A Horrifying Post-Apocalyptic Novel: John Christopher’s “The Death of Grass”

I do not decorate with ugly ghosts and witches. I do not read horror on Halloween. I might read a few ghost stories, a little gentle Le Fanu or Pliny’s ghost stories, but beyond that I do not go.

That is, until now, when I mistook the genre of The Death of Grass.

I picked up a used copy, not because I wanted a post-apocalyptic SF novel (not in these times!), but because I had read John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy repeatedly as a child. As a fan, I was interested in his adult work. And I thought The Death of Grass would be along the lines of John Wyndham’s cozy catastrophe, The Day of the Triffids, a post-apocalyptic classic about a group of humans who, after some adventures, comfortably survive the invasion of killer plants that stalk them.

John Christopher’s The Death of Grass is a terrifying novel. There is no coziness or comfort. It focuses on a virus that kills all grasses, including crops of rice, wheat, oats, etc. The Wung-Li virus begins in China and spreads through Asia and finally Europe and England. There is famine, and governments topple. At the time communications shut down in England, the U.S. is still untouched, still sending grain ships to China. But we know America will not be immune.

And the virus sounds only too realistic, and the naive English characters too like you and me. The hero, John Custance, an engineer, and his kind, charitable wife Ann do not believe the virus will come to England. Ann feels terribly sorry for Hong Kong, which is besieged by the starving Chinese. She wishes there were something she could do. But later, she is told repeatedly by her husband that pity is a luxury of the middle class.

“No Blade of Grass” was the American title.

John’s brother, David, a farmer, is the only one who knows what may happen. He has seen patches of the virus-ridden rice grass on his land, and has appropriately followed the government guidelines to kill it. His farm is fortified on three sides by mountains and a river, and he is building a fence on the open side in case of trouble. He asks John, Ann, and their two children to stay and work on the farm. They of course long to return to London.

The background of the virus is mostly told in dialogue. John asks David if he’s heard any news about Peking.

“Nothing official. It’s supposed to be in flames. And at Hong Kong they’ve had to repel attacks across the frontier.”

“A genteel way of putting it,” John said grimly. “Did you ever see those old pictures of the rabbit plagues in Australia? Wire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits–hundreds of thousands of rabbits–piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end either 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.”

Horrifying! And yet I thought I was reading a cozy catastrophe. If I’d stopped right here… on page 12… I would have saved myself dread and trepidation. This is one of the most violent novels I have ever read.

If you like plot, there is a lot of action. I won’t say it is well-written, but it certainly moves. The Custance family’s government PR friend Rodger tips them off that the English government plans to bomb London and other cities so there will be enough food for the ruling class. The Custances and Rodger’s family decide to head for David’s farm. Along the way, they pick up a gun shop owner, Pirrie, and his wife. They make their way out of London, with a lot of violence, since there is a travel ban.

Style-wise, there is very little here. Christopher is a blunt writer, filling the pages with ideas and explanations. Almost everything is explicated through dialogue.

There is also much blood. Ann questions the out-of-control violence wrought by John and his thuggish friend, Pirrie, who really is the one running things.

This is not a cozy catastrophe. I don’t even think this is science fiction. It reads like horror mixed with brutal realism.

But it is not a good novel, by any stroke of the imagination.

All I can say is: only cozy catastrophes will be read here in the future! This was not for me.

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