Henry James saw in Wells the most gifted writer of the age, but Wells, having coined the phrase “the war that will end war” to describe World War I, became increasingly disillusioned and focused his attention on educating mankind with his bestselling Outline of History (1920) and his later utopian works. Living until 1946, Wells witnessed a world more terrible than any of his imaginative visions, and he bitterly observed: “Reality has taken a leaf from my book and set itself to supercede me.”
One of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, Toby Litt, author of Corpsing, deadkidsongs, Exhibitionism, Finding Myself and Ghost Story brings us a monthly selection on cult literature.
This month features: The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds by H.G.WellsPublished by: Penguin Classics
By any standard, it’s an astonishing run of books: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898).
As a series of great and malleable pop-cultural ideas, it’s hard to find anything to compare it to. Perhaps Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil and The Stepford Wives – though his ideas seem far less archetypal.
H. G. Wells’ stories demand to be retold, by film-makers but also by other novelists. And there are a number of reasons for this. The main one, it seems to me, is that as a storyteller Wells is an amazing mixture of the acute and the inept.
Take almost any paragraph of his books and, apart from the period details, you’ll find that it still works as succinct, action-filled or action-promising prose. Sentence by sentence, a time-travelling Wells would have little to learn from Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum.
The Time Machine is more obviously Victorian in tone than the later books. But here’s The Island of Dr Moreau:
‘The furious face of the Leopard Man flashed by mine, with M’ling in close pursuit. I saw the yellow eyes of the Hyena-Swine blazing with excitement, his attitude as if he were half-resolved to attack me. The Satyr, too, glared at me over the Hyena-Swine’s hunched shoulders. I heard the crack of Moreau’s pistol and saw the pink flash dart across the tumult. The whole crowd seemed to swing round in the direction of the glint of fire, and I, too, was swung round by the magnetism of the moment. In another second I was running, one of a tumultuous shouting crowd, in pursuit of the escaping Leopard Man.’
Writing, when it is describing fast action, tends to lose some distinctiveness. Slow events are more easily amenable to a highly original style. But Wells manages to maintain, in all his work, an intellectual argument running right through the visceral moments.
The ineptness, though, reveals itself in Wells’s missed opportunities.
The Time Machine seems hugely imbalanced by the fact that the Time Traveller goes into the future but not into the past. His longest visit is to a future world that works to illustrate Wells’ thesis on the long-term effects of dividing populations into the workers and the leisured classes. But the book seems, at least to me, to require views into at least two other possible forms of human society. It’s just too short.
The Island of Dr Moreau is, in my opinion, the best written and most carefully crafted of these stories. It has moments of unapologetically extreme terror. But there are some awful creaks near the start, to keep the narrator from realising the bestial nature of Dr Moreau’s helpers:
‘A large launch with two standing lugs lay under the lee of the schooner, and into this the strange assortment of goods were swung. I did not then see the hands from the island that were receiving the packages, for the hull of the launch was hidden from me by the side of the schooner’.
As a result, the narrator seems for a long time – painfully dim. But the problem is partly that Wells’ books are now so famous that we already know their secret before we read them.
However, with The Invisible Man the title itself gives away the biggest secret. The opening chapters, though, seem written as if the reader were in ignorance of the reason behind the odd events they are witnessing. Where the novel misses a huge opportunity is towards the end, when the Invisible Man promises to establish a ‘reign of terror’ but completely fails to do so. His defeat comes abruptly, and far too easily.
The War of the Worlds, without giving too much away myself, is undermined by being a fait accompli right from the start, if only we knew. Deus ex machina always makes for a poor hero.
The thing is, the lowliest paid script doctor at Disney could bash you out a more smooth and satisfying narrative arc. But Wells was an ideas-man, and as that he was a genius.
The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds by H.G.Wells are now out in Penguin paperback