The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich CuckoosThe Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“In Oppley they’re smart, and in Stouch they’re smarmy, but Midwich folk are just plain barmy.”

I never saw the original “Village of the Damned” film from 1960, although I did see John Carpenter’s rather forgettable remake in 1995, but there’s something about the story of mysterious pregnancies and unearthly children that I think is both chilling and compelling. So when I found a used copy of the novel on which those films were based, John Wyndham’s THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (this copy originally belonging to one Fred Kiesche of Kinnelon, NJ, according to the name and address scrawled in cursive on the inside cover), I picked it up immediately. Alas, what I found between the pages was not quite what I wanted. (Perhaps young Mr. Kiesche didn’t either, and that’s why he gave up the book?)

For a novel of science-fiction suspense, the tone of THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS is surprisingly droll and very, very British, which I found to be an enjoyable and pleasant surprise. However, the novel as a whole is extremely dry. Very little happens on the page. Mostly we get characters discussing events of interest that occurred between chapters, and then sharing their theories on why those events happened and what they mean. This makes the novel rather slow and snoozy for readers like myself who are more accustomed to the pace and structure of modern genre fiction.

The only drawback to the novel’s droll, British tone is that very little of it feels urgent. There’s plenty of time for long drives, walks in gardens, harrumphing over brandy, and enjoying nice meals at friends’ houses while discussing what to do about the lost day when everyone in the village went suddenly unconscious, or the mysterious pregnancies that affected all the female villagers, or the strange, identical children who seem to be developing much too quickly, or how those same children may have telepathically driven villagers mad or forced them to kill themselves. The children themselves, when we see them, are never presented as creepily as I thought they ought to be. They love sweets, enjoy school, and are very chatty!

But I’m hesitant to disparage a book just because it’s not what I wanted it to be. I did like it, and I still think there’s a really great idea at the heart of the novel, but the manner in which Wyndham tells the story just didn’t work for me.

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The Scariest Part: William Meikle Talks About THE GHOST CLUB

My guest this week on The Scariest Part is author William Meikle, whose new story collection is The Ghost Club. Here is the publisher’s description:

Writers never really die; their stories live on, to be found again, to be told again, to scare again.

In Victorian London, a select group of writers, led by Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Henry James held an informal dining club, the price of entry to which was the telling of a story by each invited guest.

These are their stories, containing tales of revenant loved ones, lost cities, weird science, spectral appearances and mysteries in the fog of the old city, all told by some of the foremost writers of the day. In here you’ll find Verne and Wells, Tolstoy and Checkov, Stevenson and Oliphant, Kipling, Twain, Haggard and Blavatsky alongside their hosts.

Come, join us for dinner and a story.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for William Miekle:

In The Ghost Club I’ve undertaken the task of writing a collection of supernatural stories as told in the voices of famous Victorian writers like Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde and many others. It’s probably the most ambitious piece of work I’ve ever attempted, but surprisingly to me that in itself wasn’t the scariest part of the process.

I’m Scottish, and was brought up in a tradition of old songs rather than old stories. My grandmother loved to sing to us, and she had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of folk songs, hymns, gospel, snatches of jazz and popular records of the day — this was the early ’60s, so Elvis and the Beatles got more than their share among the Scottish tunes.

It was one of the old Scots songs that was the cause of the scary part for me, a seemingly innocuous little song that’s also a murder ballad, a lament, and a rather nasty tale of infanticide. We Celts are big on that stuff in case you haven’t noticed. That, drinking, fighting and herring fishing, but that’s another set of songs for another day.

I had got to the Margaret Oliphant story and I knew it would be an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ tale of a maid and a big house. Mrs. Oliphant was another Scot, and I wanted to reflect that in the story somehow. But I didn’t know the song was going to turn up until it did, right at the moment I needed it. Gran had sung it to us, and I’ve since performed it myself in folk clubs, back when the world was young, so I didn’t even have to look up the lyrics.

“She sat down below a thorn. Fine flowers in the valley
And there she has her sweet babe borne. And the green leaves they grow rarely.”

