I have a bizarre fascination with visions of the apocalypse. From the twisted tales which came out of Byzantium in 600 AD, to the terrifyingly gripping World War Z. Today, I am going to sing the praises of an often overlooked, and by many unheard of, book: The Death of Grass by John Christopher.
I should say from the start that John Christopher is not the author’s real name. His real name was Sam Youd but he used a pen-name for his fantasy/sci-fi work, in order that his ‘serious work’ might not be tainted. Whatever my personal thoughts on this practice, his writing in The Death of Grass is at once astute, concise and enthralling.
Set in 1950s/60s England, The Death of Grass is part of the ‘floral apocalypse’ phenomenon which began in the late ’40s with books like Ward Moore’s Greener Than You Think. In Christopher’s work, the semi-apocalypse is brought about by a virus affecting all the grass families. That’s lawn, prairie, cereals – in short, as one of of my more cunning friends studying biology said – ‘We’d be f*cked if that actually happened.’
But the main focus of Christopher’s work is not the grass but the characters themselves, their psychological development as the world crumbles around them and they are forced to compromise their morals. The protagonist, also named John, flees London with his family and a friend’s family under threats from the authorities. They head north to his brother David’s farm, which is surrounded by hills and would make a safe haven amongst all the chaos. However, as the country descends into anarchy, their journey elongates and John is forced to make difficult decisions in order to protect his family and himself. Christopher deftly transforms him right before our eyes.
Weighing in at a frugal 195 pages, it is a short read, one that it is impossible to put down once picked up and easily readable in a couple of days. I highly recommend it because, while it is not McCarthy’s The Road (my eternal favourite), it is harrowing, insightful and marvellously written.
The version I read came with an alarming but informative introduction by Robert Macfarlane and is published by Penguin Modern Classics, available here.