Each one in its humour

Jizzle by John Wyndham.
Dennis Dobson 1974 (1954)

Fifteen short stories, five of which appeared originally in magazines like Argosy and Women’s Journal, run the gamut of fantasy, nearly all written in a tongue-in-cheek style not usually associated with the author of The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.

Though jumping from time-travel to artificial intelligence via surreal fantasy, fairytale, legend and myth, these tales nearly always involve individuals caught up in situations beyond their comprehension or control, often to their discomfiture but mostly to our amusement. Though a couple are told in the first person the majority are fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, thus allowing us the privilege of becoming aware of how matters stand a short while before understanding dawns on the unfortunate victims.

Because victims they generally are: and it’s Fate, in the guise of the author, that determines whether they emerge sadder and wiser or don’t emerge at all…

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’

Let me start with the piece I think was the weakest even though the premise was interesting, and then work up to the stories I think worked really well. ‘Confidence Trick’ starts with the protagonist boarding a London Underground train against his better judgement, only to find that it rattles along not to his stop but towards the nether regions. In his carriage are a handful of other passengers whom we may suspect are there as his foils. When, after several hours they arrive at a modern version of the Hell as portrayed in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is some doubt as to whether this represents a reality or not, and whether the hapless travellers deserve to be there.

The author is trying, I think, to be over clever here. The title hints that nothing is as it seems; the protagonist, in believing rush hour on the Tube to be a form of hellish torture, hints at a variation of Sartre’s dictum in Huis Clos that “Hell is other people”; then a young man, who loudly declares his disbelief in Hades, begins its disintegration, but will he be as successful back in the City standing in front of the Bank of England? And do those who believe that everything in society is comme il faut somehow engineer their own future downfall? I suspect Wyndham is attempting to make some philosophical points under a cloak of heavy humour, but to me is doesn’t all quite work.

A similar awkwardness exists in the two first person accounts, “Esmeralda” and “Una”. The first involves someone who runs a flea circus and who, for all his confidence in managing miniature performers, is no match for human females; the second is about a creature, a kind of cyborg which is part organic and part robot, whose creator accidentally endows her with a massive libido. Both have humour and a sting in the tail but I think having the narrator as one of the main players means a limit on the comic effects that Wyndham is able to wield. That said, these worked rather better than “Confidence Trick”.

I appreciated what seemed to be the starting points of each story. “More Spinned Against” combined the Greek myth of Arachne, who was turned into a spider by a jealous Athena, with the biological propensities of female spiders the world over. “The Wheel” is a future parable about superstition and voluntary sacrifice, while “Heaven Scent” concerns the aphrodisiacal uses to which a perfume additive can be put by an infatuated female. A couple of pieces run variations on the theme of time travel: “Technical Slip” is a lesson on the possible consequences of trying to change history, another discourses on the paradox of how one could be warned by one’s future self:

‘I mean, as the cells that make you are always gradually being replaced, you can’t really be all the same person at any two times, can you?’

Frances tried to follow that, without success, but;

‘Well—well, I suppose not quite,’ she conceded, doubtfully.

‘Well, then, when all the cells have been replaced by new ones, over seven years or so, then you can’t any of you be the same person any longer, although you still think you are.’

John Wyndham, ‘How Do I Do?’

These tales, originally published between 1949 and 1954, have been described as whimsical fantasy and I think that’s the best way to think of them, for all that one or two appear to use Science Fiction tropes; for example, the trigger for “Perforce to Dream” is a psychiatric paper called The Inducement of Collective Hallucination. Others however are the kind of supernatural tales that Edith Nesbit could have written a quarter of a century before: “Affair of the Heart” involves a final twist in a long-term romance that ends fatally; “Reservation Deferred” is a ghost story that revolves around whether there’s an afterlife; and “Look Natural, Please!” involves an innovative portrait photographer who falls into the same traps that he thought he was avoiding when he set out on his career decades before.

