In this episode we discussed the 1955 novel The Crysalids, by John Wyndham.
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, find her work at makiyamazaki.com Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and his band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, and today we’re talking about the 1955 novel The Crysalids by John Wyndham. Enjoy!
(theme tune plays)
Ren Hi Adam!
Ren: Welcome to our fifteenth episode!
Adam: Is this officially our fifteenth episode, because I think we might have lost track.
Ren: Well, we might have but I think now every time it’s a vaguely round number I get excited.
Adam: Is fifteen a round number?
Ren: (cry-laughing) No…
Adam: Anytime it’s an odd, or even number —
Ren:Basically I’m just impressed any time we do one of those.
Adam: Aw, no, you’re right. That’s the spirit I should have. So this is our special fifteenth episode!
Ren: Check us out! Well done. Well done to us. And it’s The Crysalids by John Wyndham.
Adam: So it’s the Crys… I’m going to keep mispronouncing this as The Crispy Lips or something.
Ren: The Crysalids.
Adam: The Crispy Lips sound creepier.
Ren: The Crysalids, or, just to be different I’m reading an American copy from the 1970s which instead is called Re-birth.
Adam: Ah okay, that’s nice. I thought it’d be called Damn Telepathic Commies or something.
Ren: And it seems to have some minor differences from the original text. For example there’s a relatively minor character called Rachel in presumably your copy, who’s called Deborah in mine. No idea why, but there you go.
Adam: I guess they focus-tested it and Deborah goes down better with American audiences.
Ren: I guess? So if there’s any other things that I say and you think ‘Hm, I don’t think it does that’ —
Adam: — if you’re like, ‘and then of course, there’s that scene with the giant penguins’
Ren: So that might spice it up a bit. So Maki, who’s our delightful intro music composer suggested this one. John Wyndham’s here favourite author and on her suggestion I’ve read quite a few of his novels over the last few years. And I think this one most fits the bill as it’s definitely quite scary, and the protagonists are children/teenagers.
Adam: I think it has similar thematics to most — well, ‘most’ is maybe a bit much, but to lots of Young Adult adventure fiction.
A group of plucky outsiders having to band together against some kind of state or organised persecution, with an extended chase sequence with moments of peril. I don’t know whether it would have been written specifically for a Young Adult audience, I don’t think it would have been —
Ren: — it was published in 1955, so I don’t know if that was —
Adam: My mum liked John Wyndham as a young adult, and I think if I’d read this when I was a teenager I wouldn’t have felt like ‘I’m reading something for grown-ups here!’, it would seem as if it was kind of written for me.
Ren: It seems to often be set as a set text in schools, for GCSE age.
Adam: I noticed that actually because I listened to the audio version on YouTube, and a lot of the comments were saying things like (brattish child voice) ‘This is so boring! I have to listen to this but I don’t want to!’ so that cued me in to thinking it must be some kind of set text.
Ren: Well, we read it because we wanted to.
Adam: Yes, absolutely. Well, I read it because you told me to, but obviously I wanted to for the podcast. I mean, I might try to make you read Water Babies for next week though.
Ren: (noncommittally) Hmm.
Adam: Anyway. Crispy Lips!
Ren: It’s set in a small town called Waknuk in Labrador, Newfoundland, or Newf as they call it.
Adam: Is that what the kids call it?
Ren: It’s lost the rest of its name over the generations.
Adam: To nuclear decay!
Ren: They live an unspecified number of generations past ‘The Tribulation’, which is a catastrophic nuclear event. On all sides they’re surrounded by ‘Fringes’ which then bleed into ‘Dadlands’, which are areas that become progressively more afflicted by fallout, and less inhabitable.
Because of this, the people of Waknuk, with the main character David’s preacher father at the forefront, are extremely vigilant about destroying crops and animals that are ‘deviant’, or mutated in any way, and that they therefore see as offences to God.
Newborn babies, too, are subject to visits from the Inspector, who determines if they are true forms, or a ‘Blasphemy’, which deviates from the physical norm in any way, and is consequently banished as sub-human.
They’re made to recite the Definition of Man, and part of it goes:
‘- and each leg shall be jointed twice and have one foot, and each foot five toes, and each toe shall end with a flat nail…’ and so on.
Kind of like that ‘knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone’ song, but… sinister.
Adam: Not knowing my Bible very well, I had to check if it was actually in the Bible. It’s not.
Ren: It’s not, no. This is the bit they’ve added on.
Adam: Not that I would have put it past the Bible!
Ren: So the story starts when David is about nine years old, and he goes off exploring and meets a girl called Sophie, who secretly has six toes on each foot. He only finds out about this by accident, because she’s sprained her ankle.
