The last half of the nineteenth century hummed with technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs, such as the invention of the telephone and the development of radiology. For an astonished public, these rapid changes brought a head rush of excitement for man’s new and seemingly endless progress. However, such changes also resulted in cautious skepticism, producing a concern for man ultimately losing control of his new found knowledge and abilities. It can be no surprise that these contrasting reactions manifested in the imaginative literature of the era.
During the final decade of that century, one particular writer managed to express both the optimism of his age as well as its darker fears. Coming from a scientific background, Herbert George Wells crafted one masterly novel after another, beginning with The Time Machine in 1895. In these narratives, he envisioned a slew of incredible scenarios involving societal degeneration, genetic horror and chemically-induced madness, all with convincing scientific jargon and fantastical flourishes. Because the term science fiction had not yet been coined, Wells referred to these novels as scientific romances.
Enter Arthur Machen. In the following contemporary book review for the now-classic War of the Worlds, Machen approaches the subject with his usual exacting measures. While acknowledging the novel’s virtues, he spares no criticism in what he views as deficits in Wells’s work. At an initial glance, it may be surprising that the man who discovered wonder and mystery in the daily drudgery of a Dickens tale, or the journey of Twain’s Huck Finn (which Machen considered no less than Homeric) can also be the same writer so critical of an exciting tale of alien invasion.
Yet, as he demonstrates in the penultimate paragraph of the review, Machen’s theory of ecstasy in literature is nuanced and complex. It is not enough for the plot to be out of the ordinary. In fact, ecstasy must be found in the ordinary, which makes it all the more wondrous and mysterious. Furthermore, without mystery and wonder, the most fantastic story can be little more than entertainment.
For my part, I firmly hold these men responsible for what must be two of the greatest openings in the history of the fantastic novel: Wells for War of the Worlds (1898)1 and Machen for Hill of Dreams (1907).2 Therefore, as an admirer of both writers, I am pleased to present this forgotten book review with endnotes. In the next installment, we will look at a discussion between these authors: A Quiet Talk with Mr. H. G. Wells.
War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
Book Review by Arthur Machen
February 5, 1898
“Schiller,” said Coleridge, “has the material sublime; to produce the effect, he sets you a whole town on fire, and throws infants with their mothers into the flame … But Shakespeare drops a handkerchief, and the same or greater effects follow.” 3
It is evident that Mr. Wells has thrown in his lot with Schiller, and one is sorry, since the “Time Machine” gave promise of far higher things. That wonderful “Time Machine” was, it is true, a mechanical and material contrivance, not unlike a bicycle in shape, but the conception of it was purely metaphysical, and the main idea of the story would have interested Berkeley and Kant.4 Hence, one hopes that Mr. Wells had thoroughly grasped the essential and necessary truth that it is the things of the mind, of the soul, that are alone really wonderful; that the achievements of the hand and the inventions of the laboratory, however well described, are fundamentally unimportant to imaginative literature. The “Time Machine” has a splendid and original idea underlying its mechanism, and we hoped that the author would ride very far, that he would one day cry:—
With a heart of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander:
With a burning spear,
And a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander;
With an Knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to Tourney:
The leagues beyond
The wide world’s end;
Methinks it is no journey. 5
There can be no doubt that if Mr. Wells had chosen he could have discovered a new world for romance; he had only to look less and less into his test-tubes and crucibles, to forget by degrees all the wisdom of Gower-street, to think lightly of electricity, and to scoff at the Röntgen rays, and in place of peering through the microscope to peer into the soul of man.6 Tennyson wrote with true instinct:—
Tho’ world on world in myriad myriads roll
Round us, each with different powers,
And other forms of life than ours
What know we greater than the soul? 7
But Mr. Wells has convinced himself that the stars are greater than the soul, and, by consequence, we have “The War of the Worlds,” which relates the story of England invaded by Martians, burnt, scorched, poisoned, and destroyed by the Handling-machine, the Fighting-machine, the Heat-ray, the rockets which discharged the Black Vapour. The Martians were made after this sort:—
They were huge round bodies-or rather, heads-about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils- indeed, the Martians did not seem to have any sense of smell- but it had a pair of very large, dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body … was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our denser air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whip-like tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named, rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist Professor Howes, the hands. 8
And here is a perhaps more vivid, if less technical, description:—
A big, grayish, round bulk, the size perhaps of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light it glistened like wet leather. Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. It was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. … There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin. 9
There are many pages of elaborate and careful writing, telling us how these octopus-like creatures made for themselves gigantic bodies, and dire machines such as the inhabitants of Erewhon shuddered at in Mr. Butler’s famous satire.10 We read of vain attempts on the part of the English Army to withstand these armoured monsters, of whole parks of artillery consumed in a moment by the terrible heat ray, of London left desolate as Babylon. And, finally, the Martians are destroyed, skillfully and scientifically, and in death, as in life, there were punctilious in their observation of the laws of evolution.
