Wednesday, July 5, 2017

An odd warning on Page 1 of "The Midwich Cuckoos"

The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957, is one of the best-known novels by English science-fiction writer John Wyndham.1 It stands quite well on its own as an Important Sci-Fi Novel, to be sure. But another of the reasons for its fame is the 1960 film adaptation of the novel, which was given a much more alarming title: Village of the Damned.

You can see why they gave the movie a different title. The Midwich Cuckoos sounds like it could be a wacky Disney comedy with Fred MacMurray or Barbara Harris. But Village of the Damned clearly does not sound like a movie you could take the kids to on Saturday night. It's a scary date movie for grownups — a Bruised Forearm Movie, as Roger Ebert would have written.

But Wyndham's original novel didn't have the luxury of a Damned title or literal images of terrifying little kids running around while wearing glowing white contact lenses. So, I reckon this Ballantine Books paperback — one of dozens of editions over the years — needed some way, beyond just the sci-fi version of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg's eyes in the cover illustration2, to warn off readers who might be too young, or too "unimaginative," for Wyndham's tale.

Thus, we have a long book-splaining note to teachers and parents on the first two pages. It was penned by Richard H. Tyre, chairman of the English Department at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, and here is how it starts:

"Very young children will not appreciate the catastrophe of every woman in a small English village suddenly becoming pregnant" is one of my new favorite lines.

Tyre is a fan of the book, though, and goes on to pose some "cosmic" discussion questions for readers, including:

  • Supposing that there were some vastly superior race in the universe who wished to take over the earth, might it not be much more efficient and possibly even "kinder" for them to do so by harnessing the maternal instinct in the human female (or some other equally powerful and basic force already extant), than by attacking the earth with superior military technology, destructive weaponry and all the devastation that that implies?
  • One of the great recurring themes in folklore is the "changeling," the baby who is actually alien but raised by parents who at first believe it to be theirs. But isn't there a way in which every child can be considered a changeling? After all, in one way Freudian psychology suggests that parents and children are mutual enemies.
  • Aside from the organic, what is the basic difference between men and women?
  • And finally, is it possible that we are a seriously flawed and inadequate race, that there are races morally and physically superior to ourselves in the universe? Granting this, do we still have the right, when put to the test, not to care about perfection, or morality, or even God's plan, but to pursue at any cost the continuation of our own puny race?

Essayist and book critic Evelyn C. Leeper has written an essay about The Midwich Cuckoos that folds some of Tyre's larger questions into the discussion. You can read it here.3

1. His full name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, which is still far shorter than Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-n├╝rnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-sh├Ânedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.
2. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database does not know the name of the artist who did the cover illustration for this edition of The Midwich Cuckoos, Ballantine Bal-Hi #U2840 of 1966.
3. Leeper, according to her own website, has been "nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer twelve times." She has her own entry on Wikipedia, which I hope means her works and criticism will be preserved and studied by future generations.

1 comment:

  1. I love when books start with notes or disclaimers. The "unimaginative" part makes me think of the remark on the 1946 cover of "Peabody's Mermaid" that says "If you cannot bring yourself to believe in the existence of a beautiful and irresistible mermaid, this book is not for you." :)