So we have the juxtaposition of learning about his father’s extreme religious bigotry, at the same time as David befriending someone who’s the target of it.
One detail about his father is that he killed a neighbour’s tail-less cat because he decided it was an Offence, and went vigilante-style after this cat before the information reached the community that cats without tails were a recognised breed. So that’s the kind of guy he is.
Adam: I like that’s the main reason you’re like, ‘yeah, he’s definitely a bad guy! kills frickin’ cats!’
Ren: (aghast) ‘He killed a cat!’
Adam: ‘A cat killer! Doesn’t matter if he’s a baby killer, but a cat killer!’ Well, I say baby killer. They leave the babies to fend for themselves out in the elements, so I think it’s fair to call him a baby killer.
Ren: I was wondering about how that logistically worked, because there are people living in the Fringes, but surely if they checked them all as babies, then how would they—?
Adam: Well, they were just really hardcore babies.
Ren: I guess so.
Adam:I don’t know, the Romans did it so… I guess… I don’t know where I’m going with that at all, I hate the Romans!
Ren: Yeah, the Romans are —
Adam: (edited in voiceover) Poo.
Ren: I’m going to have put an explicit language tag on this one now. Because of my disgust at Romans.
Adam: No, no, I’ll dub it out or something. I’ll replace a word in your voice. It’ll be seamless.
Ren: It’s okay, we’re allowed to swear!
Adam: No, no, we might have children listeners. I don’t want to be some corrupter of the youth! It’ll be fine, it’ll be seamless.
Ren: Apart from the cat thing, there is another harrowing early scene in which David overhears his Aunt coming in distress to his mother, with her baby who only has one ‘little thing’ different about it, (although neither he nor the reader finds out what that thing is), and she’s asking his mum if she can borrow David’s newborn little sister to show the inspector instead.
His mother is aghast, and calls the baby a monster, and his father banishes her from the house. The next morning both her and the baby are found drowned.
Adam: I bet it was a sticky-out belly button like I have!
Ren: That’s kind of the thing, we don’t really know how far they go with this.
Adam: They seem pretty fiercely pedantic, I think. But of course, they aren’t so able to police inner differences, and so it transpires that our young protagonist is different in his own way, in that he can produce and receive ‘thought-shapes’ or thought images. So this is a kind of telepathy, an emotional, pre-linguistic or maybe semi-linguistic telepathy?
Because you’ve said before — I very much have a Mark Corrigan-esque inner monologue constantly, but you said you do have quite a lot of abstract thoughts that aren’t really translatable to language, right?
Ren: Yeah. I think I think in pictures and shapes and stuff quite a lot.
Adam: So maybe it’s like if you could transmit those things to people?
Ren: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s not quite the same as language…
Adam: More like Texture of the Week.
But anyway, David and his cousin both have this ability.
Ren: Yes, and then a group of other children and young people in the surrounding are who come to know each other through sharing the thought-shapes together.
There’s quite a lot of threat and foreboding from the start of the novel, because you see how hostile the environment is to physical differences, and it doesn’t seem like it will be any more accommodating to David and the others if they found out about their difference.
The kind of insider/outsider character is his uncle, Uncle Axel, who was a sailor and who’s sailed round bits of the continent and seen the Badlands and the strange mutated landscapes.
Adam: Axel-lotl experiences!
Ren: (laughs quite a bit) Yeah.
Ren: I can’t resist an axolotl reference. I just love them. They’re good friends, Adam.
Adam: Aww. And dedicated listeners.
Ren: And dedicated listeners, yes. Shout out to all those axolotls.
So Uncle Axel sees David muttering to himself and asks about it and finds out that he’s communicating with his cousin Rosalind, and tells him ‘You’d better not let people find out about this’. So he teaches David and the rest to be cautious, and they grow up under the threat of being found out —
Adam: And traumatically, Sophie, the girl who David meets at the beginning of the book, does get found out.
Ren: Yes. So, they go paddling together and she very daringly takes off her boot, and goes paddling in the stream, but then unexpectedly a boy from the village turns up and Sophie leaves a six-toed footprint on the rock, which he sees.
So they go back to Sophie’s parents, and they say ‘right, we have to leave’, so they pack the family off and David’s father beats him until he finds out about Sophie, but the family end up getting caught by a patrol. Which is fairly horrifying.
Adam: Yeah. It’s funny I guess, because I suppose partly from being a 1950s writer, John Wyndham has quite a restrained style, there’s no pornographic detail in the books whatsoever, but there are times when it really did remind me of, say, the Fallout games or Apocalypse World or other more lurid post-apocalyptic narratives, because there is real horror in it, particularly in terms of this policing of difference and the fates awaiting those who are deemed to be mutants.
