|Night of the Triffids:
British author Simon Clark talks about John Wyndham, transatlantic storytelling and the
lore of Triffids
interview by Tony Lee
Long before Spielberg's raptors, and even before Romero's zombies, there were Triffids on the loose -
rampaging across the countryside to kill and eat innocent people in the 1963 film version, based on
popular novel, The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham (just reissued by Penguin). Now, 50
years after Wyndham's classic, the killer plants are back in Simon Clark's superb The Night Of The
Triffids, which picks up the story 25 years later. I asked Simon what he thought of the original
book, the movie, and what gave him the idea for this intriguing sequel.
The book is a firm favourite of mine. I've read it many times since my teens and it's still powerful,
horrific and thought-provoking. In fact, it improves with every read. There are so many layers to it,
and Wyndham's prose is so deceptively simple. On one level it reads like a favourite uncle telling
you an anecdote, yet on another it glitters with resonant images of a world in ruins.
The film version is enjoyable, luring the effective looking Triffids away with
music from an ice-cream van and some other good action scenes. The Triffids' death-by-seawater climax
is weak and contrived though. But it would still rank in my all-time top 100 films.
A bird hit an Inter-City train I was riding on. The 40-gramme bird stopped the 200-ton train dead in
its tracks. As I was waiting for repairs I noticed a passenger was reading The Day Of The
Triffids. Wyndham was fascinated by the notion of how fragile our civilisation is and how easily
it could be destroyed, especially by some eco-disaster - a bird halting a train would have amused
him. As I waited, I found myself replaying the Triffids story. What a great book, I thought. I only
wish Wyndham had continued the story, especially as it was becoming even more interesting as his hero
retreated to the Isle of Wight. What happened to Wyndham's characters? Did they defeat the Triffid
menace? It was around that time I told myself: "Well, you're an author, why don't you continue
the Triffids story and find out?"
To cut a long story short that's what I did: it became the most satisfying book
I've worked on; with some of the best action scenes I've ever written. I wouldn't have missed it for
Surprisingly, the 1981 BBC-TV serial by Douglas Livingston, was not an influence.
Oddly, I only saw it a few weeks ago when a scriptwriter in Hollywood sent me a copy (I would have
bought it if it was on 'sell-thru', honest). I thought it remarkably true to the original novel (no
seawater wipe-outs here). The Triffid models, with their lush, vibrant colours resembling mobile
orchids were extremely effective and John Duttine made a convincing Bill Masen. Now if the BBC would
only produce more serials so faithfully based on science fiction classics... Wyndham's Midwich
Cuckoos, Moorcock's Behold The Man?
How did you set about following in Wyndham's footsteps in terms of literary style, and what about the
potential for continuity problems?
A pastiche would have been a disaster. And most pastiches anyway merely mimic the style of another
and reduce it to the level of a joke. I worked very hard to create a meld of my style and Wyndham's.
What allowed me to do this was by telling the story from the point of view of Bill Masen's son (Bill
was the hero in the original), so I legitimately appropriated Wyndham's phrases and rhythms but then
combined them with my own style, which allowed me to write in a natural way.
I made it a little easier for myself by opening my story 25 years after the close
of the original. Now I could invent a recent history that explained what was happening on the Isle of
Wight. Here was a community of 30,000 people, probably the bulk of Europe's population. They huddled
there trying to ignore that millions of Triffids have conquered the mainland. While they repress the
knowledge that perhaps humankind is heading for extinction they have developed unusual ways to
repopulate the world. They have something called Mother Houses where blind and sighted women live
with the sole purpose of having as many children as possible. They are self-governing institutions,
separate from the rest of society and run themselves like convents from the Old World. Wyndham talks
about the need for radical changes in society in The Day Of The Triffids. I used his
characters' musings as a springboard to develop those ideas and to create something that might
The Night of the Triffids has characters from both the Isle of Wight and New York, but Clark
had no problem creating his American characters...
I didn't find it any more difficult than creating British ones, but then creating any character is a
challenge. I try to work on them until I half-believe they are real enough to walk off the page. Then
their motivations, fears and hopes will ring true.
The Night Of The Triffids has a great villain in the form of General Fielding, a thoroughly
nasty piece of work.
A great villain shouldn't be wholly evil otherwise they become a pantomime baddie. In a sense many of
General Fielding's aims were good. He wanted his people to prosper and expand the population of his
community. Unfortunately his methods were those of a tyrant. And just as the mass-murderer might help
little old ladies over the road and adore his mother that doesn't excuse him his crimes. But I do
love creating an interesting and credible villain. My other favourite bad guy in my fiction is
Carswell in The Fall. His arrogant nature is explained to some extent by his family history
but ultimately his ruthless streak is harnessed by the book's hero, Sam Baker, for good not evil.
The British and American characters meant you had to produce a lot of US-English dialogue scenes.
