Science Fiction Studies

#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999

David Ketterer

"Vivisection": Schoolboy "John Wyndham’s" FirstPublication?

Thirty years have passed since the death of John [Wyndham Parkes Lucas] Beynon Harris in March 1969. (I have bracketed the names he did not use in his private life.) During that time, in spite of the fact that his best works—those published under the name "John Wyndham"—have remained continuously in print and that he is generally acknowledged as one of the major figures of British and world sf, he has received very little critical treatment.1 And since Sam Moskowitz’s pioneering effort, he has received no biographical attention. It seems likely, however, that this neglect is about to end. In May 1998, the John Wyndham Archive, previously unavailable to researchers, joined the Science Fiction Foundation, Olaf Stapledon, and Eric Frank Russell collections at the University of Liverpool’s Sydney Jones Library. It was not until 1992, the year following the death of Harris’s widow, Grace, that this material was professionally sorted by Bertram Rota, Ltd., the London antiquarian booksellers. The papers were sorted because "the private collector" who had purchased them at an auction wished to resell them and appointed Bertram Rota to act as the agent.2 In 1997, the University of Liverpool—first university in the world to offer an M.A. in science fiction—undertook to match the asking price on the assumption (correct, as it turned out) that the Heritage Lottery Fund would supply most of that amount.

Of particular interest in the Wyndham Archive are four and a half unpublished novels. Two of these—"Murder Means Murder (retitled "Burn that Body") and "Death Upon Death"—are detective novels written in the 1930s.3 They feature the same Detective-Inspector Jordon who is protagonist of the detective novel Foul Play Suspected (London: Newnes, 1935), Harris’s second published novel (earlier the same year, at the same publisher, his sf novel The Secret People was published). After the war and before The Day of the Triffids (1951), Harris wrote two unpublished thrillers about post-war Nazi plots to survive and eventually triumph: "Project for Pistols" in 1946 (revised in 1948) and "Plan for Chaos" (also titled "Fury of Creation") in 1947 and 1948.4 Because cloning is important to the plot, "Plan for Chaos" may be classified as a science fiction thriller. As for the novel fragment, "Midwich Main" is an uncompleted sequel, commissioned by MGM, to what is perhaps Harris’s best novel, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957; filmed by MGM as Village of the Damned, 1960).5

From a biographical point of view, of most interest are over 350 letters (dated from 3 September 1939 to 26 June 1945) that Harris wrote to Grace during the Second World War. After working as a Temporary Civil Servant in Censorship (August 1940 to November 1943), Harris served (although at forty he was over age for a commission) as an N.C.O. with the rank of lance-corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals working as a cipher operator (see Moskowitz 126 and the Wyndham Archive). He participated in the D-Day Normandy Landings (6 June 1944). He was discharged from the Army in August 1946. Harris’s experience of the Second World War and his memory of the First informed his four famous "Wyndham" invasion catastrophe novels (in the last case the catastrophe is putative): The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Awakes, The Chrysalids, and The Midwich Cuckoos.

But voluminous as the Wyndham Archive is, it does not provide a complete record of Harris’s life and career. Unfortunately, he did not keep a diary (as opposed to a small appointments diary) and, on his own instructions, most of his personal papers were destroyed. One of the important omissions in the Archive is what appears to be Harris’s first publication, the beginning (reprinted for the first time below) of a weird sf tale entitled "Vivisection." This title is also unrecorded in the fullest bibliography currently available, that compiled by Phil-Stephensen-Payne. Mrs. Anne Archer, Librarian at Bedales School, drew my attention to it while I was investigating (on 23 May 1998) what evidence remains of three very happy years that Harris spent at that pioneering co-educational boarding school (1919-21). "Vivisection" appeared in the second issue (November 1919) of The Bee: An Independent Journal of Art, Literature, Politics, Science and Music, edited by pupils Rolf Gardiner and Stephen Bone.6 Harris would have been sixteen years old at the time.7 "Vivisection" is important not only because it appears to be his first published work, but because it presages the Wellsian form of sf associated with the name "John Wyndham," the titles that would make his fortune. Twelve years would go by before the appearance of the first example of Harris’s fiction noted in Stephensen-Payne’s bibliography: "Worlds to Barter" by John Beynon Harris in Wonder Stories (May 1931).8 And that story was in the mode of the American sf pulp magazines, which Harris would come to oppose to the preferable "logical fantasies" or "reasoned fantasies" or "implicatory fiction" of H.G. Wells.9