Ren: We find out much later in the book that Sophie is still alive, that she’s been sterilised and sent to the Fringes, to an eke out an existence as best she can.
Adam: I think actually, to his credit, did quite a good job of getting across the psychological impact of this as well, when we meet Sophie again.
Ren: Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s pretty disturbing as we’ve seen her as a happy, carefree kid early in the book.
Adam: She’s quite an appealing little kid when she’s young.
Ren: And you see how traumatised she’s been by this, and how hard her life as been.
Adam: I’ve just read through an incredibly variable anthology edited by Harlan Ellison so I probably should have known what I was in for a bit more, from the 1960s called Dangerous Visions, a kind of seminal Sci-fi anthology.
And you know, some of the stories have their moments, and some of them seem incredibly paranoid in retrospect. There was one about the future of organ donation, I guess organ donation had just become viable, and in the afterword the author basically says ‘You may think this is a good thing now, but just you wait! They’ll be executing people for speeding, just so they can get to their lovely organs!’ He seemed very convinced that by the 1980s this would be the case.
But a lot of the stories were just very tiresomely and hideously misogynistic. I think a lot of older sci-fi is pretty misogynistic, and that’s not something I get from Wyndham.
Ren: This is one of the actually great things about Wyndham. He writes proper female characters.
Adam: And I think it’s fair to say that that’s rare for male sci-fi authors. Well, it’s rare for male authors but —
Ren: — male sci-fi authors of the ‘50s, yeeaaah.
Adam: So props to Wyndham for that! And I think actually the female characters in this book are more compelling than the male characters. David, as the protagonist spends most of his time slightly befuddled, almost.
Ren: He’s not the most compelling character, he’s a fairly bland narrator.
Adam: Whereas Rosalind I found more interesting, she seemed to have a richer internal life, to me.
Ren: Rosalind and Sophie, and Sally and Katherine, and then David’s little sister Petra, as well.
So there’s this great deal of threat when they’re growing up, and one thing that seems like it might expose them is that one of their group, Anne, decides to marry a ‘norm’, which one of them describes as ‘like pretending to only have one arm because the person one wants to marry has only one arm’.
So she decides that she’s not going to communicate with thoughts at all, she’s just going to be a normal person. So she cuts off all communication with them. But then about a year into her marriage, her husband is found shot dead by an arrow, and Anne commits suicide.
It’s revealed later that it was Uncle Axel who killed her husband, because he realised that Anne had told him about her power, and the other people who had it, and that he’d use it to blackmail them. And Anne herself leaves a note for the inspector, denouncing all of them, but one of their number I think it’s Rachel/Deborah gets to it in time to intercept it.
So that’s one narrow escape, but then the actual crunch point comes from David’s little sister, Petra.
Adam: Whose psychic powers are clearly far in advance than any of the other characters.
Ren: Maki was saying that she finds Petra slightly unnerving, there’s just a touch of Midwich Cuckoo about her.
Adam: It’s interesting, because Midwich Cuckoos comes after this book by a few years, but I can totally see that. And Midwich Cuckoos is basically the inverse of this book, the psychic children are treated as the antagonists, nominally at least, whereas here they’re the sympathetic protagonists.
Ren: It’s definitely interesting to read them side by side, because the Midwich Cuckoos have this power that they can prevent their mothers from leaving them. Their mothers can’t leave the village, because they just stop them, but they find out about Petra’s power because she falls in a river and produces this overwhelming signal to all the people with this ability.
Adam: She sends out this shockwave, and they’re all magnetised almost towards it.
Ren: Which is quite a dangerous thing to happen because it means they’re running towards her and no-one knows how they’ve found out that she’s in danger. And it’s just David and Rosalind that time, and they go ‘Oh, couldn’t you hear her screaming? We did’ sort of thing.
Adam: Not very convincing.
Ren: But they manage to get away with it. But the second time it happens, which is a few years later, Petra is riding in the forest which she’s not meant to do, and some mutated creature attacks her pony and starts ripping its throat out. So she’s clinging to a tree and she’s emitting this really intense distress signal, and all of them start riding towards her.
Adam:Very much one of the parts in the book where I was imagining proceedings like a DnD or Fighting Fantasy campaign.
Ren: So she unwittingly gathers the whole group towards her, and they manage to send some of them away again, but it’s still David, Rosalind, Sally and Katherine who are all there in the forest, and someone comes across and it’s inexplicable how they would all know that Petra was in distress.
Adam: I liked the fact that Rosalind in particular is not afraid to voice her occasional affectionate irritation towards Petra.
