‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (Pall Mall Budget, 21 June 1894)It's a representative, and variable, selection of Wells's early short story writing. And by ‘variable’ I think I mean: mostly not-all-that-good-actually. ‘The Stolen Bacillus’, despite giving its name to the collection, is a squib: an anarchist tricks his way into the lab of a prominent chemist and steals a vial of cholera, with a view to dumping it into London's water-supply. The chemist chases after him coatless, hatless and wearing carpet slippers (his lab being in his home) and his wife chases after him with his proper shoes and coat. Each hails a cab, and they all hurtle past some central-casting Comical Cockneys (‘“Hullo!” said poor old Tommy Byles; “here's another bloomin' loonatic. Blowed if there aint.” “It's a fieldmale this time,” said the ostler boy.” “She's a followin' him,” said old Tootles. “Usually the other way about.” “What a bloomin' lark it is!” said the ostler boy.’) The Anarchist, about to be apprehended, swallows the cholera, but it turns out it's not cholera after all but a new germ the scientist has been developing (why is not disclosed to us) that will turn him bright blue all over. Meh. ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ tells of a timid suburban man whose life has been wholly uneventful and whose hobby is growing orchids in a little hothouse. He buys a strange bulb, and it flowers suddenly: when he comes into his greenhouse its strong scent anesthestises him and it puts out tendrils to suck his blood; but his housekeeper rescues him. The last lines of the story are: ‘The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and putrescent;. But Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the glory of his strange adventure.’
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ (Pall Mall Budget, 9 August 1894)
‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 3 March 1894)
‘A Deal in Ostriches’ (Pall Mall Budget, 20 December 1894)
‘Through a Window’ (Black and White, 25 August 1894)
‘The Temptation of Harringay’ (St. James’s Gazette, 9 February 1895)
‘The Flying Man’ (Pall Mall Gazette, December 1893)
‘The Diamond Maker’ (Pall Mall Budget, 16 August 1894)
‘Æpyornis Island’ (Pall Mall Budget, 27 December 1894)
‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’ (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895)
‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 6 September 1894)
‘The Hammerpond Park Burglary’ (Pall Mall Budget, 5 July 1894)
‘The Moth’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 March 1895)
‘The Treasure in the Forest’ (Pall Mall Budget, 23 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ concerns Woodhouse, an astronomer, sitting at his a telescope one night in Borneo when he is attacked by a strange flying beast of some kind: a man-sized bat (‘the Dyak chaps talk about a Big Colugo, a Klang-utang—whatever that may be’). ‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’ and ‘A Deal in Ostriches’ are two short, unpleasant (in a bad way) stories in which an unscrupulous taxidermist boasts of the things he has stuffed. For example: he once faked a bird, a legendary creature supposedly from New Zealand, but which a collector insisted upon obtaining: ‘I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers’. The humour of these two pieces, though, has aged catastrophically: ‘I stuffed a nigger once. There is no law against it. I made him with all his fingers out and used him as a hat-rack, but that fool Homersby got up a quarrel with him late one night and spoilt him.’ Ugh.
In ‘Through a Window’ Bailey has broken both his legs, and must sit looking out of his window whilst they heal. There's just the germ of Rear Window-style interest and tension in this premise, although Wells takes it in an awkwardly xenophobic direction. Bailey's house abuts an English river, and he watches the bargemen and other boaty-type-people go up and down. But then a Malay bargeman goes on a killing spree with his ‘krees’, for reasons that are not disclosed. Pursued by the authorities, he sees that he has been being observed by Bailey:
In another moment a hairy brown hand had appeared and clutched the balcony railings, and in another the face of the Malay was peering through these at the man on the couch. His expression was an unpleasant grin, by reason of the krees he held between his teeth, and he was bleeding from an ugly wound in his cheek. His hair wet to drying stuck out like horns from his head. His body was bare save for the wet trousers that clung to him. Bailey's first impulse was to spring from the couch, but his legs reminded him that this was impossible.The police shoot the intruder in the back through the open window, and Bailey finishes him off by smashing a bottle on his head. The straightforward racist demonisation of the Malay is clumsily done, and the story lacks larger point. ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ is a five-finger Faustian exercise: a mediocre painter called Harringay inadvertently paints a devil, that comes to life on the canvas. The devils tempts him with greatness (‘Two indubitable masterpieces for a Chelsea artist's soul. It's a bargain?’) but Harringay is having none of it, and paints over the whole canvas with a thick layer of green. In ‘The Flying Man’ an Ethnologist discovers the truth behind stories of a flying man of the gullible natives of some corner (Indian, I think) of the British empire in a British lieutenant's daring escape, when under attack by a native army, jerry-rigging a parachute out of an old tent. ‘Æpyornis Island’ is a Robinson Crusoe story with the added wrinkle that the castaway, Butcher, happens to be carrying a gigantic egg he had previously excavated, and from which a chick of the titular gigantic prehistoric breed of bird hatches. Butcher raises this bird until it is bigger than he is, but when it turns on him he has to kill it. ‘The Hammerpond Park Burglary’ is a bit of fluff about a burglar who disguises himself as a landscape painter to scope out a fancy house. ‘The Moth’ is a story about two entomologists who spend decades in scholarly battle over various species of moth with such passion that when one dies, the other feels his life empty, and eventually is driven mad, thinking himself haunted by the ghost of his rival in the form of a moth. It's less silly than that summary makes it sound, although only slightly less silly. And in ‘The Treasure in the Forest’ two men travel to a tropical island in search of buried Spanish ingots, but both die when poisoned by the local vegetation, and that's pretty much all that happens.
