#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999
"Vivisection": Schoolboy "John
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
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are four and a half unpublished novels.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Harris wrote two unpublished thrillers about post-war Nazi plots to survive and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
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
PART I.: being the diary of EDWIN LUNST, Esq., B.A., OXON,
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.
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
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.
J. W. B. HARRIS.
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
4. For the composition dates of "Project for
Pistols" (Harris’s version of William Goldman’s Marathon Man
) 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
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
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
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
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
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):
------. "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.,
------. "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
Wells, H.G. The Island of Doctor Moreau. London:
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