Despite being about murderous plants, “Little Shop of Horrors” it most emphatically is not. Rather, it’s one of the creepiest post-apocalyptic novels I’ve ever read.
The book begins with Bill Masen in hospital, mildly pissed that he’s missed the spectacle of the century—a meteor shower—because his eyes are bandaged after a triffid sting. Triffids, we learn, are strange, three-legged, mobile plants with an often-fatal stinging tendril. The species appeared mysteriously one day and quickly became a garden favourite—tied to a stake and docked, of course—as well as a widely cultivated source of fuel. Masen worked on a triffid farm, and built up an immunity to their stings; that’s why this one has merely landed him in hospital for a week. Triffids are soon forgotten, though, as Bill realizes that everyone else in the hospital—in fact, everyone who saw the meteor shower—is blind. Removing his bandages and leaving the premises, he wanders about London, watching as it begins to devolve into your typical looting-filled post-apocalyptic chaos. He rescues a young lady named Josella, who was fortunately in bed with a wicked hangover during the meteor shower, and thus can also see. As they encounter other sighted people, it becomes apparent that something must be done, and opinions differ: one party feels obligated to assign sighted people to groups of blind people to guide them to food, water, and shelter; another feels that this will just prolong suffering, and plans to set up a breeding colony to restart civilization. As Bill and Josella struggle to survive, the triffids, which seem to be oddly aware of things, begin to encroach. And to a triffid, anyone who can’t see is a sitting duck.
My favourite thing about this book, and about Wyndham’s science fiction in general, is that it’s not concerned with detailing how things came to be as screwed up as they are. No one knows where triffids came from, or how everyone went blind. The point is that this is what happened, so let’s see how one might deal with that. (The topic is not wholly ignored, as it’s natural for the characters to speculate on things like that, but little is ever resolved.) The book is carefully crafted to showcase different possible ways that people might deal with a disaster: Bill and Josella run into people with various ideas about how to re-establish civilization, and even try some of them out, eventually coming to a conclusion about what sort of society they’ll need to aim at. (Hint: polygyny is encouraged!) So, rather than an abstract discussion about how best to structure society when most people are blind and there are roving stands of dangerous plants about, we get to see how various ideas begin to fall apart in practice. It’s less bleak than you’d expect. While there is plenty of need for sacrificing the few to save the many, it’s contrasted with the inevitable and kind of sweet romance between Josella and Bill. It’s a rather civilized, or at least civil, sort of apocalypse.
The triffids are woven into the plot gradually. After Masen’s initial narration of what they are, they vanish for a while. Then they kill Josella’s family, having apparently broken into their country house, prompting Bill and Josella to acquire anti-triffid gear (which consists of protective mask and gloves and a triffid gun; later, flamethrowers are added). Back in London, though, this precaution is laughed at—there are no triffids in sight. Eventually, though, the triffids start to encroach. As humanity dwindles in number, the triffids congregate around the last groups of survivors. In large enough numbers, they can break down fences. It’s this gradual appearance, from a garden plant that’s probably the least of everyone’s worries to a menace to the human species, combined with the mystery of their origin, that makes the whole book so creepy.
Wyndham has a knack for writing happy-ish endings, wherein things mostly get sorted out, but looming threats are still on the horizon. Without spoiling anything about this book’s ending, I’ll just say that you don’t just snap out of an apocalypse. (Ordinarily, that would be a perfect setup for sequels, but Wyndham refrains, which is classy…though later, someone else did write one, entitled Night of the Triffids.)
The Day of the Triffids is a thoughtful take on how people might respond to the virtual end of civilization, and the extra weirdness of walking predatory plants makes it stand out. I highly recommend it, as I would recommend anything else by Wyndham.