In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads a classic story of alien possession by the master of British science fiction
What if your son had an imaginary friend with whom he often conversed, answering questions that nobody had apparently asked, and behaving as though this invisible and seemingly immaterial Other were the most natural thing in the world? Many parents will probably have observed such a thing with their own children. But what, then, if the idea started to take root, a small but nevertheless nagging doubt, that this imaginary friend was not imaginary at all, but something objectively real, which had inhabited your child’s brain and was capable of speaking directly to him through some form of thought-transference?
John Wyndham’s late novel Chocky, published in 1968, just one year before his death (although it was based on a novelette published five years earlier), ponders this latter question. The narrator is David Gore, who lives an ordinary life in London with his wife Mary and their daughter, Polly, and their twelve-year-old adopted son, Matthew. That is, until David overhears Matthew talking to somebody who isn’t there. But what Matthew is saying isn’t the usual stuff of twelve-year-old boys’ conversation: he’s answering, or attempting to answer, deep scientific questions about the world around him.
Mary, Matthew’s mother, is keen to write off such behaviour as a variation of the ‘imaginary friend’ phase of Matthew’s development. But David, much as he’d like to accept such an analysis, isn’t so sure. Could there be some other explanation? David enlists the help of a friend of his, a psychologist, who tells them both what his verdict is: that Matthew has become ‘possessed’, but by some weird life form, an alien consciousness that can communicate with him – not by some demon or spirit. Effectively, Matthew has become ‘friends’, of sorts, with an alien, which identifies itself as female, and calls itself Chocky. While Chocky is ‘with’ Matthew, he can do things he struggles to do as himself: paint beautiful pictures, or swim powerfully, the latter feat being achieved so that ‘Matthew’ (or Chocky) can rescue Matthew’s sister Polly from drowning.
I’ve blogged before about John Wyndham’s relative neglect in recent years, compared with the more enduring popularity – even if it is cultish popularity, or new readerships spawned by film adaptations – of his near-contemporaries, J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Was Wyndham overrated in his lifetime (his sales boosted by film adaptations of his better-known works, The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos), or has he been posthumously underrated? This question will perhaps only be fully answerable (insofar as it is answerable at all) once I get a chance to blog about those more famous novels in Wyndham’s oeuvre.
For Chocky is not a well-known novel in John Wyndham’s canon: it stands at the other end of his career from his first ‘mature’ work, The Day of the Triffids, and from his earlier classics such as The Midwich Cuckoos. But in many ways Chocky is a more sober and subtle exploration of the same idea that drives The Midwich Cuckoos: alien infiltration of human children. But in focusing on one child in particular, Wyndham can scale down this ‘case study’ and home in on its details. What Chocky actually becomes is a curious, if ambiguous, exploration of various subjects, including the idea of child genius (which is mentioned several times in the novel: after all, under Chocky’s guidance, Matthew can paint pictures he couldn’t even dream of painting as himself, much as artists of genius seem to be ‘possessed’ by an alien talent).
I think it’s also significant that Matthew is twelve, poised on the brink of adolescence, and that Chocky is female. Although there is nothing sexual about the relationship between them (that would be wrong and disturbing on any number of levels), there is something to be said for an otherwise ordinary boy poised on the brink of teenage development having his mind taken over by an ‘alien’ female. But perhaps I really have been reading too much Freud. Or perhaps Wyndham had?
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.