I shall end with two tales where Wyndham attempted to use regional voices, though whether he was successful is not for me to judge. “A Present from Brunswick” (which turns out to be an antique instrument, probably from Hamelin in Saxony) is set in a prosperous if self-satisfied North American town, Pleasantgrove, population 3,226. Wyndham had used Americanisms in his unpublished Plan for Chaos written around this same period, but those who knew didn’t find them authentic or convincing, and that may be the case here for all I know. Perhaps more controversially, “Chinese Puzzle” adopts jokey Welsh English for its characters, placed in a setting on the borders between Breconshire and the Valleys. The speech forms of Welsh had truly been adapted for English in the not so far distant past, but it’s to be doubted that any self-respecting Welsh men or women would have spoken thus in the fifties:

‘So foolish, you are, Idris Bowen, with your head full of propaganda and fighting. Other things than to fight, there is, even for dragons. Such a brave show your red dragon was making, such a fine show, oh yes—and very like a peacock, I am thinking. Very like the boys in their Sunday suits in Llangolwgcoch High Street, too—all dressed up to kill, but not to fight.’

John Wyndham, ‘Chinese Puzzle’

Personally I don’t find much that’s offensive here, even if I’m only Welsh by residence. Nobody speaks like that now, seven decades later, and apart from the unlikelihood of Welsh speakers speaking this archaic Wenglish to each other even in the postwar years, to focus on this feature is to miss Wyndham’s gentle mickey-taking of everything, whether comic Welshness, leftwing propaganda clichés or parochial small-mindedness. In fact, what comes through strongest in most of the stories — as much as whimsy — is the ascendancy of female commonsense over male foolishness.

This comes through in the last story I want to mention, actually the first in the collection to which it gives the overall title. Jizzle is actually Giselle, a performing simian in a fairground sideshow who in fact makes a monkey out of his owner Ted. An indication of its malign nature comes in the final and very short paragraph: “George was lifting the rifle. On his shoulder Jizzle snickered.” How it all comes to this point is for readers to discover for themselves, but it sets the tone for the remaining tales.

I’ve been meaning to return to these stories for forty years — I acquired my ex-library copy in the early 80s and a couple or so of these pieces have stuck in my mind all that time. All this time later “Jizzle” and “Chinese Puzzle” still loom large in my imagination but they’ve now been joined by a few more, such as “Perforce to Dream” and “How Do I Do?” Perhaps significantly these feature well-depicted women seeking agency, a revelation that perhaps wasn’t so evident to my younger self; if ever there was a reason to reread memorable books this could be it — the promise that good writing always has something more to say, depending on your receptiveness.


A final title read for Wyrd and Wonder and also a collection in my Library of Brief Narratives.

Image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

5 thoughts on “Each one in its humour

  1. Well, firstly that cover is rather striking – I do love an old ex-library book with its jacket. I haven’t read Wyndham since my teens I suspect, so would approach these with no real idea what to expect. But I’m intrigued, especially re the elements you picked up from some on your re-read. That’s a good point about revisiting older books – we’re always likely to read them differently and find something new.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The cover obviously pictures a scene from ‘Chinese Puzzle’ which I think is what drew me to pick up the book as much as the magnetic draw of John Wyndham on the dust jacket. What surprised me most was the whimsical, occasionally comic approach — with an arched eyebrow — compared to the apocalyptic or dystopian aspect I was then familiar with. A side of Wyndham I really appreciate now!

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  2. I was an avid reader of Wyndham in my teens but never knew he wrote short stories. And probably wouldn’t have read them if I had known. But in the last year or two I’ve become fascinated by such collections. I logged in with confidence and yes – a copy awaits me in the reserve store. I remain hugely impressed with Cornwall’s library system.

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    1. It’s interesting to compare what authors wrote as novels with their short stories: many people only familiar with Nesbit’s work in children’s fiction are surprised she wrote, for example, ghost stories, so it’s the same with Wyndham. It’s partly why I memed (is that a word?) the Library of Brief Narratives, to look at writers’ approaches to the different demands of short stories. Anyway, I too am impressed with Cornwall’s system—lucky you! Hope you enjoy Jizzle when it arrives.

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