Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Plattner Story and Others (1897)


This second collection of Wellsian short fiction is, like the first, a mixed bag. So, to avoid reduplicating the broader points of my earlier post, and by way of curbing my natural prolixity, I'll concentrate discussion on the two stories here (of seventeen) that seem to me most powerful and interesting, and scoot through the rest. Here's the content's page. See if you can guess which two I mean:
‘The Plattner Story’ (New Review, April 1896)
‘The Argonauts of the Air’ (Phil May's Annual, 1895)
‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ (The Idler, May 1896)
‘In the Abyss’ (Pearson's Magazine, August 1896)
‘The Apple’ (The Idler, October 1896)
‘Under the Knife’ (New Review, January 1896)
‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6th Dec 1896)
‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ (New Budget, 23rd May 1895)
‘The Red Room’ (The Idler, March 1896)
‘The Cone’ (Unicorn, 1895)
‘The Purple Pileus’ (Black and White, Christmas Number 1896)
‘The Jilting of Jane’ (first in this collection)
‘In the Modern Vein’ (first published as ‘A Bardlet's Romance’, Truth, 8th March 1894)
‘A Catastrophe’ (New Budget, 4th April 1895)
‘The Lost Inheritance’ (first in this collection)
‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’ (New Budget, 15th August 1895)
‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (The Yellow Book, January 1896)
The balance in this collection is weighted away from what we might call science fiction, towards two main sorts of tale: mundane morceaux de comédie on the one hand and stories of ghosts, haunting and obsession on the other, with the occasional chunk of melodrama or tech-fic thrown in. On the mundane side is the perfectly disposable ‘The Jilting of Jane’, an offcut from the material later collected in Certain Personal Matters, about Wells and his fictional wife Euphemia (Jane is their servant girl, jilted by her boyfriend, who attends his wedding to another woman and throws a boot at him. That's all).  Then there's ‘In the Modern Vein’, a strange little misfire about an affaire du coeur between a married poet called Aubrey Vair and a mixed-race Indian woman called Miss Smith. That description probably makes the story sound more intriguing than it actually is: the focus is not in the least on Smith, and all on the ridiculous pretensions of third-rate poetaster Vair. It is, we may assume, Wells trying to work something out about his own extra-marital dalliances, but nothing comes out in this story, and it doesn't really work. ‘A Catastrophe’ is a vignette of lower-middle-class life: a draper whose shop is failing, saved by an unexpected inheritance. ‘The Purple Pileus’ concerns a henpecked lower-middle-class husband who eats the mushroom of the story's title and thereby discovers his manliness, able now to overbear his wife. ‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ concerns a cheating science student who is found out, and ‘The Lost Inheritance’ amounts to a shaggy dog story: a dying man gives his nephew a book; a different nephew inherits the man's fortune, and squanders it immediately; three years later the first nephew finally gets around to opening the book to find, too late, a will inside leaving everything to him. Then there's ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’, a strange piece about a shy fellow who becomes drama critic for a London newspaper and finds himself increasingly imitating the much more floridly extrovert mannerisms of the actors upon whom he reports, until he reaches such a point of thespy excess that his fiancée leaves him.

There are nice touches in all these mundane tales, although none of them are especially memorable. The best of them is probably ‘The Apple’: Mr Hinchcliff meets another man on a train, and receives from him an apple. The stranger claims this is the actual apple from the Edenic Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and indeed seems to regret his gift (‘“No!” shouted the stranger, and made a snatch at it as if to take it back’) but Hinchcliff has alighted and the train is already moving on. ‘He would have eaten the thing, and attained omniscience there and then, but it would seem so silly to go into the town sucking a juicy fruit—and it certainly felt juicy.’ Then, on a whim, he throws it over a wall, into an orchard. The story ends:
But in the darkness of the night Mr. Hinchcliff had a dream, and saw the valley, and the flaming swords, and the contorted trees, and knew that it really was the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge that he had thrown regardlessly away. And he awoke very unhappy.