"Vivisection" is clearly inspired by Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Not only the title but the descriptions of two goat-monkey-men, "two little creatures, about four feet high, with black faces and curly hair," of the man-horse "about eight foot high" and of "The Master" all obviously derive from Moreau’s grotesque menagerie. Presumably a conflict is to ensue between Professor Langley, the vivisector (who has invited the narrator-diarist to stay with him), and his hybrid creations, led by "The Master."

When Harris first read The Island of Doctor Moreau is unknown—perhaps shortly before he wrote "Vivisection," which is essentially a pastiche of Moreau. In the interview "Talking to John Wyndham" (1968), however, "Pooter" records that "The Time Machine will ever remind him of Derbyshire and the prep school where he came on Wells" (Pooter 23). Harris attended Shardlow Hall, a preparatory school in Derbyshire, in 1915 and perhaps he first read Moreau around the same time that he first read The Time Machine.10

 There is a logical, next-step relationship between Moreau and "Vivisection," on the one hand, and Harris’s best known novel The Day of the Triffids, on the other. Moreau and "Vivisection" combine the human and the animal; the triffid conception might be said, in at least one respect, to combine the human and/or animal with the vegetable. Triffids are plants with "legs"; unlike any known form of vegetable life, they are ambulatory. It is because of their three "leg" roots that they are called "triffids." And as originally and finally imagined, these triffids are not Venusian plants but the product of Russian genetic engineering (see Miller 108 and Stephensen-Payne 35).

Harris’s early career as an sf writer—a quasi-American sf writer—was inspired in 1930 by his coming upon the American pulp magazine Wonder Stories in the lounge of the Penn Club, a London Quaker residence, then in Tavistock Square, where (with a war-time interval) Harris lived from 1925 to 1963.11 Both during the twenty years Harris wrote mainly for the American magazines, and then the ensuing "Wyndham" years, he elaborated his distinction between American popular sf and the "logical fantasies" of H.G. Wells. He came to prefer Wells’s mode both on aesthetic and commercial grounds, realizing that, if he could take up and develop the form that Wells had abandoned, there was the possibility of a much wider audience than his American pulp readership. In 1951 The Day of the Triffids proved him correct. But "Vivisection" is evidence that, in emulating Wells, he was also returning to the mode of what seems to have been his modest first publishing success.

"Vivisection" combines Wellsian sf with Wellsian and non-Wellsian horror. The way in which the diarist’s apprehensions are aroused during his train journey to Dartmoor by his conversation with an apparent "inhabitant of these parts" suggests the influence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Nevertheless, the "J. W. B. Harris" who is credited as the story’s author is a clear avatar of the late "John Wyndham." The Wyndham style—urbane, civilized, wryly humorous—is immediately recognizable. The feigning of documentary realism, of course, characterizes the sf of Wyndham as much as that of Wells. Harris seems not that different a personality from the narrators and leading characters of his major novels, and the diarist of "Vivisection" seems pretty much a grown-up version of the sixteen-year-old Harris; although (unlike his narrator) he did not take a degree at Oxford, he did study law with an Oxford tutor (Moskowitz 119).

