.

As mentioned above, I listened to this on audio. Despite the fact it was abridged, it was a pleasant listening experience. Jeremy Clyde's performance didn't detract from the story, and added to it in places. He was easy to understand with a consistent volume.


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