Fan ICHF: The Triffids

This ICHF was written by Glarnboudin, who you can find at https://glarnboudin.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!

The trope of the killer plant is a rather unusual monster archetype, if you get down to it. While many other monster archetypes can be pretty easily traced back through the ages – kaiju are modern-day adaptations of the idea of dragons and giants, upscaled to a modern-day audience, zombies stem from the universal fear of the living dead, and even chest-bursting, acid-blooded aliens owe at least a bit to legends of vampires and changelings. But the origin of carnivorous plants as a monster can be pretty definitively traced back to two sources: Audrey II of Little Shop of Horrors, who’s been discussed plenty on this site before… and Day of the Triffids, a 1951 John Wyndham novel that has since fallen out of the public consciousness but nonetheless paved the way for countless works since with how it pioneered the post-apocalyptic genre.

Our story begins with a man waking up in a hospital in London, where his eyes are being treated to prevent going blind after suffering a workplace accident. What caused the workplace injury, you may ask? Well, you don’t have to wait long, because right off the bat our protagonist, Bill, is happy to explain to the reader that he was hit in the eyes with Triffid venom while working on a plantation for them, just as he’s happy to explain what the hell a Triffid plantation even is.

And so we’re given a course in Triffids 101 right off the bat: they were first brought to the attention of the scientific world when a mysterious man only ever referred to as ‘Umberto’ brings a bottle of mysterious pale pink oil to a fish oil company for them to look over, which they find to be unlike anything that they’ve ever seen before – all that they can tell is that it’s vegetable in origin and that it’s incredibly high quality, better than anything that they can supply. Umberto doesn’t elaborate on where he got this oil from when he’s questioned extensively by company officials that are understandably rather nervous about being driven out of business – all that he’s willing to divulge is that it came from Russia and that he can provide the seeds of the plant that made it for a price. Eager to get the jump on this potential goldmine, the company agrees and forks over the money; with the arrangements made, the mysterious supplier sets off, never to be seen again – Bill speculates that he was likely shot down by Soviet artillery while trying to fly out of their airspace. However he vanished, the fish oil company is quick to sweep the deal under the rug and forget about Umberto, as does anybody else who knew about him… until, that is, strange plants matching no known species begin to sprout all over the world a few years later, likely having been carried far and wide on the winds after being released from Umberto’s destroyed plane. Bill was a child when they first began to crop up, and even found one growing in his family’s backyard – as the years passed, that encounter led to a fascination with the plants. After the initial surge of surprise at their development, especially when they start to show off their bizarre anatomy, the plants themselves, eventually dubbed Triffids, soon lose a lot of their mystique to the general public and become an accepted part of everyday life, a curiosity. After all, as strange as they are, they’re only weird plants… but hoo boy, are these things weird.

Right off the bat, we’re given a clear description of the Triffids and what they’re all about, and straight away the reader can see that they’re quite a departure from the killer plants that have become so archetypical across various forms of media. They don’t have strangling vines or toothy jaws to eat people with or lovely singing voices to convince bumbling florists – they’re honestly very simple in their anatomy. A rounded somewhat ‘shaggy’ bolus sports a tall central stalk on top from which some leathery green leaves grow along with a funnel-shaped structure at the very tip, which houses some stamens and a very long whip-like organ tipped with a venomous stinger, normally kept tightly coiled up but capable of lashing out at targets in the blink of an eye. Three small, bare sticks grow straight up around the central stem and regularly tap against the thick base like a trio of drumsticks to produce a strange rapping noise – strangest of all, though, they’re capable of independent movement. At the bottom of the bolus, three stumpy root-like appendages emerge, normally kept buried in the soil and acting like, well, roots, but when the Triffid wants to move about, they yank their roots up and begin to walk around on them in a bizarre rocking, swaying gait compared to the movements of a man on crutches. It’s a very alien design that still remains distinct even to this day, but not so bizarre that you can’t easily imagine it. After all, it’s only a plant; true, they’re venomous, with a single sting being enough to kill a man, but as long as the stinger is docked and trimmed regularly, they’re harmless. What’s more, the oil within the plants is found to be the same oil that Umberto had produced a few years prior, and quickly becomes a valuable commodity; it doesn’t take long for plantations of the things to quickly pop up across Europe and the Americas as they go from a simple curiosity to the next big moneymaking business – even when it’s found that Triffid oil is best when the plants’ stings are left intact, entrepreneurs just outfit their workers in protective gear to prevent anyone getting stung. Bill was one of those workers, but even his protective suit wasn’t enough to keep him totally safe as a wayward Triffid sting gets its venom into his eyes, hospitalizing him. All of this buildup comes to a head with the explanation that at the end of the day, it was a simple workplace accident that landed Bill here, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time – the night before he’s allowed to take off the bandages covering his recovering eyes, a bizarre meteor shower like nothing ever seen before lights up the night skies in vivid iridescent green. People all over the world stay up late to watch the captivating once-in-a-lifetime event, leaving poor Bill to grumble as everyone else in the ward oohs and ahhs over the mystifying lights.

