Friday, 18 January 2013

Laura Rereading: We need to talk about kraken

Or, more precisely, we need to talk about why John Wyndham's tale of deep-sea-dwelling alien intelligences invading the Earth is by far his best novel; outstripping, in my opinion, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, and even The Midwich Cuckoos.

1. It's scary. The most frightening thing about The Kraken Wakes is the fact that we never encounter an actual kraken. One of the most terrifying scenes in the novel is the most low-key: when a group of scientists lower two men in a deep-sea submersible vehicle, or 'bathyscope', to investigate reports of strange objects falling from the sky into the Earth's Deeps (where the bottom of the ocean is more than four or five miles down, or three thousand to four thousand fathoms). Unsurprisingly, this doesn't end well; at a depth of twelve hundred fathoms, the screens go blank, the men's voices are cut off, and 'The sound of the winch outside altered as it speeded up... It takes quite a time to reel in more than a mile of heavy cable... At last, the end came up. We all, I suppose, expected to see the end of the wire-rope unravelled, with the strands splayed-out, brush-like. They were not. They were melted together. Both the main and the communication cables ended in a blob of fused metal.' The Captain comments: 'Imagination staggers a bit at the thought of a creature capable of snapping through steel hawsers... When, however, it comes up against the suggestion that there is a creature capable of cutting through them like an oxy-acetylene flame, it recoils.'

2. Did I mention it's scary? Alongside utilising the power of his readers' imagination as they visualise the unseen menace in the deep, Wyndham uses the innately creepy setting of the depths of the ocean - more inaccessible to man than the moon - to amplify the horror. The faux-scientific tone of much of the novel is incredibly effective at sending a shiver up the spine. Because of the inaccessibility of the krakens' location, our experts in the novel have to continuously make educated guesses about what they are doing down in the deep. Dr Bocker, the most prominent expert, argues, when new currents of sediment are noticed in the oceans, that the krakens are engaged in mining operations: 'having settled into the environment best suited to them, these creatures' next thought would be to develop that environment... the fact that something is undoubtedly taking place in that strategic Trench leaves me with little doubt that whatever is down there is concerned to improve its methods of getting about in the depths...'

3. And nowadays it's particularly scary... One of the most chilling features of this novel for a modern reader is its anticipation of the impact of climate change, as the krakens begin to deliberately melt the ice-caps so they can flood the earth and take over the entire planet. Much of the science in the novel, of course, is laughable, but occasionally Wyndham is frighteningly prescient. Our narrator describes: 'suggestions that the great Ross Ice-Barrier itself might be beginning to break up. Within a week came similar news from the Weddell Sea. The Filchner Barrier there, and the Larsen Ice-Shelf were both said to be calving bergs in fantastic numbers.' While the Ross Ice Shelf currently appears stable, despite increased iceberg calving, the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf is deteriorating and, most famously, much of the Larsen Ice Shelf has already broken up; Larsen A in 1995 and Larsen B, very suddenly, in 2002. Wyndham's description of the reportage of such events is also depressingly familiar: 'the more sober illustrated weeklies ran rotogravure views of great masses plunging into seas already dotted for miles with gleaming bergs... above such captions as "Nature's Majesty"... '

4. It's not (too) offensive. One of the most painful aspects of reading Wyndham's novels in the twenty-first century is his incredibly misogynistic portrayal of women. Strikingly, in The Kraken Wakes, the first-person male narrator, Mike, behaves patronisingly towards his wife, Phyllis, but there appears to be little evidence to back up his assumptions. Indeed, it is Phyllis who drives much of the couple's trajectory in the novel; from extracting information from key players (although her husband attempts to write this off as a woman's knack for flirting and flattering) to having the foresight to brick up a store of food for them in their Cornwall cottage for when the worst comes to the worst. Mike also attempts to portray Phyllis as a typical emotional female, stressing that only she needed to recover after the death of their baby, but his over-protectiveness backfires on him in one memorable scene. After Phyllis and Mike are involved in a kraken attack, Mike forces her to see a doctor as she cannot sleep; the doctor recommends that Mike should also see the specialist that Phyllis has visited, who tells him that he has been talking in his sleep: 'Phyllis had been spending most of her nights listening to me and dissuading me from jumping out of the window to interfere in these imaginary happenings.' The traditional plot-line of female madness is reversed, with Mike becoming the one unaware of his own fragile grasp on sanity. Sadly, given Wyndham's track record, it's unlikely that this positive portrayal of Phyllis was deliberate, but it does make the novel more palatable to read.

5. It manages 'Blitz spirit' humour. This is not the type of novel you would expect to be funny, but Wyndham manages some genuinely amusing digressions; the fact that his two main characters are both journalists means that he spends much time taking potshots at lazy journalism; for example, when a ship is krakened and all the major newspapers refer to the Marie Celeste. Mike explains this phenomenon: 'nobody has the ghost of an idea why the Yatsushiro sank. Consequently she has been classified as a Mystery-of-the-Sea. This gives her a natural affinity with other Mysteries-of-the-Sea, and the Marie Celeste was the only specific M-of-the-S that anyone could call to mind in the white heat of composition.' And who could forget the ridiculous song one of Mike's colleagues makes up while they are waiting on an isolated island for a kraken attack, which begins: 'Oh, I'm burning my brains in the backroom/Almost setting my cortex alight/To find a new thing to go crack-boom!/And blow up a xenobathite.' This also illustrates how Wyndham handles his humour, ensuring that it does not distract from the central chill of the narrative; when a recording of this song is played later, after the attack has claimed several lives, it becomes horrible, not funny, both to us and the characters who are listening.

And so there you have it; why I can get so enthusiastic about a novel that is, after all, about weird menaces rising from the sea. Having already planned my next re-reading project - The Spell of the Sorceror's Skull by John Bellairs - I'm afraid that the intellectual tone of my re-reads isn't going to improve any time soon. (But that one's fairly terrifying, as well).


  1. I haven't read this one, but it sounds like it has all the same wonderful traits as The Day of the Triffids. I was amazed that he could make me afraid of walking plants and many aspects of the story were also scarily realistic. I'm going to ensure I read this soon.

  2. Wyndham's novels do manage to make the most ridiculous things terrifying...