The remaining three stories are a little more interesting. The narrator of ‘The Diamond Maker’ is out for a night-time stroll:
Some business had detained me in Chancery Lane until nine in the evening, and thereafter, having some inkling of a headache, I was disinclined either for entertainment or further work. So much of the sky as the high cliffs of that narrow cañon of traffic left visible spoke of a serene night, and I determined to make my way down to the Embankment, and rest my eyes and cool my head by watching the variegated lights upon the river. Beyond comparison the night is the best time for this place; a merciful darkness hides the dirt of the waters, and the lights of this transition age, red, glaring orange, gas-yellow, and electric white, are set in shadowy outlines of every possible shade between grey and deep purple. Through the arches of Waterloo Bridge a hundred points of light mark the sweep of the Embankment, and above its parapet rise the towers of Westminster, warm grey against the starlight. The black river goes by with only a rare ripple breaking its silence, and disturbing the reflections of the lights that swim upon its surface.One of Wells's skills as a writer is his ability to leaven the lump of his ordinary story with, as here, just the right quantity of descriptive fine-writing. The narrator meets a shabby, desperate man who offers him a gigantic diamond for £100. He has, he says, devoted his life to discovering the manufacture of artificial diamonds but, aware that the window of opportunity for capitalising upon his discovery is short, now finds that nobody believes him. ‘I began to work at the conditions of diamond making when I was seventeen, and now I am thirty-two. It seemed to me that it might take all the thought and energies of a man for ten years, or twenty years, but, even if it did, the game was still worth the candle. Suppose one to have at last just hit the right trick, before the secret got out and diamonds became as common as coal, one might realise millions. Millions!’ Alas, following experiment-related explosions in his home, the police think he's an anarchist; jewellers assume he's a thief or a fence; and even the narrator is wary of him: so he starves on the street. It's an early example of one of what we might call Wells's ‘Kingdom of the Blind’-type stories: if situation-x obtained you might jump to conclusion y, but the truth is actually z. There ought to be a term for such story premises. Here x is ‘you have invented a technique for making diamonds’ and y is ‘you would be rich’.
Then there is ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, set in a Camberwell electricity generating sub-station, where three large dynamnos operate under the care of Holroyd, a drunken bullying Yorkshireman. His assistant is a Burmese (I think) called Azuma-zi, who barely speaks English, is beaten and mocked by Holyoyd and who comes to believe that the largest of the three dynamos is a god. He electrocutes Holroyd against the terminals by way of sacrificing him to this deity, but when he tries to do the same to Holroyd's successor the new manager fights back, and Azuma-zi is killed. ‘So ended prematurely the Worship of the Dynamo Deity,’ the narrator comments, sardonically; ‘perhaps the most short-lived of all religions. Yet withal it could at least boast a Martyrdom and a Human Sacrifice.’ The main problem here is the way the story's critique, as it were, of Holroyd's ignorant and violent racism (‘Holroyd liked a nigger help because he would stand kicking—a habit with Holroyd’) folds over into a primary and more toxic set of racist assumptions about ‘the oriental savage’ and ‘the negro mind’:
Holroyd was proud of his big dynamo, and expatiated upon its size and power to Azuma-zi until heaven knows what odd currents of thought that and the incessant whirling and shindy set up within the curly black cranium. He would explain in the most graphic manner the dozen or so ways in which a man might be killed by it, and once he gave Azuma-zi a shock as a sample of its quality. After that, in the breathing-times of his labour—it was heavy labour, being not only his own, but most of Holroyd's—Azuma-zi would sit and watch the big machine. Now and then the brushes would sparkle and spit blue flashes, at which Holroyd would swear, but all the rest was as smooth and rhythmic as breathing. The band ran shouting over the shaft, and ever behind one as one watched was the complacent thud of the piston. So it lived all day in this big airy shed, with him and Holroyd to wait upon it; not prisoned up and slaving to drive a ship as the other engines he knew—mere captive devils of the British Solomon—had been, but a machine enthroned. Those two smaller dynamos, Azuma-zi by force of contrast despised; the large one he privately christened the Lord of the Dynamos. They were fretful and irregular, but the big dynamo was steady. How great it was! How serene and easy in its working! Greater and calmer even than the Buddahs he had seen at Rangoon, and yet not motionless, but living! The great black coils spun, spun, spun, the rings ran round under the brushes, and the deep note of its coil steadied the whole. It affected Azuma-zi queerly.I wouldn't try to pretend the affect of this story can be neatly separated out from its racism; but I would suggest that that affect is notable, and has more to do with technology as such: the intimation that the coming century would involve us prostrated before, and often literally sacrificed to, big machinery, in everything from wars to traffic deaths to environmental destruction. Wells is particularly good on the trance-state evoked by the noises the dynamo makes:
a steady stream of din, from which the ear picked out first one thread and then another; there was the intermittent snorting, panting, and seething of the steam engines, the suck and thud of their pistons, the dull beat on the air as the spokes of the great driving-wheels came round, a note the leather straps made as they ran tighter and looser, and a fretful tumult from the dynamos; and over all, sometimes inaudible, as the ear tired of it, and then creeping back upon the senses again, was this trombone note of the big machine. The floor never felt steady and quiet beneath one's feet, but quivered and jarred. It was a confusing, unsteady place, and enough to send anyone's thoughts jerking into odd zigzags.Sound shamanically destabilises rational consciousness, and the central irony of the tale—that this atavistic numinous mind-state is created by the very embodiment of electric modernity—is a resonant and eloquent one.