Until, that is, when he wakes up the next morning to find the entire city unnervingly quiet. As he gets up and calls for a doctor, there’s no response – a tentative exploration of the halls finds a few folks lying dead at the bottom of flights of stairs, and a ward full of cranky patients shouting for someone to open up the blinds as the morning sun shines in their sightless eyes. As Bill ventures outside, he’s almost bowled over by a crowd of passersby feebly stumbling and groping about, all but trampling each other as they shout and cry for help that will not come. The meteor shower the previous night wasn’t just some gorgeous lightshow – somehow, the vivid emerald light of the comets blinded everybody who had watched them like some kind of meteorological gorgon… and since virtually everybody on Earth had been able to see the meteor shower and had taken the time to look, almost the entirety of the human species is now totally without sight.

At first, the Triffids aren’t given much focus for the first third or so of the novel – the explanation given about them is largely used for worldbuilding and how to explain how our protagonist was hospitalized in the first place. We get a few glimpses of Triffids every once in a while, but they seem to be just… wandering about, not really doing anything; the main focus for now is on Bill’s struggle to survive in this chaos, where nearly everyone’s suddenly deprived of their primary sense and desperately searching for any way to get on top. Nonetheless, he packs up some Triffid-hunting gear just in case as he goes along, even as other survivors question him about why he lugs all that stuff around. Even this, however, is largely limited to a few sentences of conversation, with the majority of the dialogue focusing on, well, survival and explanations. After all, they’re only plants.

Reading through Day of the Triffids, it’s not hard to see the building blocks of what would become common tropes across post-apocalyptic media, from noting how quickly nature starts to overtake civilization as plant life covers London over the course of months to forming a parental bond with a lost child discovered surviving on their own and the theme of humanity itself being just as big of an obstacle to rebuilding as the force behind the apocalypse. There’s also a lot of emphasis placed on how eerie it is to see the once-bustling metropolis suddenly so quiet, only punctuated by the occasional wail or shout, a detail that Wyndham directly borrowed from his own memories of London during the aftermath of Blitzkrieg strikes – this detail too would go on to be a major part of post-apocalyptic setpieces, albeit not one that’s commonly addressed.

The dialogue between characters reveals the formation of yet more archetypes of the genre – one of the major topics in said dialogue is discussion about how things are going to need to be different if humanity’s going to survive through all this, from what should be used as the basis of this new society’s laws to pondering about whether the children of the future should be raised on comforting lies about the nature of their forefathers’ world or simply told the harsh truth and encouraged to build a better future than the past that they came from. There’s even a rather in-depth discussion on forming a three-way relationship as Bill and his love interest (herself a wealthy novelist who published a rather risque novel) ponder whether they and whoever they bring into their group would truly be happy in such an arrangement, a surprisingly modern theme for a book that came out seventy years ago as of this writing. 

Unfortunately, for all the good stuff that it pioneered, the novel can also can be seen as the source of the rather unpleasant recurring theme in post-apocalypses where clearly villainous groups of social Darwinists gleefully committing atrocities in the name of “the greater good” are lionized for how they Get The Job Done rather than, y’know, calling them out for using the apocalypse as an excuse to be assholes. That said, as the archetype of that particular aspect, it doesn’t really play too much into it, and indeed plays it up more for horror than anything else, particularly a group of militants who unceremoniously claim the farm that our heroes have settled on and inform them that they’re now under official “protection”.

