Although most of us probably deem earthquakes to be relatively infrequent phenomena, the truth is that, as of this writing in late November, almost 150 such seismic events, ranging from relatively minor to completely devastating, have transpired somewhere in the world in 2016 alone. That’s an average of one earthquake every two or three days! But although these events are not only, uh, earth-shattering for those in the areas directly affected, few would deem them a possible concern for long-term, apocalyptic scenarios, as might be the case with, say, an asteroid collision … except, that is, British author John Christopher, in his 1965 novel A Wrinkle in the Skin. Christopher, who was born in Lancashire in 1922, had already pleased this reader with his 1956 classic The Death of Grass (which told of a worldwide panic after all wheat and barley crops are infected with a virus), and had followed up with 1962’s The World in Winter, which depicted a new Ice Age. A Wrinkle in the Skin (aka The Ragged Edge) turns out to be another very fine Christopher novel in the post-apocalyptic vein, depicting a world in chaos following the mother of all quakes.
In the book, the reader makes the acquaintance of Matthew Cotter, a middle-aged divorcé who is currently living on the Channel Island of Guernsey and who has become a grower of tomatoes. Satisfied with his lot, if not especially happy, he finds his life quite literally upended one night when a monstrous quake hits the small island, following a season of similar quakes around the world. Cotter, as it turns out, is one of the few survivors on the island, where practically no building has been left standing. To his astonishment, he also soon finds that all the water in the Channel has been drained away, leaving the Channel Islands as islands no longer! After taking up with a band of his fellow survivors for a short time, Cotter resolves to walk across the mud of the now-drying seabed and attempt to trek on to East Sussex on the mainland, to see if his daughter Jane might still be alive. He is joined by a 10-year-old boy, Billy, whose life he had previously saved after the Guernsey disaster, and together, the two explore this strange new environment, where the floor of the sea now lies open to the light of day. Once on the mainland, the pair takes up with another band of survivors, who have managed to stay civilized in the face of an increasingly violent and starving populace. Ultimately, Cotter and Billy decide to press on, but can Jane really still be alive in the midst of such devastation and universal panic?
A Wrinkle in the Skin was chosen for inclusion in Jones & Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books, and I suppose that it might strike some as an unusual choice, in juxtaposition with the other supernatural, fantasy, serial killer and satanic novels therein. Still, I’m certain that anyone who has ever been in even a minor earth tremor (thank heavens, I never have!) would deem it a fairly horrifying experience, indeed. Beyond this basic premise, Christopher’s novel does offer up any number of scenes guaranteed to chill. His descriptions of the razed buildings and countless putrescent corpses pull no punches, while his depictions of the Channel seabed toe the fine line between eerie and the phantasmagorical (although these latter descriptions don’t come close to the borderline psychedelic ruins found in J.G. Ballard’s post-apocalyptic outings The Drowned World and The Crystal World). Cotter and Billy have any number of run-ins with violent “yobbos,” and these sequences, too, are unfailingly tense and frightening. And then there is the wonderfully dreamlike interlude in which our wayfarers come upon a beached oil tanker in the middle of the Channel, are welcomed most hospitably by its sole occupant, Captain Skiopos, and slowly come to the realization that the captain has become quite insane. But what apparently horrified British author Simon Clark the most, and induced him to choose the novel for inclusion in the Jones & Newman volume, is the matter-of-fact scene in which April, a survivor who Cotter takes up with, describes the multiple rapings that she has been subjected to since the calamity began. Again, Christopher does not sugarcoat the events in his novel; it is a fairly realistic affair, right down to Cotter’s finding (or not finding … I would not think of revealing which) Jane amongst all the destruction.
John Christopher, who is perhaps best known today for his YA trilogy dealing with THE TRIPODS, is an excellent writer, of course, and his 1965 novel shows him in great form, a master of both dialogue and interior monologues, convincing geographical description, and well-drawn characters. Cotter is an especially fine creation, a man who at first blush is presented as aloof and indifferent, but who soon reveals himself to be caring and decent; his relationship with the sweet and spunky Billy is especially well described. A Wrinkle in the Skin ends on a fairly abrupt yet oddly pleasing note; I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy ending, although it does hold out a promise of happiness for Cotter in the future. The author, had he chosen, could easily have made this novel the opening salvo for an entire series of books set in an increasingly seismically challenged world, but as it stands, the novel nevertheless succeeds in satisfying on its own. It is a fairly relentless page-turner, and one that would make for a terrific Hollywood blockbuster, if done right.
Inevitably, the book is not without some very minor problems. My main complaint is that we never learn precisely the extent of the devastation. Yes, we see that the Channel and southern England have been pretty much wiped out, but what about northern England? And France? And the U.S., for that matter? In an early section, one of the characters, a geologist, theorizes that our planet could very well now be entering into a new phase of mountain building, and it would have been interesting to learn whether that statement had any merit or not. Again, this is an area that some possible sequels might have touched upon. My other quibble with Christopher’s book is something that only fans of old Hollywood movies (yeah, that’s me) would notice, and involves Captain Skiopos showing Cotter and Billy a film starring (once husband and wife) Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. The only problem is, the two never appeared in a film together! But again, this is a minor quibble, when stacked against Christopher’s significant accomplishment here.
Writing in the Jones & Newman volume, Clark mentions that A Wrinkle in the Skin was “real terror for the 1950s reader,” and I suppose the case could be made for the 21st century reader, as well. Scottish critic David Pringle, writing of the book in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, says it is “perhaps Christopher’s best catastrophe tale after his famous The Death of Grass,” and he is a source that I’ve long trusted. Exciting, evocative and at times quite moving, Christopher’s novel is perfect fare for the horror or sci-fi fan who’s in the mood for something different. As was the case with the Channel Islands and all of southern England, it will probably leave you pretty well shaken…