By the 1890’s, the golden age of the English short story had begun. Edgar Allan Poe and his theory that every story should strive for a single effect had become a pattern for imitation. Rudyard Kipling’s stories of Indian life were opening a new and exotic dimension to readers worldwide. A flourishing discipleship of Guy de Maupassant, later to be led by W. Somerset Maugham, had come into existence on the English side of the channel. Wells’s range is narrower than Kipling’s, only rarely does Wells achieve macabre effects anywhere near Poe’s, and he is incapable of the irony underlying the deceptively anecdotal stories of the French master Maupassant. However, from these three H. G. Wells learned the technique of the short story. “I was doing my best to write as the others wrote,” Wells acknowledged, “and it was long before I realized that my exceptional origins and training gave me an almost unavoidable freshness of approach.”
Often a story “starts as a joke,” Wells observed in retrospect. “There is a shock of laughter in nearly every discovery.” H. E. Bates, himself a master of short fiction, was one of the first to see the twinkle in the storyteller’s eye. He praises Wells asa great Kidder, a man who succeeded in telling more tall stories than any writer of his generation yet, by a genius for binding the commonplace to some astounding exploration of fancy, succeeded in getting them believed.
A close friend, the novelist and memoirist Frank Swinnerton, believes that of Wells’s rich variety of writings “the short stories may well be the most characteristic.”
The spellbinding tale-teller felt right at home in an end-of-century cultural anxiety—a late-Victorian sense of crisis which seemed to inhibit the large statement. The major self-contained fictions of the 1890’s were mood-inducing novellas such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Time Machine. “Anything is possible” became the rule.
“The Man Who Could Work Miracles”
A famous story, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” is not only Wells at his playful best but also a paradigm for a vast literature about humble souls unexpectedly endowed with the power to upset their worlds. The clerk Fotheringay’s supreme windfall lies in being able to conjure up miracles. Like so many who lack the proper combination of dash and restraint for the proper use of divine powers, Fotheringay lets his reach exceed his grasp. Requesting that the earth stop rotating, he precipitates a scene of comic confusion as every object about him falls off into space.
“The Lord of the Dynamos”
From the first paragraph of this story, the reader is shown, never told, Wells’s hatred of Empire. The reader is introduced to Holroyd, the uncivilized-civilized white man, the characteristically wooden product of technological society, and to Azuma-zi, the “burden” who will rise against oppression and destroy. Holroyd, the chief attendant of the dynamos that keep an electric railway going, and his helper, who has come from the “mysterious East,” are opposed at all points. Holroyd delivers a theological lecture on his big machine soon after Azuma-zi’s arrival. “Where’s your ‘eathen idol to match ‘im?” he shouts. Azuma-zi hears only a few words above the din: “Kill a hundred man. That’s something like a Gord!” Azuma-zi learns to worship the dynamo. Under Holroyd’s sneering tutorship, the native obeys only too well. By tribal custom, he must ritualize the dynamo. One night Azuma-zi grasps the lever and sends the...
(The entire section is 1517 words.)