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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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12 Best Horror Stories by H. G. Wells (Not Including "The Invisible Man")

H. G. Wells continues to be exulted as the grandsire of modern science fiction. Alongside Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, he enjoys a very keen degree of respect in that genre. The pity is that he has not been nearly as well received by horror aficionados. Perhaps they view him as taken goods – the sci-fi folks have him and he’s their territory. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the few horror stories that he is famous for dabble so deeply in science and technology. “The War of the Worlds, “ “The Invisible Man,” “The Island of Dr Moreau,” and even “The Time Machine” are often cited as works that cross the border with horror, but are most properly kept on sci-fi’s side of the fence. In critical works that summarize horror fiction, this is the typical content of any entry on Wells. Some mention “The Red Room" -- even Lovecraft names this story as meretricious, although he ends things there without going further. How wrong they all are!

Wells brought a level of discombobulating other-ness to his fantasies which would be borrowed in the fanciful horrors of H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, and while his name remains firmly associated with science fiction, his contributions to supernatural fiction, body horror, murder tales, dark mysteries, ghost stories, and weird fiction were seismic in their scope and influence. Containing Lovecraft and Bierce's cynicism, his writing is nonetheless freshened by his Darwinian education -- one which foresaw a universe crawling with hostile (if seemingly innocuous) competitors: man-eating squid, vampiric orchids, greedy demons, ghostly moths, and Innsmouthian fish people. His tales are guaranteed to surprise, disturb, and haunt.


Okay, so right off the bat I should be clear: Wells’ stories are of such a consistent caliber – well above average but with few outstanding masterpieces – that I’m going to pair several similar stories together, so it’s going to be a tad broader than my typical "7 BEST" lists. I’ll humbly accept all complaints. The first pair that deserves attention are both seafaring tales. “The Sea Raiders” is a grisly forbearer of “The Birds”: a charming coastal town is terrorized when swarms of carnivorous squid take a liking to human flesh. In a scene that resembles JAWS – and one that challenges all Victorian standards of form – they capsize a rowboat filled with women and children on a seaside holiday… and shred them to bits. This is a wonderful and compact Man vs. Nature tale that brings out Wells’ concern that our unchallenged reign over the world could be very easily brought to an end. “In the Abyss” is highly suggestive of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones (with a touch of “Rats in the Walls”): a race of fish-people are uncovered by a mystified deep-sea diver who finds a civilization that uses the skeletons of drowned seamen to construct their houses and view sinking wrecks as gods.


Wells’ most famous weird tale is part comical and part hideous terror. A frumpy bachelor spends his time in his green house, carefully tending his orchids and daydreaming about the life of adventure that he has never lived. When a dead botanist is found in the Amazon, the orchid he died to collect is sold in England, and our man is happy to experience this secondhand adventure. But the housekeeper is disturbed by the orchid’s embryonic buds, which look like fingers reaching from a grave. It is not surprising perhaps that we learn that the plant has a unique mode of nutrition, and when the housekeeper finds her master unconscious in his greenhouse, being drained of blood, she has little time to say “I told you so.” A particularly chilling, distinctly Wellsian vampire story with a touch of an evolution lesson plan.


Perfect for Halloween, “The Magic Shop” reads like a genuine nightmare. Wells and his son Gip visit a strange little magic store that they have passed many times, and he finally gives into his son’s pleas to investigate. They are at first fascinated by the brilliant illusions that surround them. The owner is somewhat creepy – a leering, big-eared caricature with a flair for theatrics – but the wonders of the store more than distract from his brooding presence. But the shop quickly becomes a labyrinth, and when Wells tries to simultaneously find his son and the exit, there is no question that the pair have taken the bait of a surreal trap. Are the toys clever clockwork or are they alive, and where is the door, and why does it seem impossible to leave? A thrilling “other dimension” tale that involves creepy toys, eerie showmen, and all the subtle horror that lurks in the world of children.


