Its title would also be applicable to “The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham,” but its themes are far less nefarious and far more action-packed. “The Stolen Body” is no misnomer: the plot concerns what we may (with tongue in cheek) call grand theft body. A man has toyed recklessly with his metaphysical condition by leaving his corporeal-self unoccupied and unlocked, and is left stranded in the spiritual world. Part comedy, part thriller, and part parable, Wells responds to the questions raised by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” At the time of its writing, the Fox sisters’ mediumistic rappings had been exposed as a hoax only ten years prior, the Society for Psychical Research was sixteen years old, the spiritualist movement had been in full force for half a century, Franz Mesmer had died just over eighty years previously, and Swedenbourg’s heyday had been 150 years ago. The Victorians adored spiritual investigations, photographs of ghosts, mediums, premonitions, telepathy, and communication with the dead. In a post-Darwin culture where religion, spirituality, and miracles were all under scientific attack, the concept of the afterlife was a comfort to many. Wells, on the other hand, saw it as just another hostile landscape filled with beings eager to escape and overwhelm a weak and naïve species willing to let them inside.
The story begins with two friends, Bessel – an eccentric lawyer who dabbles in psychical research, with a focus of astral projection – and Vincey, who decide to begin a series of experiments with self-hypnotism and the willful projection of their spiritual selves across space. They begin by locking themselves up in their respective rooms across town, at a chosen time, focusing their thoughts on one another, and watching for one another’s hoped for living apparition.
They try this several times without success, but one night Vincey is surprised to see Bessel appear in his room with a pale, white face, disheveled hair, and an anxious aspect – glancing nervously over his shoulder. Before Vincey can take a photograph of the specter, it vanishes. Oddly disturbed, but nonetheless pleased, he heads over to Bessel’s quarters to congratulate him. However, he finds the street door wide open, the lights on, and the apartment in a shambles: furniture is overturned and busted up, curtains torn down and burned, bookcases knocked over, and the wallpaper is streaked with hand and fingerprints made in ink. However, Bessel is nowhere to be found.
Vincey is stunned, and goes to find the porter at the entrance of the apartment complex, asking him if he is aware that Bessel’s flat has been ransacked and defiled. The porter did not know this, but reports that – half an hour earlier – Bessel had rushed out of the complex without his hat, in a state of disorder, and laughing a “gasping,” mirthless laugh with blazing eyes and his arms flailing, fingers all curled like claws. Bessel said nothing but fiercely whispered the word “life!” Both men are secretly convinced that Bessel is hopelessly insane, but they suggest that perhaps he had a terrible toothache or some other anxiety, and that he may presently return. Vincey is unconvinced, and spends the night tossing and turning, disturbed by dreams of his friend running wildly around with a ferocious face, while he heard his name being called in Bessel’s voice, and awoke with the pressing sense that Bessel was in deep distress.
He rises very early and heads through the shadowy, empty streets to Bessel’s apartment. As he passes through Covent Garden, which is just beginning to buzz with the quiet activity of the merchants setting up for the morning, he is alerted by a series of shouts and commotion to the sight of Bessel – wide-eyed, with his collar torn open and face twisted wildly, swinging a heavy cane by the ferrule-end, and causing a great deal of havoc. Vincey calls to him by name, but Bessel strikes him in the face with the cane and leaps over him with several policemen and vendors in hot pursuit.
Apparently, Bessel had crashed into the middle of
the crowd, swinging his bloodstained cane about, shouting “Life! Life!” and badly injuring two men, two women, and a child. He had attacked a coffee stall, thrown a lantern through the window of a post office, and stunned two policemen senseless. Bessel returns home and ponders these things, quietly convinced that Bessel is trying to communicate something to him, but never receives a message. In the morning he visits Mr. Hart, Bessel’s partner in his firm and best friend, to see what he thinks. Hart had no idea that Bessel was on his rampage, but reports having had dreams of his friend with a pale face and disheveled hair, pleading for help in pantomime.
They turn out to see if Bessel has been apprehended, but he is still on the loose, smashing windows, attacking policemen, splashing burning oil on houses, and assaulting women.
Another day passes, and although a famous detective is put on the case, Bessel is still on the loose, and that night Vincey dreams that his friend is pleading to him with a tear-stained face while a series of shadowy, amorphous faces glare malignantly over his shoulders. In the morning, Vincey visits a medium, Mrs. Bullock, who is staying with a paranormal scholar named Dr. Paget, and before he can explain his request to try to contact his friend, they interrupt him with the news that Bessel reached out to Mrs. Bullock last night. He had spoken to her in a trance, and she had copied out his message: “George Bessel … trial excavn … Baker Street … help … starvation.” Neither Bullock nor Paget had heard of Bessel until now, but Paget insists that they seek him out as soon as possible after hearing Vincey’s story.
They go to Baker Street where they find Bessel at the bottom of an abandoned excavation which had been intended as part of the new electric subway, and he is in bad shape: one arm, one leg, and several ribs are broken. The shaft had been shielded by a 20 foot-high fence which prevented Bessel from being seen or heard by passers-by, but hadn’t been too high for this fat, middle-aged man to scale, apparently. They find him restored to his sanity, but terribly weak and hysterical with terror. He is sedated by a doctor and rests for a full day before muttering a single word on his experiences.
The following day, he makes his statement: on the night of the last experiment he was focus “with all [his] might” on “getting out of [his] body,” when suddenly, “by an effort of will,” he did pass out of his body and into a very different dimension: “some place or state outside this world.” It all happened in an instant: he suddenly was aware that he was looking at his body sitting in a chair, and saw that his soul takes on the form of a massive, invisible cloud attached to his body, large enough for him to see all kinds of people living and working in distant buildings and rooms, all simultaneously (he voyeuristically compares this to watching the inner workings of a glass beehive), while his vision was from time to time obscured by the passing of strange balls of smoke or vapor.