But you’re not here for discussions of the intricacies of the human cast, and neither is the book, because it’s Triffid time, baby!

All throughout the first third of the novel, Bill’s been rather on edge – every once in a while, the narrative makes mention of a body here and there that doesn’t seem to have died via accident, with an entire family found mysteriously dead in their own apartment. And more often then not, there’s a Triffid ambling about in the vicinity of these mysterious bodies, often dragging along the post or rope that it was chained to. At first, it just seems like people got too close to the things and paid the price for it – after all, they’re only plants – but these mysterious bodies keep on appearing… and as the protagonists go forth, the Triffids begin cropping up more and more frequently, and Bill’s suspicions continue to grow.

See, during the opening bit explaining the Triffids and how they work, it’s noted early on that the plants very quickly became a dangerous menace across the tropical parts of the world. Here, the Triffids do not go out and actively hunt for people, but instead hide themselves among other forms of vegetation and wait motionlessly for passing victims – it’s next to impossible to spot them before they can lash out with their stinger, and they’re incredibly sensitive to movement around them.

This uncanny sensory ability is further elaborated on as Bill remembers a conversation he had with an old coworker of his, a botanist by the name of Walter who believes that the Triffids are more than just your average six-foot-tall walking carnivorous plant. While they’re totally blind (Since, y’know, they’re plants), the botanist notes that Triffids have the uncanny ability to sense the presence of other beings and almost immediately try to make their way towards them to get into stinging range. It’s not quick by any means – anyone can see a Triffid coming and simply get out of the way without much issue, as their top speed is about the average walking pace of a human being  – but they do it without any form of recognizable sensory organs, and they can navigate their way around obstacles without much trouble. What’s more, he also takes notice of the three bare sticks growing from the plant’s base that occasionally rattle against the central stalk, and how they seem to rattle more in certain types of weather and when around other Triffids… almost as if they’re ‘talking’ to one another. And talking to one another implies that they’re intelligent, something that’s further backed up by how Triffids attack – when they lash out with their stingers, they almost always go specifically for the head, particularly the face and eyes, the primary places to strike if you intend to completely disable your opponent… and they seem to know that instinctively, with the hands being their other preferred place to target. What’s more, they’re incredibly resilient to various environments save for the most desolate deserts and the frigid poles – if they had the impetus, they could very well compete with humanity itself. “Granted that they do have intelligence, then that would leave us with only one important superiority – sight. We can see and they can’t.” Walter remarks. “Take away our vision, and our superiority is gone. Worse than that – our position becomes inferior to theirs, because they are adapted to a sightless existence and we are not.”

And wouldn’t you know it? All of a sudden, the vast majority of humankind finds themselves stripped of vision, and the tables have officially turned. More and more Triffids begin to show up as the book progresses, getting bolder and bolder and displaying far more cunning than one would ever expect of mere plants; in a particularly chilling scene, two Triffids are seen slowly but steadily ambling along either side of a group of terrified fleeing people, herding them like a dog would sheep into a shop with a back entrance into an alley… an alley with fences just low enough that the Triffids can easily peek over them and lash their stings down at their fleeing prey. It all comes to a head when Bill and Josella finally find what seems like a safe haven, a farm on a hilltop that they fortify with the aid of the helpful family that lives there and the aforementioned kid that they adopted, living there quite peacefully… until the Triffids arrive. They surround the property in the thousands even as they’re cut down, rattling their stems and drawing in more and more of their kind, only kept at bay by the electric fence that Bill and Josella set up around the premises. Shock after shock drives them back, but they never strike the same section of fence twice – they’re testing the fence, section by section, and they’re learning, quietly waiting and waiting for the heroes’ only line of defense to fail… and like Romero’s Living Dead before them, their patience pays off when the aforementioned militants storm the compound, only for the protagonists to pack their things into a car and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, leaving the thugs to the mercy of the malevolent grove as they surge in the moment the generator’s roar cuts short. They make little effort to pursue the car as it speeds off – why should they bother? They have plenty of prey in front of them for the taking… and as Bill remarks as he and the others disappear over the horizon and the novel draws to a close, they’ve honestly already won. The world is no longer under Man’s dominion – the Triffids rule the Earth now, and they’re going to keep ruling for a long time. The hope of the entire species lies upon the children of the future and their children after them that they may find some way to defeat the Triffids in the coming decades

