The Croquet Player

The H. G. Wells series continues with a fairly obscure title.

Raw Feed (1996): The Croquet Player, H. G. Wells, 1936.Croquet Player

This story can be considered as a ghost story or as an allegory about one of Wells’ main themes: the conquering of the brutish “cave man … who is in us”.

The ghost story is not very effective. Wells, unlike some of his short stories, doesn’t do a very good job of creating an atmosphere here. The supposed haunting of Cainsmarsh doesn’t seem that threatening or oppressive. The alternate reading – and the one Wells very likely intended – is that the ancient skull unearthed in Cainsmarsh is not haunting the land but, as the psychologist Dr. Norbert says, is an allegory for man’s bestial nature breaking down civilization (indeed, civilization is pronounced a delusion.). The world is no longer “safe for anything.” This pessimism is quite understandable for a European after World War I. Wells possibly saw World War Two coming.

As is usual for Wells, the book ends on a note of pleading for a new order: “a harder, stronger civilization.” Norbert pleads with the narrator – an upper class croquet player (devoting large chunks of time playing sports is satirized in Wells’ A Modern Utopia and Men Like Gods) to forsake his animal nature and become “a stern devotee to that true civilization, that disciplined civilization” that needs to be created. There is something almost Lovecraftian in the notion of this impending doom driving “intellectual men” insane – including delusions of haunting.

The narrator, one of Wells’ more engaging characters though obviously the subject of ironic attack, will have none of it. Norbert, to him, seems insane like Peter the Herbert, Savonarola, or John Knox, an apocalyptic preacher of “wrath to come”. The narrator concedes Norbert’s gloomy description of the world is true but doesn’t see what “our sort of people” (I suspect Wells meant everyone, not just society’s elite) could do about it, how they could think up a new world. Wells prescribes no specifics for his “true civilization”.

On second thought, maybe Wells did mean to specifically castigate the elite who presumably have the most power and time to bring about a new order. Given his own life and his narrator, I doubt Wells ever regarded the upper class as inherently smarter.

In a delightfully wry ending, the narrator says:

I don’t care. The world may be going to pieces. The Stone Age may be returning. This may, as you say, be the sunset of civilization. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it this morning. I have other engagements. … I am going to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve today.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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