I wonder how many stories (ghost and suspense stories in particular) begin with someone telling a story to someone else. Either a story from their imagination or something that happened to them earlier in their life. And then there is the twist--how many stories are narrated about something awful that happened to their friend, a friend who has since passed on by known or unknown and usually tragic or mysterious circumstances. The latter storytelling device is the one I encountered in the first of two stories by H.G. Wells in the Penguin Little Black Classic A Slip Under the Microscope.
Such a tiny little book but two remarkably good stories by H.G. Wells. I've read a smattering of his work, always mean to read more, so this brief foray into his writing was just perfect. The first story included in this volume, "The Door in the Wall" (published in 1906) is apparently considered by many to be Wells's best story and takes as its theme one that Wells returned to often--"the conflict between science and aesthetics/imagination". To be honest when I read it, I just found it immensely entertaining and very much in the 'Wellsian' vein of writing, but a little further reading and I see it has been much studied and analyzed.
"One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far as he was concerned it was a true story."
Upon further reflection, however, Redmond, who narrates this story of his friend's, wonders whether it is true or some fantastic dream of Lionel's. So he tells us this story and leave it up to the reader to decide ultimately. Lionel Wallace is a reticent man who is haunted by an experience he had "that rather takes the light out of things, that fills me with longings . . ." Lionel Wallace is one of those men who are successful at everything they do and in a way that seems to show such ease. The two men have been long standing friends having met as schoolboys.
Lionel tells his friend of this Door in the Wall as if it is a very true and real thing. Certainly it seems to be to him. He first discovered the door as a small boy of five or six and behind this door.
" . . . at the very first sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him--he could not tell which--to yield to this attraction."
Behind the door, which he does open, is the most magnificent garden. He was young and joyful (this being something special considering his very unhappy, lonely childhood) and to be in this beautiful garden was one of those rare, perfect moments. But there were strange, yet enchanting things there--two panthers and a beautiful woman, a girl who leads him by the hand and other small playmates. It sounds idyllic, but too good to be true as as soon as it appeared it, he finds himself once again outside the door and on the street--"poor little wretch" brought back to the cold, nasty world once again. When he tells his father, he is not believed and punished for telling fibs.
This happy world hovers on the edge of his consciousness as he grows and becomes a successful politician. It is a moment, a possibility that will show itself again on a few occasions. He finds the door once again, but always he is busy and rushing somewhere "important" and so bypasses the door. The door is always somewhere in his mind and wants to step back into that world . . . I won't say what happens, but you likely will not be surprised that this is one that is not going to end happily. Another reading might well reveal more of the story's secrets as I am sure it is filled with deeper meaning and is rife with symbolism.
The titular story, "A Slip Under the Microscope" (earlier than the first, this was published in 1896) is 'Wellsian' in a very different way. Less fantastical and more in the Ann Veronica vein perhaps in that there is a very liberal young woman at the center of a love triangle all of whom happen to be biology students and the two rivals in love and science (and being top of the class) end up in a moral/ethical dilemma. Well, one of the young men in particular. It's a moment of having done something by accident, but the ethical slant comes in when the decision of whether to own up to the mistake or not is mulled over and weighed.
There is just as much going on, though in a different way, in the latter story. There is the love triangle and the issue of women in science and not having the same opportunities as the men woven through a bigger conflict between her two male rivals. There is also the issue of class within Society and dare I say the "S" word, Socialism and even a bit of religion thrown in for good measure. Somewhat more ambiguous this one, but thoughtful and entertaining. Short stories are always such an interesting view into the broader work of an author, especially one as prolific as Wells. These teasers of stories remind me how much I want and need to read more of H.G. Wells's work (and by extension John Wydham, too!).
I am moving at a snail's pace (of course I want to read more and more often, but that is easier said than done, it seems), but I think have my next Little Black Penguin ready to read: #26 Of Street Pieman by Henry Mayhew, a peek at Victorian London!