In the morning his regret had passed, but afterwards it returned and troubled him; never, however, when he was happy or busily occupied. At last, one moonlight night about eleven, when all Holmwood was quiet, his regrets returned with redoubled force, and therewith an impulse to adventure. He slipped out of the house and over the playground wall, went through the silent town to Station Lane, and climbed into the orchard where he had thrown the fruit. But nothing was to be found of it there among the dewy grass and the faint intangible globes of dandelion down.
This short piece has a plangent road-not-travelled quality which works well; although, being a story about the things that elude us in life, it doesn't quite avoid the dangers of intangibility

The stories of haunting are more robust pieces of writing, I'd say. In ‘The Red Room’ a scoffer agrees to spend the night in a room reputedly haunted; but despite his best efforts to remain rational he is properly terrified and flees. The room, it seems, is haunted by fear itself, ‘there is Fear in that room of hers—black Fear, and there will be—so long as this house of sin endures!’ The narrator of ‘Under the Knife’ ‘dies’ on the operating table, and experiences millennia of postmortem spirit-travel only to wake up to discover the operation has in fact been successful, an actual ‘it was all a dream!’ piece of fluff. And then there are the aforementioned two best pieces in the collection: the title story and the amazing, ghastly, ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’. Both are stories of hauntings.

Before I say a little about them, though, I'll run through the remaining pieces. ‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ ought to work better than it does: a Jekyll-and-Hyde retread in which an old man tricks a young one into swapping souls, or something, leaving our protagonist trapped in the other's decaying old body. In ‘The Cone’ Horrocks, manager of the Jeddah Company Blast Furnace, shows Raut, an artist, round his factory. Raut has been having an affair with Horrocks's wife, but Horrocks knows this, and pushes him off a gangway into the mouth of the titular furnace. There's a splendid, if rather gnashing, final scene, with Raut hanging desperately to a chain as Horrocks hurls coal at him from above to dislodge him: ‘Fizzle, you fool! Fizzle, you hunter of women! You hot-blooded hound! Boil! boil! boil!’ Raut ends a charred corpse. Hardly subtle, but fun nonetheless. Then there are two marine stories, conceivably indicative of a writer who holidays a lot in English coastal resorts, casting about for inspiration. In ‘The Sea Raiders’ intelligent cephalopods come out of the water and make war on the south coast of England; and ‘In The Abyss’ concerns submarine explorer Elstead who descends five miles in a pressurised steel sphere (such craft were not called bathyscaphes until the 1940s) to the ocean bed, where he glimpses an entire civilisation of vaguely humanoid fish-people. The story works because it only hints, rather than tediously elaborating, this undiscovered country. It's better than its Cameronian namesake-movie, at any rate.

There's one other story in this collection that looks forward to technology that subsequently became commonplace, although it's one of the weakest. Monson, the millionaire protagonist of ‘The Argonauts of the Air’, has wasted his entire fortune trying to build heavier-than-air flying craft, as yet to no avail. Goaded by the polite mockery of attractive society women he insists he and his engineer take their prototype machine out for a spin. They do, but the plane crashes in South Kensington killing them both. The thing is, the story is built around a strange failure of imaginative extrapolation: for despite decades of experience of ballooning, thousands of years of flying kites and millions of years of observing birds and insects, Wells has the idea lodged stuck in his head that a heavier-than-air plane would be completely at the mercy of eddies in the airy medium through which it passed. Most of Monson's money has gone on building ‘huge scaffoldings ... which limited the flight of the apparatus’, running two miles from Wimbledon to Worcester Park ‘a massive alley of interlacing iron and timber, and an enormous web of ropes and tackle, extending the best part of two miles.’ It's leaving the safety of these guide-ropes that causes disaster. But the whole thing strikes the oddest note, and it vitiates the story. Monson has not really built a plane at all. He's built an elaborate zip-wire gondola.

Or perhaps this story only seems underpowered, in comparison with the collection's two best to which I now, at last, turn my attention. On the one hand we have the title piece, ‘The Plattner Story’, a two-step piece. It begins with the mystery of Gottfried Plattner (‘in spite of his name, a free-born Englishman’) who works as a teacher at Sussexville Proprietary School. Something bizarre has happened to him such that his body has undergone a mirroring transformation, what in maths they call ‘reflexion’: the scar that was on one side of his body is now on the other, his internal organs are flipped about and so on. This hook is a neat idea, and presumably developed out of Wells's reading in geometry. We tend to think of such mapping of a figure from a Euclidean space to itself, that isometry, as a two-dimensional process, as when we flip over a key, or an irregular-shaped token, or perhaps just look at our two hands side by side. But it also applies in three. The transformation through which Plattner has passed could not be effected in our three dimensions; the only explanation is that he has been completely removed from our 3D-plane, turned, and reinserted. I can't prove that Wells's starting point for this story was reading Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland (1884), but I strongly suspect it: the character's very name is a Germanification of ‘flat’, after all. This though, is only the starting point.

