H. G. Wells’ last truly great piece of short speculative fiction is probably the following tale. After World War One his writing became increasingly didactic, political, and preachy. Following his Darwinist instincts, he began advocating that mankind band together under a universal world order, put aside its potentially self-destructive campaigns of war and commerce, and strive to organize a pure utopia. While his ambitions were noble, they did not lend themselves to creating profound literary works, and – excepting a handful of ineffectual political satires such as “The Story of the Last Trump” – his career in horror and supernatural fiction is largely over by the time he produced this, his last great spook tale.
But what a note to end on – “The Door in the Wall” is an adult-themed retouching of “The Magic Shop,” tackling the great questions of mankind in a sad, haunting tragedy. Or is it a tragedy? The reader is called upon to weigh their opinion in: is death – at best – a return to the paradisiacal state of our childhood, blooming with innocence, homecoming, and belonging, at least an escape from a life of disappointment, cruelty, and failure, or at worst a sadistic trick which lures the aimless and confused into its open arms, only to crush them with merciless ferocity?
Those who have been tracking with Wells from the beginning may immediately point to the later conclusion (his patterns of cynicism, misanthropy, and dark humor would certainly support such a theory), but I would beg the reader to view this story with a more nuanced perspective, for it is truly one of Wells’ least didactic, most complex, most puzzling short stories, and it requires patience, open-mindedness and attention.
The haunting, deeply psychological story is told by Redmond, a friend of the ascendant politician Lionel Wallace, and describes Wallace’s strange encounters with a door to a garden which seems to find him at intervals throughout his life, without his being able to locate it on his own. He once confided in Redmond that he was concerned that this obsession with the door in the wall was becoming a great distraction to his career, consuming his thoughts and dreams.
As a child, Wallace was unhappy and neglected: his mother was dead and his business-minded father was inattentive, leaving him prone to daydreams about escape and belonging. One day, as a five-year old, while walking around the streets of London by himself, Wallace stumbled upon an emerald-green door in a whitewashed, stone wall, and felt himself drawn irrestibly to it. Afraid of his father’s disapproval should he open it, he fights through his concerns and enters into a delightful garden which floods his mind with inspiration and joy.
Inside are tame animals, exotic flowers, and beautiful trees. He also encounters a beautiful woman who enigmatically greets him by saying “Well?” before picking him up, kissing him, and leading him around the pathways. He encounters other children there, who teach him wonderful games that – as an adult – he is sad to say he has forgotten.
While sitting amongst the group of children, young Lionel listens to her read a story about a boy who encountered a door in a wall that led to a beautiful garden (in short, as the now-grown Wallace realizes, it was the story of his life). When the story ends, Lionel finds himself on a sidewalk with no door to be seen, and is forced to wonder if it was all imagined. When he tells his father of the garden, he is scolded for lying, and buries his happy memories in his subconscious for years.
As his political career begins to take over his life, he finds that the door continues to appear enigmatically in different sections of the capital (but always as he is in a rush to some matter of business), and his dreams are dominated by visions of restoring himself to the garden behind the wall in the door. In the past year – as he is telling this to Redmond – he has seen it three times: once en route to a critical session of Parliament, once on his way to see his dying father one last time, and once while in the middle of a conversation about his career. Dominated in his soul by thoughts of the garden, his work and ambition have ceased to fulfill him, and he is overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and daydreams.
Several months pass after this conversation, and one morning Redmond is shocked to learn that the promising politician has been found dead at the bottom of a pit where some railway construction was fenced off from the public. A single door allowed workers to gain access, and had been left unlocked accidentally. Redmond assumes that Wallace – walking home in the dark – mistook the door in the crude wall for the entrance of his dreamworld, opened it, and fell to his death.
Retrospectively, he wonders: "There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something--I know not what--that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination."
Wells’ life appears flush with contradictions: he is at once a progressive and a conservative, a humanist and a racist, a tireless advocate of women’s rights and a misogynistic philanderer. The New Yorker called him rightly a utopian pessimist, and the tone of his fiction is sharply antagonistic to his personal and political philosophies set in his nonfiction essays, letters, and speeches. On one hand he is disgusted by humanity, convinced of its inevitable devolution, and almost waving in the hordes of hostile species which he trusts will overtake the effete, bourgeois human race, but on the other he is passionately hopeful, politically idealistic, a social reformer, an outspoken critic of conservatism, and an eager and anachronistic campaigner for minority rights.
Living in such a world – one caught between reality and ideals, passion and fear, hope and doubt – it is hardly a wonder that his imagination concocted the previous story. Its hapless victim is popular, successful, and poised for great prosperity and power.
And yet he is miserable, not because of a lost election, a bad investment, or a public scandal, but because of a childhood fantasy which he fears may never be recovered. Whether the door was pure fantasy or tangible fantasia is immaterial (to Wallace anyway) because the haunting is undeniably genuine. His mind is plagued by it – this safe, welcoming, true world which represents all the pure and un-distilled innocence of childhood, its tragic loss and his desperate quest for recovery. Of course, there is little denying that the door – whether merciful release or nefarious trap – is truly a symbol of death. It was all along.
But the question that arises from its existence, its badgering haunting, is which was it? Which is death? Whether universally to us all, or personally to Wallace. Should we be happy for him? Has he achieved his paradise? Has he, at the very least, escaped his hell? Or, worst to imagine, has his brilliant potential been savagely squelched by a dastardly scheme of the jealous cosmos which resent mankind and plot his destruction? Let the reader decide.