(Steve Crisp’s cover for the 1985 edition)
John Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (variant title: The Ragged Edge) (1965) is the second in my informal reading series on 50s/60s post-apocalyptic visions. Fresh off Alfred Coppel’s moody and reflective Dark December (1960), I chose one of Christopher’s works long overshadowed by his popular Tripods trilogy (1967-68)* and more famous earlier catastrophe novel The Death of Grass (1956).*
While a problematic work (especially in its depiction of women), A Wrinkle in the Skin explores the various ways humankind tackles the trauma of a cataclysmic event—in this case devastating earthquakes that appear to wipe out the majority of humanity and drain the English Channel of water. Christopher’s descriptions and scenarios verge on surreal as the world is physically transformed—a voyage across the sea bed of the English Channel with an encounter with a quietly psychotic sea captain who still lives on his ship conducting the rituals of normality. Like Dark December, Christopher sticks to nuts and bolts survival realism: rummaging through the rubble for tinned food, hunting a feral bullock, caring for a sick child, searching for a lost daughter…. These daily physical and emotional trials form the fulcrum of the novel. Accomplishing these simple tasks is the way the survivors fight against the mass psychosis that threats to conquer all.
Recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic SF.
The peaceful world of Matthew Cotter, a WWII veteran and recent divorcee trying his hand at new post-London career as a tomato farmer in Guernsey, is irrevocably changed in the aftermath of “The Quaking Spring” (5). One minute everything is normal and “then, after one swift, barely perceptible shudder, the earth heaved beneath him, slammed him like a rat against itself, heaving again, tossed him bruised and winded through the air” (13). A series of earthquakes, the worldwide extent remains unknown, devastate Western Europe. Cotter, fighting against traumatic memories of WWII that reappear, traverses the ruined Guernsey islandscape looking for survivors.
After rescuing a young boy named Billy from the rubble, Matthew joins Miller and a group of survivors despite and overwhelming desire to search for his daughter in England. Miller has fantasies of a feudal society and sees Matthew as his right-hand man. Miller, possessed by a disturbing lust for power, resorts to cruelty to demonstrate his control. Matthew plans his escape….. across the dry English Channel…. with Billy in tow.
As expected for a 60s novel, John Christopher’s depiction of women swings wildly. Some scenes involve extreme cringe. Matthew, whom in no way is presented as anything other than a worthwhile figure with realistic flaws, in some odd necrophiliac craze, gropes a dead woman he finds in the wreckage: “The nightdress was town, showing one of her breasts. Matthew touched it: cold, quite cold. He straightened up” (27). In the extended sequence where Matthew stays with Miller’s group of survivors on Guernsey, the author and his characters Matthew and Miller describe Shirley in the following manner. 1) “Rolling on her back was an instinctive reaction as far as Shirley was concerned” (57). 2) “She’s a slut. You can forget about her” (65). 3) “She seemed contented enough, in her sluttish way” (69). Shirly herself does not speak. Problematic and less than moral characters populate fiction—Miller, the authoritarian/woman abuser/villain voices point 2. But 1 is voiced by Matthew and 3 features in Christopher’s general narration describing the community (it might still be Matthew’s thoughts although it isn’t signaled as such).
There are other instances along these lines where the blurring between character and general narration might suggest an authorial mindset rather than the construction of a villain or flawed character. Despite moments of intense empathy (caring for the boy he finds, the search for his daughter, assisting both female and male victims of devastation he encounters), Matthew has a cold/uncaring/sexist streak.
The most evocative sequences take place on the English Channel seabed–the dying fish stranded in pools, the endless mud, the fragments of wrecks. Billy and Matthew come across Skiopos, who lives along on a stranded tanker. Possessed by fanatical neatness (98), Skiopos goes about his day caring for the ship as if nothing has changed–preparing meals, cleaning the deck, and watching movies. Matthew speculates that the “man was psychotic” who swings between a manic phase and a depressive one–“capable of welcoming intrusions from the outside, but closed his mind when they threatened to disturb the fantasy by which he lived” (109).
Mainland England is just as devastated as Guernsey but with additional dangers—roving gangs destroy the progress made by survivors, kill and rape indiscriminately… Matthew and Billy meet with a new group of survivors who have suffered unimaginable horrors. And Matthew must decide if the quest for his daughter, if she survived at all, is but an empty fantasy.
I found the ending pitch perfect—and it fits with the unadorned realism of the novel.
Notes: The Tripods trilogy contains a fourth prequel novel, When the Tripods Came (1988). published two decades after The Pool of Fire (1968).
I’ve reviewed John Christopher’s far more satirical cataclysm novel The Long Winter (1962) as well.
(Uncredited cover for the 1980 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1965 1st edition)
(Eyke Volkmer’s cover for the 1966 German edition)
(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1979 Italian edition)
(Uncredited cover fort he 1967 edition)
For more book reviews consult the INDEX.