But the laws of romance? We may say to Mr. Wells:—
Let argon, helion, science crammers die,
But leave us still our sense of mystery. 11
An impatient schoolmaster once remarked to a little boy who had failed in his arithmetic, “If you divide yards by feet you will get neither pigs, sheep, nor oxen.”12 And in the same way Mr. Wells should understand that though he may add chemistry to physiology, and astronomy to bacteriology, he will never get romance. He may vie, indeed, with Jules Verne; but he has imagination, if he would use it, he has some excellent sense of style, he comprehends the art of dialogue, and with such qualities he should aim higher. “From Earth to the Moon” was well enough—from Jules Verne—but we did not expect the author of “The Time Machine” to furnish us with a companion volume to the French masterpiece.
We have shown that Mr. Wells does not understand the true nature of the wonderful, for he writes as if Mr. Edison were his ideal hero; but there is another emotion concerning which he holds totally mistaken ideas. He confuses the terrible with the disgusting; 13 he follows the example set by Mr. Rudyard Kipling in his story of the horrible ape, rather than the real achievement in the terrible, “At the End of the Passage.” 14 He strives to make us realize the effect of the Martian heat ray on the human body, he gives us the picture of a respectable citizen being sucked of his blood by the monster, and at the end we have “a dog with a putrescent red meat in his jaws.”15 There was the same fault in the “Island of Dr. Moreau.” in the murderous achievements of “The Invisible Man;” and the two sins of Mr. Wells, his “material sublime” and his “material horrible,” both spring form the same source- his failure to recognize the axiom that the only wonder and the only terror are not in the same material universe, but in the soul, the creator of the world as we know it.
Let me be said at the last that, though the idea of the “War of the Worlds” is unimpressive, the execution is admirable. Mr. Wells writes vigorous, unaffected English, he knows how a picture should be “bitten in” with a terse, decisive phrase, and he carries the reader on triumphantly through the stench and gore and the green smoke of the Martian furnace. The judicious will regret not so much that the book was written, as that the author of “The Time Machine” should have written it.
1 “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.” —The War of the Worlds
2 There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.
But all the afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour; he had strayed in fairyland. The holidays were nearly done, and Lucian Taylor had gone out resolved to lose himself, to discover strange hills and prospects that he had never seen before. The air was still, breathless, exhausted after heavy rain, and the clouds looked as if they had been molded of lead. No breeze blew upon the hill, and down in the well of the valley not a dry leaf stirred, not a bough shook in all the dark January woods.
About a mile from the rectory he had diverged from the main road by an opening that promised mystery and adventure. It was an old neglected lane, little more than a ditch, worn ten feet deep by its winter waters, and shadowed by great untrimmed hedges, densely woven together. On each side were turbid streams, and here and there a torrent of water gushed down the banks, flooding the lane. It was so deep and dark that he could not get a glimpse of the country through which he was passing, but the way went down and down to some unconjectured hollow. Perhaps he walked two miles between the high walls of the lane before its descent ceased, but he thrilled with the sense of having journeyed very far, all the long way from the know to the unknown. He had come as it were into the bottom of a bowl amongst the hills, and black woods shut out the world. From the road behind him, from the road before him, from the unseen wells beneath the trees, rivulets of waters swelled and streamed down towards the center to the brook that crossed the lane. Amid the dead and wearied silence of the air, beneath leaden and motionless clouds, it was strange to hear such a tumult of gurgling and rushing water, and he stood for a while on the quivering footbridge and watched the rush of dead wood and torn branches and wisps of straw, all hurrying madly past him, to plunge into the heaped spume, the barmy froth that had gathered against a fallen tree. … —Hill of Dreams
3 Friedrich Schiller (1758-1805) was German philosopher, poet and dramatist. Along with his friend Goethe, Schiller was crucial to the development of Weimar Classicism. For more on Coleridge, see The Goodly Xmas Crowd.
5 This is taken from the final stanza of Tom o’Bedlam, one of the most famous anonymous lyrics in the English language. Much later, Machen published an essay on the poem in Tom o’Bedlam and His Song (1930). Read the poem here.
6 Wilhelm Röntgen had discovered X-rays in 1895, only three years before the publication of Machen’s review. This is one example of the many scientific advances being made during the time Wells published his most famous scientific romances.
7 Quoted from Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.
8 War of the Worlds, Book Two, Chapter Two: What We Saw From the Ruined House
9 War of the Worlds, Book One, Chapter Four: The Cylinder Opens
10 Erewhon (1872)
11 This quote is quite obscure. Any help on identification would be appreciated: firstname.lastname@example.org.
12 Later, Machen recounts this same schoolmaster and his words in Chapter Four of The Great Return (Page 25, Darkly Bright Press edition, 2017).
13 To be fair, Machen could also spin a bit of ripe grotesquerie. Passages from The Three Imposters and The Shining Pyramid (both 1895) bear witness to this fact.
14 Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). The former story is likely “Bertran and Bimi” (1891). Many thanks to members of The Kipling Society for their assistance in identifying this work. To best understand Machen’s point, it is encouraged to read both of these stories: Bertram and Bimi and At the End of the Passage.
15 War of the Worlds, Book Two, Chapter Eight: Dead London