The Death of Grass (1956) has been praised highly by trusted sources on the blogosphere, and so when I learned that Penguin were to reissue the book as a Modern Classic, my curiosity was all the more piqued. This is a welcome addition to Penguin’s lengthening list of the genres which contain classics. The back cover of a 1970 film tie-in edition proclaims that the book “invites comparison with the novels of John Wyndham.” OK, here we go then: it’s not as good as the novels of John Wyndham. (Well, they did invite it.)
The main problem is that it’s not very well written, and it’s no surprise to read in the new introduction by Robert Macfarlane that the book was written “in ‘a matter of weeks’, with revisions being made only to the first chapter.” The opening scenes are full of people telling each other things for the benefit of the reader, and few of the characters are strongly distinguished – though there are a couple, such as the firearms store owner, Pirrie, who stand out. There’s an inevitably dated quality too (“There’s an awful lot of Chinks in China. They’ll breed ‘em back again in a couple of generations”).
Nonetheless The Death of Grass is a gripping story. It might be considered a sort of prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – less evolved in both chronological and literary terms – as the world succumbs to a virus which kills off all grasses around the world and leads to the breakdown of civilisation. The main storyline details the attempts by one family to journey the length of England to find a safe haven in a relative’s farm. Their travels coincide with the swift development of barbarism and violence among the British people.
There is plenty missing here: little description to evoke the image of a world without fields or crops, and only the odd reference to mass suicide or panic.
‘Did you ever see those old pictures of the rabbit plagues in Australia? Wire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits – hundreds, thousands of rabbits – piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end they scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight. That’s Hong Kong right now, except that it’s not rabbits piled against the fence but human beings.’
At the same time where the book surpasses Wyndham is in the lack of cosiness elsewhere – characters do not hesitate to turn violent, and the closing scenes provide satisfying turns in the narrative. There is also the occasional nice image, as in one character’s anticipation of remembrance:
There will be legends, he thought, of broad avenues celestially lit, of the hurrying millions who lived together without plotting each other’s deaths, of railway trains and aeroplanes and motor-cars, of food in all its diversity. Most of all, perhaps, of policemen – custodians, without anger or malice, of a law that stretched to the ends of the earth.
(That last sentence contains within it a pretty cosy presumption to begin with.)
The book is also suitably depressing, particularly with environmental and social breakdown seeming ever more relevant topics. (A common conception: the end of the world always seems more imminent than it did a few decades ago.) The moral voice of the narrative is contained in one paragraph early in the book, when a character says:
‘In a way, I think it would be more right for the virus to win, anyway. For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided. And the land, after all, is life itself.’
Robert Macfarlane’s introduction places the book in the mid-20th century tradition of the ‘floral apocalypse’ story, detailing Triffids but also less well known examples as Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think (and, less obviously, it occurs to me, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse). John Christopher, whose real name is Samuel Youd and who is in his 87th year, has written around 70 novels under several different names. Given his rampant – virus-like – productivity, the real surprise is that The Death of Grass is as good as it is.