How might Harris’s career have developed had he directly continued with the Wellsian mode of "Vivisection"? It’s impossible to say. But as things turned out, Harris was able to combine the motifs and plotting techniques he learned from his American apprenticeship with the Wellsian model and so claim the originality of providing essential bridges not only between American and British sf but also between the British "scientific romance" and the many varieties of "science fiction" that followed. Harris became more than just a superior Wells clone; he became his own man, "John Wyndham," with a voice and a vision of his own.12 In all probability, then, we can be glad that whatever ambitions might have been associated with his early Wellsian mimicry were cut short—like "Vivisection" itself. We have only Part 1 of the story, with no further installments appearing in the six succeeding issues of The Bee. Whether Harris wrote a succeeding part, or succeeding parts, I do not know.


PART I.: being the diary of EDWIN LUNST, Esq., B.A., OXON,

October 3rd.

I spoke to-day with Professor Langley upon the possibilities of Vivisection; but from remarks he made, I do not think he knows much of it. His ideas are too wild to be practical. However, he has asked me to stay with him at his house, in a wild part of Dartmoor, and offer him advice on his work.

October 5th, 10 p.m.

I arrived here after an interesting journey in the train from London. I entered into conversation with a man, whom it appears is an inhabitant of these parts. I mentioned that I was coming here, and he regarded me with a most peculiar look, as if I had committed a sin in doing so. My host received me very graciously; I have a comfortable room and have retired to bed early, being tired after my journey.

October 6th, 7 a.m.

I couldn’t sleep well last night because of the yells and cries of animals; not plain, ordinary animals such as one hears at the Zoo, but mixed; there was one which sounded like a combination of a lion’s roar and the bellowing of a bull and other curious noises. Suddenly arose a most frightful scream of pain, the sound of a tortured soul. The wind rustled in the tree-tops and alone broke the silence. I rushed upon the landing; all was dark; but it was not so silent now; in the distance I could hear the trot of a pony, in the house. Nearer and nearer it came, until it began to ascend the stairs, but now I found the switch of the light and pressed it; I saw before me not a pony, but two beings with the hindquarters of a goat, and the top part bearing a strong resemblance to a man. They stood upright and glared at me, with their chins kept well in and their small pointed beards against their chests. One stretched forth a misshapen hand, like a monkey’s, towards me; instinctively I turned off the light and tearing into my room, locked the door.

I lay shivering from fright, in my bed, listening for any sound of movement from the monsters outside, but I heard none, and composed myself, as best I could, for sleep. Once I heard a faint cry, but nothing else, and the rest of the night passed quietly.

10 p.m.

Who was ever in such a state? I feel as if I was living in a Chamber of horrors.

Of all strange places I was ever in, this is undoubtedly the strangest. As I came down this morning, I was confronted by a man-servant, who conducted me to the breakfast-room, where an excellent meal was laid out for me.

Half way through, I suddenly remembered that I had left lying upon my dressing table, my watch and a case containing notes to the value of forty pounds. Not being willing to risk their safety in such a strange house, I rushed to my bedroom, burst in and stood amazed at what I saw; for making the bed, were not ordinary English housemaids, but two little creatures about four feet high, with black faces and curly hair; they each wore a light blue garment, which hung right from their shoulders to the ground at their feet. They moved with short, stumpy motions and conversed in peculiarly throaty accents and, though I could not quite distinguish what they said, it sounded vaguely like English.

Returning downstairs, I finished my breakfast, and took up my paper. When I had been reading for some little time the man-servant came in to clear the table and brought a note from Professor Langley, whom it appeared was very busy, and asked me to entertain myself as I liked.

There is a beautiful garden, laid out in an old-fashioned style with a walled garden, about two hundred yards square.

As I walked over the velvety lawn, I thought I saw somebody or something move in the bordering trees, and advanced to investigate.

Out of the trees came a most ridiculous figure. It was about eight feet high and had very short legs in comparison with its body, on its head was an old straw hat, and its raiment consisted solely of an overall. "Hallo!" remarked this apparition in a peculiar voice, "what do you want?" To say I was scared, is to put it mildly. So dumbfounded was I that I could not say a word. The creature advanced, "Can you not speak?" it demanded, slowly; whereat I said, "Who are you, and where do you live?" For thought I, surely this is some lunatic, some freak of nature; but it merely said, "The Master," and turning, it ambled off through the trees.