Blame it on me couch-potato-ing in front of too many American TV programmes - anything and everything
from The Twilight Zone to ER. But the net result is that American dialogue wasn't a
real problem. One technique that was useful was to imagine that my character Sam Dymes was played by
James Stewart - suddenly the dialogue patterns and the characteristic hesitant speech came very
As Wyndham's novel is acknowledged for its peculiar British qualities, what readership do you aim
I never consciously wrote for a particular readership. I simply wanted to tell a good story. If you
do that it becomes universal anyway. At the moment my books are especially popular in Russia where
I'm known as Namoh Knapk (which I hope isn't rude!). If the story involves basic human issues it can
still be compelling anywhere. For example, the ancient Greek myths are still appealing to us today
because in a mythic way they deal with human dilemmas that we can all identify with. I've never
intentionally directed my work at an American market but it certainly seems to have clicked there.
Blood Crazy released earlier this year by Leisure nailed itself in the top 10 horror titles on
Amazon for weeks.
This time it's war
It was so fascinating to develop this little world that is a fragment of the old
British Empire caught like a fly in amber I was in danger of suffocating the story. In the end I had
to trim back to allow the story to flow freely. There were so many avenues I could have taken to
explore what domestic life would be like on an island where a quarter of the population are blind,
that still educates its children under the old public school system, yet develops radical ways to
swell the island's population. Also it occurred to me that the isolated communities of survivors
throughout the world would labour under their own delusions and yet still invent wonderful ways to
deal with their problems. Of course then the difficulty arises when they meet and they have to deal
with communities that are so radically different from their own. Will they trade peacefully? Will
they decide they're just plain weird? Or will they find themselves going to war?
Because of their rapid breeding cycle, there are a great many more Triffids in the new book than in
the original story. Fighting back against all the killer plants meant devising a number of big scale
battle scenes, which is not an easy trick to pull off. So how do you write these scenes without
losing sight of the plot?
The problem I might have is being carried away by such an exciting scene that it simply becomes too
long and dominates the story. I always aim to keep battle scenes down to a reasonable length. Also, I
tend to avoid battles fought in a conventional way with conventional weapons. In The Fall I
had the characters convert a holiday bus into a fighting vehicle. In The Night Of The Triffids
the people are using technology of the late 1940s, so find themselves with cumbersome flying-boats
and WW2 weaponry. But I envisaged that a useful weapon against the Triffids would be a battle tank
equipped with flame-throwers. These are used to good effect, but not against the Triffids... not that
I want to give too much of the story away.
Keep it dark
With so much action, maintaining a balance between serious drama and good humour could have been
difficult. Clark explains that the trick is to avoid bad jokes, while still addressing thematic
I like to take fiction seriously. So many good movies have been ruined for me by the action hero's
'witty' one-liners. For me they're simply the pin that pricks the tension bubble and pop! Suddenly
you start to wonder if the director's taking the piss. So while my Triffids in The Night Of The
Triffids are spawning variant species of themselves I didn't want to do anything that sends them
Possibly, Wyndham envisaged Triffids as a metaphor for the 'safe' invention of man that becomes his
destroyer. Wyndham envisages them to be bovine plants that are farmed for their oil; the public at
large considers them as joke plants; gardeners cultivate them in suburban gardens. No doubt a 1950s
version of Charlie Dimmock tethers them alongside her fabulous water feature. But then by some twist
of fate humankind is mysteriously blinded and the plants become his Nemesis. Wyndham was fascinated
by how fragile civilisation really is. It only needs a little push, perhaps from a GM strawberry
plant, or a few more cubic feet of greenhouse gasses and the whole thing could come tumbling down on
The main locations in The Night Of The Triffids are islands. When the story's action switches
from the Isle of Wight to Manhattan, what happens to pace?
It can be tricky maintaining pace, especially if the change of location is dramatic because you have
to take time to describe your new setting. The most challenging for me was in King Blood where
the Earth heats up from the inside out. Then I had to describe drastic changes in scenery from
flooded cities to burnt cities, to charcoal forests, to dry ocean beds. I had to be careful to
describe as briefly but as evocatively as possible my location so it wouldn't hinder the story flow.
With The Night Of The Triffids I deliberately chose New York as a setting. I wanted David
Masen to experience a profound culture shock travelling from a sleepy, rural Isle of Wight, where
he'd spent his life, to a huge bustling city. I imagined that he'd find such a place as frightening
at first as much as thrilling. Those kinds of settings and the effect they have on a character are
often the engine that drives the story.
Although Clark has chosen not to write trilogies before, I asked if he had any plans to continue the
Triffids' story - perhaps with a book that reveals a Triffids' king or queen?
A nice idea! But nothing firm yet. For the next year or so I'm busy with two new books, but you never
know. Certainly the potential is there. I imagine what variants the Triffids could spawn of
themselves to conquer new territories in the deserts and arctic climates and I start thinking of plot
a shorter version of this interview was published in Shivers #91
published by Hodder & Stoughton, June 2001
Read our review
of Clark's book
Buy books at: