"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
I bought this collection on a whim a couple of years ago, and it languished on my shelf, unread. I had tried reading Wells before, back in college, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, and was fairly unimpressed. His language was stuffy and old-fashioned, I thought, and his allegories tortured. So even though I like short stories as a form, I really wasn't expecting much when I picked this up.
I love being wrong in that way. It's one of my favorite things about reading, that moment when I suddenly realize I'm going to love this book I hadn't thought much of a minute ago. From the first page of the first story in this collection, I was floored.
And unlike all too many short story collections, everything in here is good. No filler, no duds, no self-indulgent B-sides thrown in to bulk up the page count. With the quality of the selections, the haunting 1911 photo illustrations by Alvin Langdon Coburn, and the beauty of the book as a physical object (thick, textured paper; illuminated letters), this has joined Winesburg, Ohio and The Illustrated Man as one of my favorite short story collections of all time.
The Door In The Wall:
In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad -- as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there...
A successful politician is haunted by a magical garden he discovered once as a child and has never been able to find again. Though the door to it has appeared to him occasionally throughout his life, he has always been too busy to stop and enter it when it is offered him.
This story is my favorite. It has the feel of a religious allegory, a kind of "paradise lost", or stories about childhood like Peter Pan or The Polar Express, where as adults weighed down by petty quotidian concerns, the wonder and magic of childhood are forever lost to us.
But it's deeper than that, too. And it's such a fundamental feeling for me, a frequency I am always tuned to. I have always tended toward nostalgia, which at times is just a flimsy covering over a vast chasm of grief for things lost in the past that can never be regained. This story offers a perfect encapsulation of that feeling. A door into a place familiar and sacred.
He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. "You may kill me," he said after a silence. "But I can hold you -- and all the universe for that matter -- in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now."
In this apocalyptic story, a strange celestial body enters the solar system from beyond, crashing into Neptune and causing them both to plunge headlong into the sun, narrowly missing Earth in the process.
The terrestrial effects of this cosmic fly-by are cataclysmic - storms, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and disastrous global warming. But after it passes, a "new brotherhood grew presently among men" - those left alive, anyway. And then the story pulls back to the perspective of Martian astronomers, who note that the Earth is little changed ("the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the white discoloration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole"). How insignificant are our Earthly struggles from a cosmic point of view. How fragile we are, and how vulnerable.
I am fascinated by this story for a lot of reasons: Is it true that only near-obliteration would create a "brotherhood of men"? How bad would our present struggle against climate change have to get to bring something like that about? And shouldn't we be working on colonizing space already, so that if something DOES happen to Earth all of humanity won't be obliterated with it?
A Dream of Armageddon:
"We are but phantoms!" he said, "and the phantoms of phantoms, desires like cloud-shadows and wills of straw that eddy in the wind; the days pass, use and wont carry us through as a train carries the shadow of its lights -- so be it! But one thing is real and certain, one thing is no dreamstuff, but eternal and enduring. It is the centre of my life, and all other things about it are subordinate or altogether vain. I loved her, that woman of a dream. And she and I are dead together!"
Oh shit, this story.
A man on a train meets a stranger, who tells him he has been living a separate life each night when he dreams. There, it is several hundred years in the future, and he is an important politician who has run away from a war and his duty to be with the woman he loves. But he can only run for so long...
This is the most moving story in the book, powerful and searing and unforgettable in its imagery. I may have to revise my statement above that "The Door in the Wall" is my favorite in this collection. Because while that one is the most iconic and mythic, the one that taps most profoundly into the collective unconscious - this is one of the best pieces of short fiction I have ever read. If you like science fiction at all, you need to read this story. It's just that good.
"I am slow to make discoveries," said Horrocks grimly, damping her suddenly. "But what I discover..." He stopped.
"What?" she said.
I really wasn't expecting to find a gothic horror story in this collection, so this one took me by surprise. And it's so good. Grim and grotesque and shockingly graphic. The way Wells slowly buillds this heavy sense of foreboding from the very first paragraph is masterful, and then the payoff...!
I suppose the moral of this one is: Don't get involved with your boss's wife if he is an enormous, angry man and you are a sniveling pantywaist.
"Fizzle, you fool! Fizzle, you hunter of women! You hot-blooded hound! Boil! Boil! Boil!"
A Moonlight Fable:
He had made up his mind. He knew now that he was going to wear his suit as it should be worn. He had no doubt in the matter. He was afraid, terribly afraid, but glad, glad.
This is the closest thing to a dud, for me, that the book offers, and yet it is critically acclaimed, so someone is finding something in it.
It's a highly symbolic wisp of a story about a little boy whose mother makes him a very nice suit that he is forbidden to wear except on formal occasions. One night, he puts it on and sneaks out of the house, having a magical moonlit adventure in the yard before falling to his death in his now-ruined suit. They find his corpse smiling. Meh.
For me, it's just too similar (and inferior) to "The Door in the Wall" to be all that memorable. And little allegories like this are probably the most difficult kind of fiction to pull off well. Wells doesn't quite manage it here.
The Diamond Maker:
"I am sick of being disbelieved," he said impatiently, and suddenly unbuttoning his wretched coat he pulled out a little canvas bag that was hanging by a cord round his neck. From this he produced a brown pebble. "I wonder if you know enough to know what that is?"
In this one, the narrator is approached by a beggar who offers him a raw diamond the size of his thumb for 100 pounds. He then tells the story of how he discovered the way to make large artificial diamonds, but because his neighbor accused him of making bombs he has been forced into hiding, rich with jewels that no one will buy.
This one isn't my favorite either, but it does make think of how just having some of the right accoutrements (wealth, beauty, smarts, diamonds) won't necessarily improve your lot. And sure, the beggar's way of creating diamonds seems like forgery, a get-rich-quick scheme that isn't legitimate. But how is it more legitimate to just be born into money? How does that make you worthy? At least the beggar is clever.
In any case, what this dude needed was a diamond launderer. If only the narrator had been up for a business venture...
The Lord of the Dynamos
It is hard to say exactly what madness is. I fancy Azuma-zi was mad. The incessant din and whirl of the dynamo shed may have churned up his little store of knowledge and his big store of superstitious fancy, at last, in to something akin to frenzy.
This story, about a "fresh off the boat" foreigner who begins to worship the dynamos (generators) that he services, is another favorite. Its major flaw is that it's pretty racist in its portrayal of the protagonist, Azuma-zi -- and the fact that the story is 100 years old doesn't make some of its descriptions any more comfortable to read. Still, Azuma-zi is portrayed more or less sympathetically, and his abuse at the hands of his boss, Holroyd, is thoroughly condemned.
I just love the way this one develops and plays out. It's another model for how short stories should be constructed - brief, punchy, unforgettable. And without spoiling it too much, I love how Azuma-zi's dynamo god is actually a far more effective deity than many of its more famous peers. That bastard answered some prayers.
The Country of the Blind:
There were deep, mysterious shadows in the gorge, blue deepening into purple, and purple into a luminous darkness, and overhead was the illimitable vastness of the sky. But he heeded these things no longer, but lay quite still there, smiling as if he were content now merely to have escaped from the valley of the Blind, in which he had thought to be King. And the glow of the sunset passed, and the night came, and still he lay there, under the cold, clear stars.
This is probably Wells's most famous work of short fiction, and with reason. If you haven't read it, you should probably quit reading my bullshit and get ahold of this collection. I keep overusing superlatives, so I won't say that this one is "the best". But damn. Just damn. Here's what the dustflap says:
The book concludes with "The Country of the Blind", a durably famous tale which underscores Wells's belief that a person can and should quit an intolerable situation. Bernard Bergonzi notes, "it shows how the human spirit can assert its true freedom, even at the cost of physical extinction. 'The Country of the Blind' is a magnificent example of Wells's mythopoeic genius."
Critic Richard Hauer Costa says:
Wells viewed mankind darkly: as struggling in an evolutionary whirl to achieve a millennium of beauty, but always forced back into some sealed-off country of the blind.
I won't summarize this one. It's a strange and precious and powerful story. I've dreamt about it, and it terrifies me.
Among the blind, close your eyes.
- Turkish proverb