The White-Knuckle Thrillers and Darwinian Horror Stories of H. G. Wells (An Oldstyle Tales Macabre M
The canon of science fiction follows a very direct descent. From Thomas More to Johannes Kepler, Francis Godwin, and Cyrano de Bergerac, thence to Swift, off to Mary Shelley, handed to Hoffmann, then on to Poe, who is followed by the first absolute master, Jules Verne. Verne’s natural heir would become perhaps the most influential contributor to the genre. Herbert George “Gip” Wells would make monumental strides in the subjects of interplanetary war, space voyaging, undersea exploration, time travel, invisibility, cloning, the “mad scientist,” modern warfare, and speculative history.
His masterworks are The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), The First Men on the Moon (1901), Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909), Ann Veronica (1909), The History of Mr Polly (1910), Mr Brittling Sees it Through (1916), and A Short History of the World (1922), the first five being foundational treatments of science fiction and the rest being largely satiric (both comic and tragic) commentaries on society, social hierarchies, and the pitfalls of the bourgeoisie.
After 1906 Wells’ speculative fiction output had rapidly dried, and was only sporadic (and never particularly effective, unique, or good) after that point. During the fifteen years that he did write speculative fiction (which, to clarify, includes sci-fi, weird tales, ghost stories, horror, mystery, fantasy, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, utopian fiction, and paranormal: all genres which Wells contributed in sizeable ways), Wells wrote nearly two dozen short stories of horror and the supernatural, most of which were of high literary merit as well as being entertaining. His style was often rich with color and mood, fortified by realistic characters, and made fascinating through the ethical and philosophical conundrums which their creator hurled at them.
Wells’ writing was outstandingly effective during this period, and – had they not often explored subjects of horror, fantasy, and science fiction – they would have attracted academic attention for the skill which he demonstrated at prose, theme, and characterization. Wells’ fiction bears resemblance to that of many of his generation’s most renowned realists: Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, and – most especially – Stephen Crane, both is substance and in style. Wells befriended Crane and Conrad, and their writings were collectively seismic in their effect on literature during the 1890s.
Stories such as “The Moth,” “The Cone,” “The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham,” The Country of the Blind, “The Door in the Wall,” and “The Red Room” could be considered standalone literary masterworks regardless of their speculative nature, and it is for this reason that Wells – before his literary decline in the 1920s and 1930s – was considered by many to be Charles Dickens’ natural heir in social fiction just as he was known unequivocally to be Verne’s successor in fantasy. His novels and stories alike often had a Dickensian feel, and even his horror stories almost universally carried a social theme. Wells was an infamous progressive – both scientifically and politically – and his stories are filled with scenes of abusive power, the destructive effects of conservatism, and the failures of capitalism and imperialism.
Wells’ visions of the future, though sometimes utopian, were often ghastly and horrific. He foresaw the pitfalls of ethnocentric colonization and the terrible potential of the class wars. This is perhaps best illustrated in The Time Machine, which introduces another Wellsian theme: evolution. As a devotee of Darwin, Wells – who began his career as a high school science teacher – was keenly aware that repeated patterns of behavior reinforced the outcomes of future generations, and he was convinced that mankind was steadily evolving due to the hardening avenues of society: to wealth, comfort, and prestige for the rich, and to poverty, misery, and subjugation for the poor.
In The Time Machine, Wells’ protagonist visits earth centuries after the Gay Nineties, only to find that mankind has changed, having devolved into two distinctly abhuman races. The descendants of the bourgeoisie have become the effete, weak, impractical Eloi and the descendants of the proletariat have become the vicious, brutal, predatory Morlocks. After centuries of stagnation and complacency, Wells conjectures, the rich will become little more than overfed livestock, while the poor – beaten into the earth and hardened by hate – will transform into wolfish animals. During the high point of his career, Wells’ fiction was rarely proscriptive (that is to say, it seldom showed how the world could be made better), but often if not always a warning of the trajectory we are on.
He used evolution to great impact, demonstrating how mankind – by way of our false sense of victory over the elements and the cosmos – were becoming fat, stupid, and weak in the wake of a watchful and hostile Nature. Threats loom at every corner, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to storm humanity’s unguarded doors and rob us of our false sense of security. In this volume alone we find humanity besieged by arbitrarily violent squid, undersea fish-people, beautiful albeit carnivorous flowers, and darkness itself. We are wise, he urges us to realize, to band together, act in our common interest, and cease probing into matters which are not our evolutionary destiny.
There was no better time than the 1890s and 1900s to fear the excesses of exploration: airplanes, submarines, balloons, ships, and even rockets were being designed to carry humanity deeper into the sea, the Arctic, the deserts, the sky, and the universe than our mortal bodies could be expected to travel unaided. H. P. Lovecraft echoes Wells’ sentiments in “The Call of Cthulhu” where he warns against the collaboration of science, suggesting that we have thus far avoided a horrible discovery, but that as each discipline nibbles away at the crust that Nature has developed around its secrets, inevitably we will have swum too far, and will succumb to a greedy and alien world. Although, as a progressive, he recognized the wonderful potential of technology and science for benefitting the current condition of humanity, he seemed wary of its application in the unnecessary colonization of realms which evolution did not naturally grant humankind: the air, the sea, space, the afterlife. Here be dragons.