So later on, Petra starts communicating with another psychic person who is broadcasting their thought-shapes, it turns out, all the way from New Zealand. So they start communicating with this woman, and she says that Petra is especially unique and tremendously important and the kids have to protect her at all costs and it says:
Then Petra came in, whatever she had failed to make of the rest, she had caught the last part all right.
‘That’s me’ She proclaimed with satisfaction and totally unnecessary vigour. We rocked and recovered.
‘Beware, odious smug child. We haven’t met Hairy Jack yet’ Rosalind told her, with subduing effect.
Ren: Yeah, I enjoyed that too. Petra is so powerful that she’s like… Obelix in Astrix and Obelix. She doesn’t know her own strength. She fell in a cauldron as a baby and now she’s incredibly psychic.
Adam: A cauldron of atomic power!
Ren: But she’s kind of doing the telepathic equivalent of constantly bellowing in the other people’s ears, and they have to keep telling her to quiet down.
So Petra, David and Rosalind manage to escape before the inspector comes to their door, but the two other girls, Sally and Katherine, are taken to the inspector, and this is one of the other main points of horror in the book, that they’re interrogated and Katherine’s tortured into giving up the information.
And because of their shared ability the torture has this particular horrible extra aspect to it. It says when they hear from Katherine:
‘It was not a thought shape; it had no real form; it was sheer distress, like a cry of agony. Petra gasped, and threw herself whimpering into Rosalind’s arms. The impact was so sharp it hurt’
So we learn that Katherine has been tortured into giving up the information, and they all feel that shock to a certain extent.
Adam: I’ve seen quite a few YouTube videos about empaths recently, and I suppose it’s similar to it if someone’s deeply empathetic and soaks up all the emotions of others like a sponge, that sometimes this is going to be very loving and good and sometimes it will be extraordinarily painful.
Ren: Have you ever read The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler?
Adam: No, I think I bought it for my dad at one point, but I’ve never actually read it.
Ren: It’s incredibly powerful and harrowing, but the main character in that, one of her parents was addicted to some kind of drug, so she has this intense empath ability, so if she sees someone in pain she shares their pain.
Adam: But not children’s horror, presumably.
Ren: No! no, really not at all. Oof. I recommend it but it’s really intense. Anyway. Back to this book.
Adam: So the kids flee, understandably. They know they’ve been discovered so they hot-tail it towards the wastelands, or the Badlands?
Ren: They go to the Fringes, which is the part where people are abandoned to if they’re seen as deviant or whatever. But it’s where the crops and the animals and the plants are all starting to grown in unrecognisable forms. They’re not wholly unrecognisable yet, but they’re —
Adam: (spooky voice) Eldritch forms!
Ren: Eldritch forms. So the last part of the novel is this quite extended chase sequence, where Petra, David and Rosalind are on the run, and Petra’s in touch with this woman from Zealand, as they call it, who is so vastly impressed with Petra’s ability that she’s commanding an airship halfway around the world to rescue them.
Although she’s quite blatantly uninterested in any of them apart from Petra.
Adam: I wasn’t sure how… it’s interesting because they get rescued, or at least most of them, and ostensibly it’s a happy ending, I guess, but I was interested in to what degree you thought we were meant to trust the New Zealanders and whether they were utopian, or whether they were replacing one prison for a new prison.
Ren: It’s ambiguous! The Zealand woman is not the most comforting of characters, she has a habit of speaking in didactic pronouncements and speeches about the new world that they’re making in Zealand, and how they’re brought together by the power of this ‘think-together’ ability.
Adam: Is she a communist?! A sort of technocratic communist, I don’t know.
Ren: Well, I’ve got a quote from her:
‘we can make a better world than the Old People did. They were only ingenious half-humans, little better than savages; all living shut off from one another, with only clumsy words to link them. Emotions they could sometimes share, but they could not think collectively. When their conditions were primitive they could get along alright, as the animals can; but the more complex they made their world, the less capable they were of dealing with it. They had no means of consensus. They learnt to cooperate constructively in small units; but only destructively in large units’.
And I’m like, ‘Yeah, okay. Fair enough’
Adam: It’s tricky because you’re like ‘Yeah, she’s got our number’, that seems like a fairly accurate synopsis of the human condition, so radical empath telepathy omega point humans probably are superior —
Ren: — but there is a question of what happens to the people who don’t have this ability in their society.
Adam: You do wonder if our characters have escaped agrarian medieval-style eugenicists for enlightened collectivist eugenicists. And I think that slight sinister undertone is meant to be present.
