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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.

Triffids return
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 the world.

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 actually work.

Transatlantic characters
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 naturally.

As Wyndham's novel is acknowledged for its peculiar British qualities, what readership do you aim for.

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 issues.

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 up.
   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 us.

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 ideas.
a shorter version of this interview was published in Shivers #91
Simon Clark
Simon Clark

Night of the Triffids
published by Hodder & Stoughton, June 2001

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Books by Simon Clark:
Blood & Grit (1990),  Blood Crazy (1995),  Darker (1996),  Darkness Demands (2001),  The Fall (1998),  Judas Tree (1999),  King Blood (1997),  Nailed By the Heart (1995),  Salt Snake & Other Bloody Cuts (1999),  Vampyrrhic (1998).                                                                                       Visit the Simon Clark website

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