And I didn’t just write it down, I heard it in my head, clear as day, in my old Gran’s voice, so clear that it brought tears to my eyes and I had to stop and look round to make sure she wasn’t in the doorway watching me.

That’s not the scary part either, for I’ve had that kind of reaction to sudden memories of her before now over the years since she died.

No, the scary part came later. I’d worked on the story all day and got nearly finished, but I was getting tired, it was late and time for bed so I didn’t push it. I went to brush my teeth, and was standing by the sink when I heard it. It wasn’t my Gran’s voice this time, it was a child’s, a young girl by the sound of it, and it seemed to be coming from outside the window, out in our back yard. I heard it, loud and clear.

“She’s taken out her little penknife. Fine flowers in the valley
And twinned the sweet babe of its life. And the green leaves they grow rarely.”

I didn’t look out, didn’t dare to, and I stood there for a while in the brightly lit bathroom, waiting, but it wasn’t repeated.

It was a long while before I got to sleep that night though.

Writers, eh? We’re a weird bunch.

The Ghost Club: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s

William Miekle: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads

William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with over twenty novels published in the genre press and more than 300 short story credits in thirteen countries. He has books available from a variety of publishers and his work has appeared in a large number of professional anthologies and magazines. He lives in Newfoundland with whales, bald eagles and icebergs for company. When he’s not writing he drinks beer, plays guitar, and dreams of fortune and glory.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somehow, Golding’s classic LORD OF THE FLIES was overlooked in my reading history. Either the novel wasn’t assigned to me in high school the way it was for everyone else, or it was and I didn’t bother reading it (I neglected about half my school assignments; I was a bad student). But now, several decades later, I finally picked it up, and I’m glad I did. I didn’t completely love it — I found the first half rather slow and at times uninvolving — but I thought it was very good. It’s a deeply symbolic work, with symbolism that isn’t often very subtle, but it works well as an adventure story, too. I thought there were a few standout scenes in the latter half, though none so amazing as the one scene in which the titular character makes its appearance. At that moment, like no other in the novel, LORD OF THE FLIES feels vibrantly alive to me, and the story tips compellingly into horror territory (which is probably why the scene stands out so much to me). Overall, I enjoyed the novel and am glad to have finally filled this gap in my literary education. Sucks to your ass-mar!

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I give this one all the stars! What a fun, tight, and surprising novella! We all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but in reading Stevenson’s original novella I realized the source material is very different from what we know from movies, cartoon spoofs, and just general societal osmosis. We tend to think of it as Jekyll’s story, his scientific quest to isolate the parts of man that are evil, his stumbling upon the potion that creates Hyde, etc. None of this matches Stevenson’s vision.

The first pleasant surprise for me is that Jekyll is not the story’s protagonist. Our POV character is Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer, through whose eyes the mystery of Jekyll’s relationship to Hyde unfolds. I was also surprised to discover Hyde already exists when the story starts, and has for some time. In fact, the revelation that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same person is saved for the big reveal at the end!

Jekyll’s motivations are revealed to be quite different from what I thought from those other versions; he is far more selfish and desperate to walk on the dark side without tarnishing his good name. We tend to think of Jekyll and Hyde like Bruce Banner and the Hulk, with one personality going to sleep while the other takes over, but that’s not the case here. Hyde *is* Jekyll, with all his memories fully intact, but with his id finally released from the domineering superego of societal norms. Nor is Hyde portrayed as the hideously disfigured creature of the films. Instead, he is shorter than Jekyll (his child self, one could argue; a throwback to Jekyll’s own hinted-at wild youth) and sports an evil expression that implies, at worst, deviousness. He’s no monster, at least not physically. It’s his crimes, all of which happen off the page and are related to Utterson after the fact, that make him one.

Despite this 1886 novella’s archaic language (“cabinet” is used in place of “study,” for example, which was something I had to look up), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a fast and highly enjoyable read. Without a doubt it’s one of my new favorites of classic horror literature.

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