He slowly realizes that there is no sound in this world, and – when he tries to reach out and touch passing people – that he is restricted from laying hands on the living world, as if they are separated by the glass of an aquarium. In this strange dimension, he also realizes that the smoky spheres are the spiritual denizens of this realm, for each amorphous lump of vapor is imprinted with a face: “And such faces! Faces of thin shadow… like those faces that glare with intolerable strangeness upon the sleeper in the evil hours of his dreams. Evil, greedy eyes that were full of a covetous curiosity, faces with knit brows and snarling, smiling lips…”
Each cloudy face is trailed by a root or tail of darkness that must represent their body, and they snatch and gibber aggressively at Bessel. He considers them “Idiot phantoms … children of vain desire, beings unborn and forbidden the boon of being, whose only expressions and gestures told of the envy and craving for life that was their one link with existence.”
To his horror, he watches as some of these balls take note of his slumped body, and pass into it like smoke blowing through a screen. Thinking suddenly of his pact with Vincey, and desperate to escape, he willed himself to Vincey’s fireside and tried to communicate to his friend, to no avail. Frantic, he reached his cloudy, spirit fingers towards Vincey, and was shocked when they crossed through the “glass” barrier, and penetrated into his brain – apparently through the Third Eye (identified as the pineal gland), which Bessel can see swell and react within Vincey’s skull. This immediately effected Vincey, who jolted up and began to stare in wonder at something.
But it was too late: a sudden gust of power blew Bessel backwards, and he was now back in his apartment, watching his body stagger to its feet under a foreign influence, and begin to rapturously trash the apartment around him. Delighted in their freedom, the demons hijacked his body and fled into the night with it – finally able to drink in liberty. Bessel returned to Vincey’s side, in hopes of alerting him to the dilemma, but Vincey’s Third Eye was now closed, and no amount of groping or pushing could reactivate it.
For hours he pounded on the minds of both Vincey and Hart, but only managed to insert himself in their dreams, without engaging their active attention or communicating his situation. In the morning, he is briefly capable of influencing Vincey – causing him to unconsciously rise and walk in the direction of Bessel’s stolen body – but Vincey was powerless to stop the evil spirits’ rampage.
Bessel realizes that these demonic entities must spend their whole existence monitoring human beings, coveting their power, and jumping at the opportunity to hijack their bodies in the event of a slip up: he observes first one then several mortified human beings like himself, lost in the shadow-land, although he cannot communicate with them any better than Vincey, and realizes that they, too, must have had their bodies stolen, and Bessel theorizes that this is the result of what the living call “insanity.”
During his pathetic rushings across London, in search of help, he stumbles upon Mrs. Bullock’s parlor. He recognizes her as a famous medium, but is mostly drawn to her massive pineal gland, which is glowing red and pulsing with undeniable health and vigor. He saw that she was jealously surrounded by the shadowy figures of men like himself, desperate to touch her Third Eye, and thus communicate with humanity. Aware that his body had clambered over the fence and fallen into the Baker Street excavation, he reached forward to touch her pineal gland and was successful in communicating his message.
Having done this, he returned to his body, watching as the evil spirit struggled within it, powerless to make it rise, and increasingly exacerbated and annoyed with his short-lived freedom. As dawn broke over London, the spirit finally departed from Bessel’s body in a bright flash, and Bessel was able to lunge forward and become reunited with himself at last. All at once, the shadowland vanished, and he felt the pain of his wounds with gladness: “in spite of the tears [of pain] … his heart was full of gladness to know that he was nevertheless back once more in the kindly world of men…”
Wells loves to corrode mankind’s confidence in our presumed omnipotence over the universe’s unexplored dimensions. The ocean is populated by fishy civilizations; Mars is crawling with misanthropic invaders; our rainforests are sheltering vampiric orchids; our favorite swimming holes are nurseries for bloodthirsty squids; darkness itself – and utterly by itself, with no spirits, specters, or bogeys to lurk in it – is a grave existential adversary; even the moths that flit stupidly about open candle flames pose a danger to our sanity and freedom. Every corner of our cosmos is ripe for hostility, destruction, and domination. Rather than craving exploration, Wells the Darwinian hopes that we recognize the miracle of our survival – the improbable marvel of humanity’s rise to a shaky and uncertain supremacy on a small rock hurtling through hateful night. The realm of the spiritual – one which Victorians craved to unveil and embrace – is no less horrifying, if not more so. Unlike the cuddly, empowering realm of departed friends and sage spirits which the Psychical Research Society popularized, Wells portrays a chaotic pandemonium peopled by insane phantoms that delight in rage, violence, and destruction. Rather than opening a cabinet to wisdom and understanding, Basel is hurled into a dark purgatory of isolation and terror, and is beyond relieved when he is returned to his body – the one corner of peace and security that his soul has been able to successfully nurture and maintain. Likewise, Wells encourages us to recognize our fortune in eking out a safe space in our vulnerable cities and fragile houses, not taking our luck for granted and inviting in the enthusiastic outliers which would eagerly destroy us and take our place if allowed. Whether they be Martians, squids, orchids, moths, darkness, Deep Ones, demons, or the very microbes that fester on every inch of our bodies, Wells’ fiction constantly warns us of that we are a species besieged, that our safety should never be taken for granted, and that our dominance is a comforting illusion at best – a dangerous lie at worst.