It’s rather difficult to discern too much about the Triffids’ personality whenever they show up – their ‘action’ scenes are quick and clean-cut, either ending with the lash of a venomous sting or a stem being severed, and not much description is given to how the plants really seem to interact with the world around them – after all, they’re only plants. And that right there is the core of what makes the Triffids work; unlike virtually any plant monster before or since, it is their very nature as plants that makes them so horrifying. It’s not necessarily that they lack much of a mind or a personality so much as their minds work in a way that’s incredibly different from human consciousness, or even animal life in general. They don’t have nearly the same level of intelligence as a human or the ability to manipulate their environment, but they don’t necessarily need either of these things. As Walter points out, they don’t need any of the trappings of civilization to get by as human beings do – after all, they’re plants, and extremely hardy ones at that. All they need to sustain themselves is water, sunlight, and some fresh soil to take root in; they have no need for shelter or heating or money or the ten thousand other things required by a civilized man. To make use of a Triffid, one would need specialized tools and protective equipment to gather its juices, machinery to refine it down into an oil, and the necessary industrialization and infrastructure to supply everything needed to produce all that equipment and all those mechanisms, not to mention something to use it on; on the other hand, though, a Triffid just needs to sting a person once and root in or around the corpse, feeding as the body decays. 

There is no malice in their actions, no malevolence in their hunting – after all, they’re plants. They are simply doing what they need to do to survive, the same as they were doing even as humanity ranched and farmed them by the tens of thousands, ultimately signing their own death warrant in their relentless pursuit of profit.

The greatest weakness of the Triffids – that they, like all plants, largely operate on a far slower timescale than that of animal life, became yet another strength as they patiently waited for their time to strike. For a plant, a few years or decades is hardly very long to wait – all that these stinging terrors needed to do was bide their time as humanity propagated them far and wide, growing new Triffids by the thousands and paying less and less attention to them. After all, they’re only plants, another crop in the ever-expanding garden that modern science was steadily turning the entire planet into… and the moment that humanity lost its advantage, the moment that we became unable to keep that garden exactly the way we wanted it to be, the armies of Triffids that we had grown and spread across the world strode forth to take what was theirs.

At first, the idea of the Triffids seems more than a little bit preposterous in our modern day and age – after all, they’re only plants, and ones that could only come to dominate the earth in a very specific context. And yet when we look out at the world around us and our impact upon it, one can’t help but remember Wyndham’s work.

We live in a world where our very concept of ‘nature’ is fundamentally sterilized and artificial. The landscapes that we inhabit have been irrevocably changed by our presence in them, not just from development and pollution but our careless introduction of untold millions of organisms into environments far from their original home.

We waste millions of dollars every year to supply our lawns with tens of thousands of gallons of water and toxic pesticides, for no other reason beyond maintaining the symbol of social status that is a green lawn, a chunk of land that you can afford to simply waste. We raze thousands upon thousands of miles of immensely productive landscapes and replace them with endless seas of corn and overgrazed cattle pastures, then have the gall to act surprised when the soil dried up and simply blows away without any proper vegetation to keep it held together, when the pesticides we smother corn with poison entire towns unfortunate enough to be nearby, and when the cows we cram that corn into proceed to flood the atmosphere with methane and feed colossal algal blooms with the runoff that turn massive stretches of ocean into dead zones. We bulldoze ecosystems that depend on and manage wildfires to make way for condos and suburbs, then treat it as some horrible act of God when the landscapes burst into uncontrollable blazes with those regulators gone. Kudzu was brought into this country to serve as cheap cow feed, only to smother entire forests beneath its vines; rabbits and cane toads were brought to Australia for cheap meat and pest control, only to swell into Biblical plagues; and countless other plants and animals that we’ve spread across the globe. 

With the damage we’ve done to this planet in the name of cheap profits and the pursuit of our own vanity; if a simple virus could single-handedly bring all of our advanced society to a screeching halt for months on end (and still continue to claim lives around the world), is it really so outlandish to think that we may create something that we cannot handle, that’s simply waiting overlooked in the shadows and taking root in preparation for its time to bloom?

This entry was posted in Creepy Columns, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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