Throughout his fiction Wells is distrustful of human nature – a puzzlingly paradoxical stance for a political progressive, but one which is too strong and undeniable to wave away as misinterpretation. Humans are shown to be petty, childish, self-absorbed, abusive, negligent, cruel, wanton, stupid, pathetic, spiteful, unforgiving, murderous, hopeless, irredeemable, and self-deluded. They selfishly hoard attention and power for themselves, and avoid doing the right thing even when it is in their own interests: in one episode a woman knows that her husband means to kill her lover, but finds that she is simply unable to conjure the words to say “don’t go; it’s a trap,” and for unknown reasons lazily watches him go off to a miserable death.
The world of science is shown to be little more than a gladiatorial arena of vice, spite, and malice – far from the lauded, genteel salons of the Enlightenment. Exploration of the skies and the seas yield horrendous discoveries which are nonetheless sought out in the pursuit of fame, and violent impulses are dealt to rivals, relatives, friends, and strangers alike. Wells paints a humanity which would be saved by collaboration and peace, but which flocks childishly to competition and superiority. The more we rush to be on top, he warns, the sooner a bruised and battered victor will weakly slump away in search of cover – alone and vulnerable with his fellow men dead on the ground. We are stronger together, better, abler, wiser, Wells warns, but his protagonists often seek distinction and supremacy. They are rarely rewarded.
Wells’ horror stories tend to fall in three categories which sometimes overlap. The first and most common are ghost stories. These deal with – unsurprisingly – a haunting of some degree. Often the haunting is that of a deceased person returning to make some declaration or advance some objective. In “The Moth” a scientist appears to haunt his hated rival in the form of a creature which they both aggressively studied. In “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” a colonial boss is harassed by the severed head of a native medicine man whom he had put to death. At other moments the haunting is vague – its source, purpose, or motives – and the result is an unsettling, discombobulating ghost story. In “The Door in the Wall” the “ghost” is the eponymous piece of unsuspecting architecture. In “The Red Room” it is the intangible spirit of darkness and oblivion. Others involve rapacious demons, or aimless phantoms, but all require that a character be deeply unsettled by the presence of the preternatural.
The second most common is the tale of weird science – a combination of weird fiction and science fiction which tracks a natural event with fictitious and fantastical results. Tales of weird science portray Nature as sentient, hostile, and predatory, and scientists as either conniving villains or bumbling chumps. In “The Late Mr Elvesham” a scheming academic robs strangers of their youth to extend his empty life, while in “In the Abyss” an explorer is shocked to discover a piscine empire of anthropoid Deep Ones who worship shipwrecks and use human bones as architectural tools. In “The Strange Orchid” a simple middle-classed flower collector has his blood siphoned by a vampiric orchid.
In “The Sea Raiders” a boat of women and children is capsized and its occupants are devoured by a cloud of randomly anthropophagous squid. These tales – both ghostly and weird – often cross over into a third category: horror. Horror stories, as we well know, require the exposure of some terrible and shocking physical abomination: a murder, a monster, a cave filled with skulls, a sky filled with man-eating birds. “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” “The Sea Raiders,” and “The Strange Orchid” are rife with disgusting details, chilling events, and grisly catastrophes. Some of the stories included in this volume are neither ghostly, nor weird, but merely horrifying.
“The Cone” details a nauseating murder, and The Country of the Blind, tells of an isolated settlement where vision is considered the fantasy of a madman due to centuries of inbreeding and genetic blindness. These tales might include supernatural machinery without being a straightforward haunting, like in “The Magic Shop,” which follows a man and his son as they slowly come to realize that the toy shop they’ve entered may not allow them to exit, or “A Dream of Armageddon,” which might be a simple case for Drs. Freud and Jung, or it might be a paranormal vision of earth’s bloody climax.
The hallmark of a tale of horror is a moment in the climax when a delusion is transformed, and a sickening truth is uncovered. The squids eat humans. The plant sucks blood. He really is going to murder him. The magic is real. Whether the story is one of abject horror, haunting, or weird science, they all feature dark revelations that speak to Wells’ worldview, one which fears that human selfishness and division will lead us into destruction from without as well as within.
Wells’ legacy today is largely that of a science fiction writer. His contributions to that tradition are unquestionably seminal in the genre’s canon. The works of Douglas Adams, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Fritz Lieber, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King are unquestionably imprinted with his influence. And yet he is far more than a science fiction writer: a pioneer in women’s rights, a bulldog for worker’s rights, an outspoken critic of corruption, abuses of power, and chauvinism. His novels of social commentary and lower-middle class life earned him popular acclaim as Charles Dickens’ literary successor, partially due to their stringent and often caustic progressive ethos, and partially due to his evocative prose – a mastery of substance and style which could at times be mistaken for Stephen Crane, Thomas Hardy, or Jack London.
Wells’ life is not without contradiction: his writings often displayed outrageous racism, sexism, and misanthropy, and their cynical, pessimistic tone contrasts drastically from his utopian politics. The complexities of his life are reflected in his oeuvre, which is at once hopeful and gloomy, enthusiastic and despairing, motivated and dispirited, humanistic and misanthropic. The shades of grey which make up his literary worldview – some dark, some light, and some enigmatically in between – have helped to ensure his legacy would be greater than that of a mere fantasy speculator, but as a talented writer and a visionary. The stories included in this volume reflect that vision – one of shadows and darkness, and of the light that bravely strains in the comfort of its own fragile glow.