John Wyndham, one of the leading figures of British science fiction and the author of The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoo, and other books, was born on July 10, 1903.
He was given the name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and went by the name John Beynon Harris throughout his life.
When he was eight years old his parents’ stormy marriage ended and Wyndham rarely saw his lawyer father again. Wyndham spent the happiest time of his life at a progressive boarding school, Bedales, that taught boys skills in self-sufficiency and respect for nature.
Wyndham studied law at Oxford University, like his father, but the law didn’t appeal to him. What he really wanted to do was write.
In the late 1920s he moved to London and worked at various jobs while writing science fiction short stories for American pulp magazines.
He was very prolific, writing mostly as John B. Harris but also using a variety of pseudonyms, including John Beynon. He also published two pulp science fiction novels and two “whodunnits.”
His career was interrupted by the Second World War, where he served in the Royal Signal Corps and saw action during the Normandy invasion.
When Wyndham returned to writing after the war he became more serious about his work. H.G. Wells was his idol and, like him, he wanted to write books that were both thoughtful and entertaining to a mass audience.
Wyndham was also spurred on by the fact that his younger brother, Vivian Beynon Harris, a professional actor, had just published three comic novels.
The Day of the Triffids was published in 1951. It sold well in hardcover and became a major bestseller as a Penguin paperback. For the first time, Wyndham used another variation on his name as a pseudonym – John Wyndham – and the reading public believed that The Day of the Triffids was the first book by an unknown author.
In The Day of the Triffids a meteor causes most of the world’s population to go blind and then be attacked by a mutant strain of carnivorous walking vegetation, known as Triffids. Ever since his days at Bedales School, Wyndham had had a strong interest in science and ecology.
The Day of the Triffids introduces the motifs that Wyndham used in all of his following books. His stories were no longer set in outer space or far off worlds, but involved ordinary people faced with extreme but scientifically plausible threats, based on contemporary fears.
The meteor and the destruction of London brought out memories of the Blitz, and the mutant vegetation played into people’s fear of radiated hybrid plants being experimented on in the Soviet Union. The Triffids in the novel are specifically escaped mutant plants from Russia.
Throughout the 1950s Wyndham produced a string of very popular and highly influential novels, selling millions of copies worldwide. In the 1960s, his health began to decline. He suffered a serious heart attack in 1965 and a fatal one in 1969.
Throughout his life Wyndham was a very private man. When he got married at the age of 60, even his closest friends were surprised and didn’t know that he had been in a relationship for years.
Toward the end of his life Wyndham said “My life has been practically devoid of interest to anyone but myself – though I have quite enjoyed it, of course, in those moments when I did not seem to have been sent to occupy a largely lunatic world.”