These two stories are about revenge. One is a brilliant psychological ghost story, and the other is an uncommonly gruesome example of body horror. In “The Moth” – a story with more than a touch of M. R. James – rival scientists rip one another apart until one has been thoroughly shamed to the point of death. His survivor is left without a reason for living – their rivalry was his chief thought – and grows depressed and disoriented. Then one night he is examining specimens under his microscope when a new species of moth floats into his room. At first he is intrigued, but there is something spectral about the delicate insect, and as it seems to follow him wherever he goes, he grows to loathe the feel of its wings against his face. Convinced that his old enemy has returned in the form of the species they fought so dearly for, he tries to rid himself of a moth that no one can see. The hideous climax has him put into a straightjacket but well-meaning neighbors, only to have his face exposed to the delighted moth. A tremendously creepy story, that brilliantly uses a fragile insect as a source of deep horror – not for those with mottephobia. “The Cone” is a beautiful impressionistic piece, as lovely to read as a painting is to view. But at its heart is a story of vile hatred, and a lesson: when your lover’s husband catches you whispering sweet nothings to his wife, don’t let him take you for a walk into his factory. The torturous description of one character’s gory demise is among the most violent I’ve ever read from this period. A truer mixture of beauty and horror could not be asked for.


These two tales represent Wells’ most famous ghost stories, and they concern the same idea: an amateur ghost investigator accidentally leaves his body. But the tales start and end in two tremendously different manners. “The Stolen Body” is a bit of a gaslight mystery story, where a man attempts to have an out-of-body experience and succeeds – only to have his body high jacked by a demon. It is admittedly rather humorous, though never farcical, and hosts elements of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde without the chemistry. The result is a woebegone spirit, a possessed body, and a race against time. “The Inexperienced Ghost,” however, has a much cheerier beginning, and a genuinely horrifying end. A masculine playboy who resembles one of Bertie Wooster’s chums catches a ghost and chides him for failing to be a proper ghost. A depressed ne’erdowell in life, he is a depressed ne’erdowell in death, and cannot remember how to disappear. After a bit of proper British “stiff upper lip” inspiration, the ghost remembers the right ritual, and fades away. If the story ended here it would be a classic farce a la “The Canterville Ghost” or “The Spectre Bridegroom.” But unfortunately, our good man memorized the ritual, and what follows is a dark lesson in hubris.


This is unquestionably Wells’ most famous horror story, though be careful not to expect a hideous terror – the fear is more psychological than supernatural. Lovecraft adored the story, and you can see its influence in many of his tales such as “The Unnamable.” A determined skeptic has agreed to spend the night in a haunted room, despite the warnings of the elderly housekeepers. He begins quite decently, but when candles begin snuffing at an alarming rate, he feels the noose tighten. The story really delves into fear of the dark – which more poignantly dips into the fear of the unknown, hence the subtitle “The Ghost of Fear.” The Victorian era was one of confidence, certainty, and resolution, and this ingenuous story is a systematic deconstruction of that cultural hubris. The horror is not conventional, but cosmic, not predictable, but indescribable – a portrait of generic terror that reaches into the soul of fear: loss of control.


Wells must have been pandering to the horror crowd when he wrote this gruesome little episode. “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” like Kipling’s “At the End of the Passage” and Conan Doyle’s “The Brown Hand” is a study in the costs of colonialism. Pollock is an arrogant colonist making a killing in Africa. But he has trouble with one unflappable figure – the local shaman or porroh man, who resists his authority. Finally, Pollock has the man murdered and his head severed, and he imagines that peace has returned to his world. But what is scuttling across the floor and terrifying his dogs? What is following him on the ship back to England, bouncing down the street, and sitting upside down on his friend’s fireplace, its scarred face blooming into a toothy smile? From both a historical and a psychological standpoint, this is one of Wells’ best works.


We end our list with two stories about dreams – two of Wells’ most enduring examples of speculative short fiction. In both tales a man is captivated by a recurring dream or experience – so captivated that he begins to loathe everyday events and long to be let loose into the fantasy. In “The Door in the Wall,” an influential politician – one whose influence on national politics is tremendously important – is haunted by a childhood memory wherein he found a strange green door in a plain stone wall that led into a magical garden of delights. Throughout his life he has reencountered the door, but only rarely, for it always disappears when he returns to find it. He is so haunted by the childhood loss that his friend recommends seeking professional help. But the recommendation is not heeded, and one night he finds the door again, opens it, and walks into… In “A Dream of Armageddon” the protagonist dreams that he, like the previous fellow, is a politician of great influence, albeit in the future. He has foresworn his duties in the name of love (much like Edward VIII), abandoned his kingdom, and retired to the pleasure island of Capri. When a World War broods in the north, he rejects the pleas of his people, hoping that at least he and his lover will be untouched by disaster. This is predictably not the case, and war devours the continent, his lover, and himself. The nervous little man telling the story explains that he thinks he is dreaming of a reincarnation in the future, that he has the same dreams every night, but that they progress in time. But in the future he has died, and his only dreams now are of the great carnivorous birds the peel flesh from his dead bones.

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