I stared after it and then at the ground before me. I wondered what size its feet were, to be in proportion with the rest of its body, it must take at least . . . . . .

The prints upon the ground were those of horses hooves; no others were visible.




1. In his Afterword to Stars of Albion, an anthology of British sf, Christopher Priest lists "four undeniably influential writers—Wells, Wyndham, Aldiss, and Ballard" (237). I would hazard that, in England at least, "John Wyndham" (because of those "triffids") still remains the best-known British writer of sf after H.G. Wells. Arthur C. Clarke would be his only competitor.

2. See letters to Ketterer from Anthony Rota dated 17 October 1995, 12 April 1996, and 19 March 1997. It is possible, however, that the "anonymous private collector" was a negotiating fiction and that Bertram Rota, Ltd. purchased Harris’s papers at auction.

3. According to a slip pasted at the foot of the first page of the surviving bound carbon typescript of the novel titled (on a paper rectangle pasted on the same page) "MURDER MEANS MURDER by JOHN WYNDHAM" (or alternatively titled MURDER BREEDS MURDER in a submission letter of 11 June 1937), that work was composed during the period "8th Oct.—1st Dec. 1935." The bound ribbon typescript has a different title page: BURN THAT BODY by John Beynon. In the Archive, there is a submission letter to Cassell & Co. dated 29 April 1938 which uses that title. The bound ribbon typescript of DEATH UPON DEATH has a carefully tipped-in replacement title page with the attribution "by JOHN WYNDHAM." According to slips pasted on the first page of the surviving bound carbon typescript, "DEATH UPON DEATH by JOHN WYNDHAM" was composed during the period "14th. Sept.—21st. Nov. 1936." The familiar "John Wyndham" byline apparently originated in September 1950 with the Amazing Stories publication of "The Eternal Eve." Presumably, then, the pasted slips and the tipped-in page were added after that date, when Harris considered resubmitting these novels for publication.

4. For the composition dates of "Project for Pistols" (Harris’s version of William Goldman’s Marathon Man [1974]) and "Plan for Chaos," see Ketterer, "Plan for Chaos/Fury of Creation": An Unpublished Science Fiction Thriller by John Beynon/John Lucas (aka John Wyndham)," forthcoming in Foundation. This uneven, extraordinary novel of 421 typescript pages that no doubt will one day be published might be described as a cross between Wyndham’s "Consider Her Ways" (1956) and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (1976), imagined as "The Girls from Brazil."

5. It is a pity that Harris was not able to get beyond the 122 pages of "Midwich Main," set almost sixteen years after The Midwich Cuckoos; it breaks off just as the reader realizes that the protagonist, Richard Gayford, is under the control of a friend of one of the randomly distributed, apparently alien Children he has been asked to investigate. For an account of The Midwich Cuckoos as the best and most autobiographical of Harris’s novels, see Ketterer, "‘A Part of the...Family’[?]."

6. I am grateful to Mrs. Archer for permission to reprint "Vivisection" here (letter to Ketterer dated 1 June 1998).

7. Harris apparently wrote an unpublished sf story three years earlier, according to a one-page autobiographical essay he wrote in 1938. John Beynon, he records, "Wrote his first ‘scientific romance’ at the age of 13. It incorporated every known instrument of war and some unknown (including a flying armored car and a device for shooting large fish hooks and lines at Zeppelins). Continued school career by writing stories when set to write essays, and frequently got away with it." Was "Vivisection" such a story? Harris’s autobiographical statement was enclosed in a 22 June 1938 letter to T. Stanhope Sprigg of the publishers George Newnes, Ltd. See the John Wyndham Archive.