Ren: Yeah, I agree. And it’s very unanswered. The end of the book is them arriving and it’s shiny and beautiful and like David had dreamed of when he was a child and he’d had this vision of it, and they have technology that they could only dream of —
Adam: Including to kill people very quickly with sticky webs.
Ren: Yes! They can do that. She’s like ‘it’s merciful really’ as she kills two hundred people. And there is I think a question about what exactly she wants Petra for, you know.
She has a lot of interest in having Petra’s ability, but does she have something specific in mind? Because all she says is ‘You’ll learn how to use it better’.
Adam: Is she like one of the child weapons in Akira? In ten years time she looks all old and ancient and wrinkled up, and she’s being used to…?
Ren: Oh God. Are they going to put her in an Eva?
… Anime corner on our podcast.
We don’t know.
Adam: But if there is anyone who wants to make an anime sequel to the Crysalids then go ahead.
Ren: It’d be good! I think it’s got the makings of a good anime.
Adam: Is there a film adaptation of it? Because obviously with Midwich Cuckoos there’s the Children of the Damned.
Ren: I don’t know if there is, you know. I think there was a BBC radio series, and maybe a TV thing but I don’t think there’s been a film.
Adam: Maybe we could do one here in Suffolk.
Ren: Surely that’s more Midwich Cuckoos territory?
Adam: I just wanted to get Robert from the local shop in to be a preacher man.
Ren: Do you want to do Textures of the Week, is it that time?
Adam: Ohh It probably is, isn’t it? I don’t have any objects to rattle. What’s on the shelf. Nothing.
(something taps into the microphone)
I’ll just hit objects together.
Ren: Just — (discordant banging commences)
(shouty) Texture! Of the week!
Adam: (more banging) Texture of the Week!
I hope I haven’t broken anything.
Ren: That was… a post-apocalyptic version.
Adam: Minimalist percussive one.
Ren: They don’t have instruments anymore, since the Tribulation. They just bang things together.
Adam: It’s good, we’re fleshing out the world here.
Ren: Do you have one?
Adam: Do I have one. Vaguely? I mean this isn’t a particularly exciting texture but the protagonist’s back after he’s been beaten and whipped by his father really stuck with me. Partly because it segue’s very quickly from before he’s about to be beaten to after he’s been beaten, so we only know about what’s happened through the description of his back and that he’s crying and such.
And the thought-shapes I kept imagining as semi-transparent juddering globular translucent things, which was interesting, and obviously it was fun imagining the various transmogrified creatures with long arms and legs and snouts and such.
Ren: Yeah, both of mine are Badlands related. So the first one is from the Zealand woman, who’s describing the view when they fly over to Labrador:
‘This is a dreadful country indeed. We have seen Badlands before, but none of us has even imagined anything quite so terrible as this. There are stretches of miles across where it looks as if all the ground has been fused into black glass; there is nothing else, nothing but the glass like a frozen ocean of ink… then belts of Badlands… then another wilderness of black glass’
I didn’t attempt a New Zealand accent because that would have bad.
Adam: Yeah, don’t.
Ren: Don’t. I was in Oregon a few years back and we went to visit something called the Big Obsidian Flow which is the remnant of volcanic eruptions where the magma has turned to obsidian which is this black glass. And it’s very cool! So I imagine that this is suggesting volcanic eruptions and all of that cooling into obsidian for miles.
And the other one is Uncle Axel’s description of the Badlands from when he was a sailor:
‘You can see giant, distorted heads of corn growing higher than small trees; big saprophytes growing on rocks, with their roots trailing out on the wind like bunches of hair, fathoms long; in some places there are fungus colonies that you’d take at first sight for big white boulders; you can see succulents like barrels, but as big as small houses, and with spines ten feet long. There are plants which grow on the the cliff tops and send thick, green cables down a hundred feet and more into the sea; and you wonder whether it’s a land plant that’s got into the salt water, or a sea plant that’s somehow climbed ashore’.
Like a triffid, one might conjecture.
Adam: Oh no, terrifying crossover special!
Ren: Yeah, I enjoyed that.
Adam: Right, I know you said that I didn’t have to do sign-offs anymore, so I thought this week’s sign-off I’d just broadcast as a thought-shape to those other sticky-out belly button mutants who can understand them.
Ren: Aw yeah, cool.
Adam: So if you just give me a second.
(Adam silently broadcasts thought-shapes)
Okay, so anyone who can receive them should have done.
Ren: Brilliant! Our intro music’s by Maki Yamazaki, our outro music’s by Joe Kelly, our artwork’s by Letty Wilson. You can find us on twitter at @stillscaredpod, or email us at email@example.com.
See you next time, spooky kids!
(outro music plays)