It leads to the second step in the story, where we discover how Plattner got flipped: he is experimenting with a certain green powder when he stumbles, it ignites, and he becomes invisible to the people around him (we're told ‘he found the medicine bottle still unbroken in his hand, with the remainder of the green powder therein’; which is fortunate in terms of him eventually being able to get back, as you'll see in a moment). He is in a strange alternate dimension superposed upon our own; during Earthly daylight Sussexville is plainly visible to him, whilst this Other World is shadowy and dim; but during Earth's night Sussexville fades from view and a weird green sun illuminates the Other World. He spends nine days in this place, and observes its inhabitants:
They were not walking, they were indeed limbless, and they had the appearance of human heads, beneath which a tadpole-like body swung. He was too astonished at their strangeness, too full, indeed, of strangeness, to be seriously alarmed by them. They drove towards him, in front of the chill wind that was blowing uphill, much as soap-bubbles drive before a draught. And as he looked at the nearest of those approaching, he saw it was indeed a human head, albeit with singularly large eyes, and wearing such an expression of distress and anguish as he had never seen before upon mortal countenance. He was surprised to find that it did not turn to regard him, but seemed to be watching and following some unseen moving thing. For a moment he was puzzled, and then it occurred to him that this creature was watching with its enormous eyes something that was happening in the world he had just left. [‘The Plattner Story’]
Some of these beings facially resemble people Plattner knows; and although they appear to have houses and even churches in their realm, they spend their time watching the Earthly living. The story ends when Plattner sees into a room, in our world, where an old man lies on his deathbed, ignored by his much younger wife ‘because she was busy turning out papers from an old-fashioned bureau in the opposite corner of the room.’ Watchers from the Other World crowd around, distressed. She burns his will. At the man's death an Other World bell sounds, ‘cutting through the unexpected stillness like a keen, thin blade’; ‘a breath of wind, icy cold, blew through the host of watchers’ and a long black arm reaches over Plattner to seize the man. Terrified, Plattner flees, falls, breaks the bottle of green powder in his pocket and so is returned to our world.

It ought to be hokey and risible, and in one sense it kind-of is; but something about the strenuous eeriness of this tale works rather well, actually. Although it would I think, have been rather more effective without Wells's inserted explanations, babbling-on like Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol:
What are they—these Watchers of the Living? Plattner never learned. But two, that presently found and followed him, were like his childhood’s memory of his father and mother. Whenever they looked at him, Plattner was overcome with a strange sense of responsibility. To his mother he ventured to speak; but she made no answer. She looked sadly, steadfastly, and tenderly—a little reproachfully, too, it seemed—into his eyes.

He simply tells this story: he does not endeavour to explain. We are left to surmise who these Watchers of the Living may be, or if they are indeed the Dead, why they should so closely and passionately watch a world they have left for ever. It may be—indeed to my mind it seems just—that, when our life has closed, when evil or good is no longer a choice for us, we may still have to witness the working out of the train of consequences we have laid. If human souls continue after death, then surely human interests continue after death. But that is merely my own guess at the meaning of the things seen. Plattner offers no interpretation, for none was given him. [‘The Plattner Story’]
It is, for all that, a nice inversion: the living man haunts the world of the dead. And the landscape is beautifully weird, all dim green light and black shadows.

Which brings us finally to ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’; one of the best things Wells ever wrote. It is a simple matter summarising this tale, though summary does nothing to convey its distinctive and haunting quality. Pollock is a wastrel who has ended up, like many young Englishman who squandered their youths and reputations, working in the nether reaches of the Empire, in this case in Sierra Leone. The story starts as a native attempts to kill Pollock because Pollock has appropriated the man's girlfriend, or perhaps wife (I don't think it is specified) as his own: ‘the Porroh man stabbed the woman to the heart as though he had been a mere low-class Italian, and very narrowly missed Pollock. But Pollock, using his revolver to parry the lightning stab which was aimed at his deltoid muscle, sent the iron dagger flying, and, firing, hit the man in the hand.’ This passage from Anglican vicar C. F. Schlenker's A Collection of Temne Traditions, Fables and Proverbs (London 1861), which perhaps Wells read, explains the significance of porroh:


This also, incidentally, helps us locate the story's setting: ‘the Rokel’ is a major Sierra Leone river. More substantively, it brings out one of the most important features of the story as such: ‘Pollock’ and ‘O-ko-poro’ sound very much like variants of the same name. I'll come back to that.