8. It seems that earlier examples of Harris’s fiction—very short stories yet to be located—appeared in London newspapers in 1925 and perhaps later (see Moskowitz 120). Describing what he did after leaving Bedales School at age 18, Harris recalled that "At intervals all along I had been doing an occasional story which nobody took.... Now [around 1925] I tried more seriously, and got one or two short ones taken—shor[t]-shorts in daily or evening papers." Harris refers to such publications in his answer to no. 8 of the thirty questions that Sam Moskowitz, preparing to write his biographical article, sent Harris in a letter dated 12 January 1963. Harris answered in his letter dated 22 January 1964 (a mistake for 1963?). I am grateful to the late Sam Moskowitz for generously sending me (on 29 May 1996) photocopies of this correspondence.

I fear that the "one or two" short-short stories published circa 1925 will never be unearthed but, as an incentive, I offer $20.00 U.S. for any such story that anyone is able to provide me with a photocopy of.

Stephensen-Payne overlooked, and Harris apparently deliberately suppressed, his mystery novel published in 1927: The Curse of the Burdens by John B. Harris. The last of its 62 (approximately 660 words per page) unpaginated pages announces "A New Aldine Mystery Novel is published the Last Day of Every Month, price 4d." The British Library copy of this pulp paperback (with a front cover illustration), the only copy I have seen, is date-stamped 26 February 1927.

The story is told in eighteen titled chapters beginning with "Shadow of the Curse." That curse was called down on the new owner by the old prior of Shotlander Priory when it passed in the hands of Sir James Burden following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Two recent Burden deaths in the twentieth century and the disappearance of the protagonist, Dick Burden (and the apparent appearance of ghosts), would seem to be consequences of this curse but are shown to have a naturalistic if very contrived explanation. One Albert Honeyman, a religious fanatic and the son of a very ugly-looking Burden cousin, Mr. Robertson, is responsible. Robertson’s ugliness is one of the general misdirections; it may however have symbolic point in that, like his association with the foreign element (he lives in France), it could be understood as representing Burden evil, especially greed. The mystery narrative is mixed up with a love story involving Dick Burden, his rival suitor and older brother James (who is swiftly murdered), and Letty Kingsbury.

There can be no doubt that John B. Harris is John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. The style and convoluted way with plotting (particularly at this early stage) are his, especially the opening quarrel between the brothers regarding the younger brother’s request for additional money for their deceased father’s allowance—which recalls the opening quarrel between the brothers Orlando (the younger one) and Oliver over Orlando’s request for his share of the money allotted in their deceased father’s will in As You Like It, a Shakespeare play in which the young Harris performed the role of Duke Frederick while he was at Bedales. Other identifiable touches: Harris and his brother Vivian also lived on an allowance from their father’s estate; the resort town setting Easthill-on-Sea on the south coast of England (a likely combination of Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea, places with which Harris was familiar); the emphasis on people putting up in inns and hotels (the judge Sir Julius Kingsbury and his daughter Letty live in a hotel [the Warlock Hotel] as Harris, his brother, and his mother Gertrude were wont to do following the separation of Gertrude and her husband George Lucas Beynon Harris in 1911); and a strong female character is given a take-charge role (the plucky police superintendent’s daughter Rose Ivory). The link between madness and religion point to the anti-religious theme in Harris’s later work, and the hints at the relevance after all of a supernatural explanation (if only for its atmospheric impact and because the natural explanation, probably required by the series editor, is a bit of a let down). In answering Moskowitz’s question 10 ("When did you first begin writing, even unsuccessfully, and what type of stories did you write?), Harris recalled that "when I first tried to get stories published (and didn’t), they were mostly uncanny or ghosty. (When I did get any encouragement, the loony editors of the period always said: ‘But of course it needs a rational explanation at the end.’ I still don’t understand how their minds worked, but anyhow the stories were very poor.)"

