The Curmudgeon


Monday, September 21, 2009

H G Wells

A very happy birthday to H G Wells, who is a hundred and forty-three. I first encountered his work when we were both considerably younger, most likely thanks to a film which he would probably have disliked: George Pal's engaging but half-baked version of The Time Machine. The scene in which Rod Taylor remains physically unscathed while a nuclear attack boils the paving stones around him is only slightly more ludicrous than the blue body-stockings which pass for Morlock make-up effects; but at my first viewing I was young enough not to register such details. The two scenes that made the greatest impression on me were the one at the beginning, where Taylor demonstrates his discovery to his friends with a miniature Time Machine which I made haste to try and reproduce in Lego; and the one where the Eloi show him their library, in which the crumbling of books into dust must have caused me considerable moral shock.

Wells is apparently under-rated in several of the many literary fields he explored (although the field that yielded the title The Bulpington of Blup might better have been left fallow); and writers of horror stories - including, of course, your correspondent - are under-rated by almost everyone. Wells wrote a number of fantastic, macabre and just-plain-horrific tales, and it is very likely that the next I heard of him was through a BBC television series called Spine Chillers. This was a sort of macabre Jackanory for the early evening, in which some suitably-voiced personality would read out a short ghostly tale, and which I believe I have to thank for introducing me to the work of Saki, via the wonderful "Sredni Vashtar". The Wells piece, which I think may have been the first of the series, was "The Red Room", a thoroughly effective ghost story well served by Freddie Jones' inimitable delivery. Wells' other weird tales range from the near-mystical ("Under the Knife") through the conte cruel ("The Cone") to the unrepentantly ghastly (the superb, and superbly titled, "Pollock and the Porroh Man").

During my teens I finally got around to reading the four great science fiction novels on which Wells' reputation still largely rests: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. I like the first and second considerably more than the third and fourth, although it is probably time for me to give The War of the Worlds another look. I think I saw James Whale's delightful adaptation of The Invisible Man before I read the book; The Island of Doctor Moreau has been filmed at least three times, never quite satisfactorily. The first version, made in the thirties and called Isle of Lost Souls, starred Charles Laughton as a whip-wielding British sadist; Wells despised it and fully supported the British censor's efforts to keep it from polluting the silver screens of Albion. A version made in the 1970s had Burt Lancaster and Nigel Davenport nicely cast as Moreau and his drunken sidekick Montgomery (and spawned a tie-in paperback edition of which I owned a second-hand copy long before the film turned up on television); but it foundered in romantic clich├ęs, happy endings and Michael York. The 1990s version starring Brando and Kilmer is not nearly as bad as its reputation, but does nothing that the other two films hadn't done already. It's regrettable that Richard Stanley, the brilliant director of Hardware and Dust Devil, who co-wrote the screenplay, contrived to get himself fired as director and replaced with the professional but uninspired John Frankenheimer.

One film based on his work of which Wells did approve was Alexander Korda's production Things to Come. I have never seen it, though I did read the book when I was about fourteen or fifteen; whatever impression it made seems to have been eclipsed by the intellectual supernova precipitated by my discovery of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. During about the same period I also read such things as The Sleeper Wakes, A Story of the Days to Come and In the Days of the Comet, none of which has left any noticeable mark. I have never got around to Tono-Bungay, but I may yet.

The latest Wells book to come my way is the novella The Croquet Player, a brilliantly written, bleakly pessimistic horror fable published in the mid-thirties and never reprinted until Trent Editions brought it out again sixty years later. The narrator, the croquet player of the title - and indeed probably one of the best croquet players alive and not ashamed to admit it - has two disturbing encounters with two thoroughly unsettling men; even less settling for the fact that the first man is a doctor and the second is the psychiatrist of the first. I found The Croquet Player while waiting for a friend in a London bookshop, and bought it on nothing more than wilful whim; if you can get hold of a copy, I strongly suggest that you do so, or else go here and thank John Gibson in the comments. Wells' ineffectual young protagonist is at least as relevant in the age of climate change and virtual reality as he was in the age of Fascism: then as now, whatever the state of the world, one must play croquet with one's aunt.


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