From sounds to sights. Finally there is ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’, in which a laboratory accident (‘something about electrometers’, is Wells's narrator's commendably vague explanation) first blinds Davidson, and then enables him to see what is happening on the exact opposite point of the globe. He sees a desert island instead of the lab; when he wanders downhill into London it seems to him he is sinking under the sea, walking past shipwrecks and so on. It is a simple conceit, and yet an oddly potent one, because the metaphorical valence of the central idea is so expressive. It works, and not only because Davidson is a scientist, as a trope for writing itself, the imaginative dilation and the power of bringing the hidden into view. Which, I suppose, is a roundabout way of saying Davidson's Eyes trope science fiction itself: they anticipate Roy Batty's glorious line to Hannibal Chew, some ninety years later: ‘Chew, if only you could see what I've seen with your eyes.’ I have, in the past, suggested that that line summarises the splendour of science fiction cinema as such, and something of the force of it is present in Wells's strange conceit here.
Overall, then, it's a mixed bag. When I say that the best of these stories are the sciencefictional ones, I don't think I'm merely venting my personal predilections (I mean: I don't think it's that). Wells's very fluency as a writer becomes, in some of his work, a problem, if only in the sense that a commission to write short, readable stories of the kind that will beguile a commuter travelling on the 7:55 Croydon for ten minutes is liable to produce work that is precisely as disposable as such a brief implies. There's nothing wrong with this, and the larger question of the journalistic form of Wells's writerly genius is one to which I will return on this blog (nor do I mean ‘journalistic’ in a merely dismissive sense). Being readably disposable means being novel enough to pique audience's interest but not so novel as to alienate or baffle them. It also means working with the grain of your audience ideologically speaking—I don't mean to be heavy-handed when I say this, but it's what's behind the tendency towards lazy stereotyping that is the core of the racism of several of these pieces. The thing is, from time to time Wells wraps his trivial bar-room anecdote, or piece of diverting whimsy, around something much more memorable and powerful. Wells's talent for sparkling drollery, his overall writerly charm, and his capacious ingenuity are all on display throughout this collection; but he also had a talent for the actually unnerving, the grotesque and/or sense-of-wonderful, and that's here too, if more intermittently. ‘The Moth’ almost hits this bullseye, and ‘The Diamond Maker’, ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’ and ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ all, I think, hit it straight on.
This, to return to my King Charles's Head, is why Wells's science-fictional stories have proved so much more enduring than his other sorts of tales. The salient in any short story is brevity, of course; and the dangers brevity inevitably entails are triviality and evanescence. One way of avoiding those consequences is structuring your story around a central trope or metaphor that stays with the reader after the events and characters are gone, and SF is just better at doing that than other modes of writing, because SF is a fundamentally metaphorical form of art (it is so because it aims at representing the world without simply reproducing it).
This is why I consider the SF short the key, if overlooked, mode of short story in the 20th-century. Walter Allen's critical survey The Short Story in English (Clarendon 1981) argues that ‘the short story is rooted in a single incident or perception’; and that therefore its effect ‘is nearer to that of lyric poetry than the novel’. V.S. Pritchett (in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories) agrees: ‘the novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely ... the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse.’ Where prose narrative is a fundamentally metonymic progression of A → B → C, the lyric poem makes a metaphoric leap into some new, and affecting, location. SF, though often embodied in narrative form, is much more centrally about this metaphorical jump: think of the ape-man's bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey, thrown up into the wide blue sky, followed by the camera, reaching its apogee, starting to fall back down and then, unexpectedly, turning into an orbiting space-craft. It's powerful and beautiful and affecting, and its power, beauty and affect cannot really be rationally described. In that it is a poetic, rather than a narrative, moment. And Wells, for all his witty garrulity, is capable of piercing moments of real poetry.