As for the evidence that Harris deliberately omitted The Curse of the Burdens from his publications record (presumably because he regarded it as inferior hackwork), I would point to the facts that (1) no copy of the book or reference to it can be found in the Wyndham Archive, and (2), when directly asked by Moskowitz about his early career efforts and publications (questions 8 and 10), Harris mentions publishing only the 1925 short-shorts.

9. For Harris’s denigration of American sf, see the five articles under Harris in Works Cited.

10. Alvarez-Castellanos, 3. Alvarez-Castellanos was working on his Master’s thesis while Harris was still alive and had the opportunity to ask him for biographical information, including the names of the schools he attended. In the sentence immediately preceding the two paragraphs quoted from Harris’s autobiographical statement in note 7 above, he affirms that he "Still has a great affection for ‘The Time Machine,’ and still thinks of the white marble sphinx from that story as standing on his prep school lawn."

11. In 1938 the Penn Club moved to its present location, 21 Bedford Place, near the British Museum (Maxwell 19-20).

12. I demonstrate in the concluding "Wyndham and the Winds of Change" section of my essay "‘A Part of the...Family [?]’..." that "wind" references in much of "Wyndham’s" work constitute a signature cryptogram. A single such reference in "Vivisection" might be regarded as prefiguring this development: "The wind rustled in the tree-tops and alone broke the silence."


Alvarez-Castellanos, Angel-Luis Pujante. "El Mundo de John Wyndham." Unpublished M.A. thesis. University of Barcelona, 1972.

Harris, John Beynon. "Guest Editorial: The Pattern of Science Fiction." By John Wyndham. Science-Fantasy 3 (Spring 1954): 2-4.

------. "Has Science Fiction a Future?" By John Wyndham. Radio Times 182 (Jan. 30, 1969): 27-28.

------. "Science Fiction: The Facts." By John Wyndham. TV Times 347 ( June 22, 1962): 11.

------. "Vivisection." By J. W. B. Harris. The Bee: An Independent Journal of Art, Literature, Politics, Science and Music 1 (Nov. 1919): 29-30. The eight issues (July 1919-Dec. 1920), "Produced by Members of Bedales School" and edited by Rolf Gardiner and Stephen Bone, were collected as a single volume printed by The Morland Press, 190 Ebury St., London SW1.

------. "Why Blame Wells?" By John Beynon. Fantasy Review 3 (Oct.-Nov. 1948): 14-15.

------. "Why This Cosmic Wild West Stuff?" The British Scientifiction Fantasy Review 1 (April 1937): 11-12.

Ketterer, David. "‘A Part of the...Family’[?]: John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos as Estranged Autobiography." Forthcoming in Learning from Other Worlds: Cognition, Estrangement, and Politics in Science Fiction and Utopia; Essays in Honour of Darko Suvin, ed. Patrick Parrinder. Liverpool: U of Liverpool P.

------. "‘Plan for Chaos/Fury of Creation’: An Unpublished Science Fiction Thriller by John Beynon/John Lucas (aka John Wyndham)." Foundation 74 (Autumn 1998): 8-25.

Maxwell, David C. The Penn Club Story: A Celebration of the First 75 years of an Independent Quaker-based Club in Central London. London: Penn, 1996.

Miller, P. Schuyler (guest reviewer). "The Reference Library: Surveying British Science Fiction." Astounding Science Fiction (Feb. 1954): 104-13.

Moskowitz, Sam. "John Wyndham." Amazing Stories (June 1964). Reprinted in Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction. 1965; Westport, Conn.: Hyperion, 1974. 118-32.

"Pooter." "Talking to John Wyndham." The Times Saturday Review (March 16, 1968), 23.

Priest, Christopher. Afterword. Stars of Albion, ed. Robert Holdstock and Christopher Priest. London: Pan, 1979. 235-238.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. John Wyndham, Creator of the Cosy Catastrophe: A Working Bibliography. 2nd revised ed. Leeds: Galactic Central, 1989.

Wells, H.G. The Island of Doctor Moreau. London: Heinemann, 1896.


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