The story's first stroke of genius, I think, is in this account of the last time Pollock sees the Porroh-man alive:
He fired again and missed, knocking a sudden window out of the wall of the hut. The Porroh man stooped in the doorway, glancing under his arm at Pollock. Pollock caught a glimpse of his inverted face in the sunlight, and then the Englishman was alone, sick and trembling with the excitement of the affair, in the twilight of the place. It had all happened in less time than it takes to read about it. [‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’]
Glancing back under his arm at Pollock: isn't that wonderful? The strangeness of this posture, and the flashbulb (as we now say) nature of the sight, work brilliantly. Fearing the Porroh man's continued animus Pollock pays a bounty hunter to assassinate the fellow, a commission he proves by delivering to Pollock the Porroh man's severed head. From this point onward Pollock is unrelentingly haunted by the head, always appearing to him inverted. He buries it, but the dog digs it up again: ‘the nose was grievously battered. Ants and flies swarmed over it. By an odd coincidence, it was still upside down, and with the same diabolical expression in the inverted eyes’. He throws it in the sea, but it finds its way back to him. He decides he must leave Sierra Leone to escape the curse, and throws the head on a fire before he goes. But, taking passage on a ship for England, he finds that the captain of the ship has bought the head (“pickled ’ed,” said the captain. “—smoked. ’Ed of one of these Porroh chaps, all ornamented with knife-cuts”) as a ‘rummy curio’ and that it is on the ship with him. Back in England Pollock hallucinates the head everywhere he goes, always hanging upside-down. He's perfectly aware that the balance of his mind is disturbed, and asks his bank manager to ‘recommend me a physician for mind troubles? I’ve got a little—what is it?—hallucination.’ But it is no good. It doesn't matter what he tries, or where he goes: Pollock cannot escape the head. The story ends with him cutting his own throat with a straight-razor.

Stories of this kind—I mean, stories that set out to chill, or scare, to trail tendrils of dread over the tender member of the reader's mind—are aiming at something really very personal. Like jokes, of which they are perhaps the alarming mirror-image, two people may react very differently to the same material. All I can say is that, for me, ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ generates a very powerful affect indeed. Very unsettling and weird and powerful. This has, I suppose, something to do with the architecture of my own subconscious, concerning which speculation would surely prove unilluminating, at least as far as Wells's original story is concerned.

We can at least say that what links the effectiveness of this story to the still memorable (if far inferior) ‘The Plattner Story’ is the way they both premise haunting in terms of inversion. ‘Plattner’ inverts the convention of the ghost story as such, sending a living person over to as-it-were haunt the dead. ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ is more conventionally structured, and owes something to the granddaddy of all such tales, Poe's ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843). But by making Pollock's guilt much less personal than is the case in Poe's tale Wells achieves something much more memorable. Not that Pollock is an innocent party; indeed, far from it. One effect of his experiences is to force Pollock to confront his own past:
His wretched home, his still more wretched schooldays, the years of vicious life he had led since then, one act of selfish dishonour leading to another; it was all clear and pitiless now, all its squalid folly, in the cold light of the dawn. He came to the hut, to the fight with the Porroh man, to the retreat down the river to Sulyma, to the Mendi assassin and his red parcel, to his frantic endeavours to destroy the head, to the growth of his hallucination. [‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’]
His guilt is larger than the killing of one man. It is, in a word, imperial guilt; which brings home how far Wells has come even in the two years since the clumsy racism and imperial complacency of (some) of the stories in The Stolen Bacillus collection. To repeat myself a little from earlier, the story's implication is that Pollock is haunted by the Porroh man because the two of them are inverted versions of one another: one head-upright, one head-upside-down; white man and black man; imperialised and colonial subject; scientific rationalist and witch-doctor trader in curses. In both cases, as the passage from the Reverend Schlenker's book quoted above makes clear, the real issue of power is less magical or sexual than it is political: which is to say, it is magical, and sexual, and to do with possession and power, but that all these things are subsumed under the main imperial category of ‘politics’. ‘It is chiefly of a political nature,’ Schlenker reports, of the Porroh; ‘and they assume a great deal of power, and are very violent.’ He could be talking about the British Empire. No wonder Pollock cannot escape the curse by returning to London. As Wells’s friend Conrad was to point out, four years after this story was first published, London is the heart of the imperial darkness. Wells's tale is saying: strip away all the surface epiphenomena of such things and we discover this uncomfortable truth: it is we who haunt ourselves. It is the hanged man who pursues the upright man, and they are the same man.

Finally, a note on the following link: I had this album, in its 1983 original vinyl, but in the red, not the blue, livery.


2 comments:

  1. What chilled me the most was the relentless progression of the hallucination - how the unreal head seems ever more vivid and solid, as Pollock returns home, until finally he can even feel it with his hands (a ghastly touch, as you might say).

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    1. That's exactly right, I think. Though it's that last sight of the Porroh man, in that odd posture, looking back with his head under his arm, that really sticks with me. Maybe it's because there's something both contorted, and also childishly playful, about it.

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