Thoughts on and a review of HGWells’ The Croquet Player…
What do you feel about the scary crisis of existing in the world as it has become in this glorious New Millennium? Daily news of devastating explosions in market places or at wedding ceremonies, the collecting of blown-apart body parts in sacks, global terrorist activity, maiming and execution, drone strikes on anything that’s moving, the mass graves, rape & pillage on a grand scale, wanton destruction of famous archaeological sites, shots of the dismembered remains of what was once a human-being, whole cities reduced to rubble by blind forces, the columns of refugees, their drowning in leaky boats way out at sea, inhumanity towards those who manage to make it over the sea, little kids covered in flies dying in the streets, photos of grossly malformed babies resulting even now from the American bombing of Vietnam years ago, the hooded hordes. The Kurtzian Horror… Mr Kurtz or Colonel Kurtz. One could go mad either way.
Most people (the majority?) have simply become inured, content to choose to pretend that everything is normal: football on a Saturday afternoon, soaps on telly, quiz programmes, Bingo, Christmas and New Year celebrations and continuing support for any bombing labelled as being in aid of ‘The Defence of Freedom & Democracy’. The colossal waste of resources. And there’s always Church on Sunday for a shriving and poppies for remembrance.
HGWells’ novella The Croquet Player will speak to anybody who identifies with the intolerable buffering between the Horror and Normality; to anybody who notices the radio announcer’s swift flippant turning away from a brief report on the accidental drone-strike on an Afghan funeral parade – “…and now for today’s sports news…”
I first read The Croquet Player a year before ‘9/11′ changed the world forever. The intervening years present a bloody cavalcade of systemic destruction that could play on the mind if you chose to let it. If you chose to identify with it instead of setting it all on one side or, at best, maintaining a balanced grasp of the global situation in order to face it and then get on with ordinary life; the media helps by not reporting the full extent of human misery; the Power Possessors know what’s best for us. Their World War 3 is just round the corner.
The croquet player, Georgie Frobisher, a simple soul like the rest of us, brought up from the age of three by an over-protective aunt, equates ‘thinking’ with doing The Times crossword puzzle every day, and playing chess (by correspondence) and bridge; he just wants to get on with ordinary life but Wells’ opening paragraph tells us that the notional story-teller has allowed himself to be thoroughly disturbed; he craves our reassurance that we think he has become unreasonably haunted.
I have been talking to two very queer individuals and they have produced a peculiar disturbance of my mind. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that they have infected me and distressed me with some very strange and unpleasant ideas. I want to set down what it is they have said to me, in the first place for my own sake, so as to clear up my thoughts about it. What they told me was fantastic and unreasonable, but I shall feel surer about that if I set it down in writing. Moreover I want to get my story into a shape that will enable one or two sympathetic readers to reassure me about the purely imaginative quality of what these two men had to say. It is a sort of ghost story but not an ordinary ghost story – more realistic and haunting and disturbing…
The story is told in such a way that we are forced to participate in the first person writer’s distress while noting his desire to get on with his holiday with his aunt in Les Noupets and play the next game of croquet at which he is an expert. He has clearly decided that he does not want to share his state of mind with his aunt who, being pretty straight, as we are told, would probably have told him to snap out of it so he addresses his notional readers in the hope that they will empathise.
On the hotel terrace he has been button-holed by a Dr Finchatton whom he first notices violently throwing library books about. Dr Finchatton is in Les Noupets to get away from the thinking that the books represent for him and from the haunting he has come to associate with a Fenland place called Cainsmarsh where he had acquired a medical practice to escape the stress of London. Cainsmarsh sounds ideal for this purpose – it has ‘…a flat, still atmosphere… translucent, gentle, coloured…’ But he has become aware of ‘…things lying below the surface, things altogether hidden in more eventful and colourful surroundings [which] creep on our perceptions…’
Dr Finchatton has fallen prey to evil dreams. He is as keen to tell his story to Frobisher as Frobisher is to share his with us and for the same reason – both want to get things out of their system.
An Indication of What’s Happened to Dr Finchatton
I would get up and dress, go out either on foot or in my car, in spite of a strong fear resistance. Fear pursued me out of those dreams. The nightmare quality hung about me and could not be shaken off. I was awake and still dreaming. Never have I seen such sinister skies as I did on those night excursions. I felt such a dread of unfamiliar shadows as I had not known even in childhood. There were times on those nocturnal drives when I could have shouted aloud for daylight as a man suffocating in a closed chamber might shout for air.
Before long his daily life was affected: ‘…I would turn convulsively under the impression that a silent hound was creeping up to attack me from behind, or I would imagine a black snake wriggling out from under the valance of an armchair…’
Then his professional practice began to suffer.
I began to find something evil in the silence or in the gestures of some of my patients. And while I sat by their bedsides I fancied that there were hostile goings-to-and-fro and malignant whisperings and conspirings just outside the door.
I could not understand what was the matter with me. I searched my mind for nervous stresses and I could find none. I had surely left all that behind in London. Temperature and so forth remained normal. But clearly there was something askew in my adjustment to these new surroundings. Cainsmarsh was disappointing my expectations. There was no healing in it for me. I had to pull myself together, I had sunk all my little capital in the practice and I had to stick it. There was nowhere else for me to go.
Others in the area seem to be affected by its ambience but they don’t talk about it. Finchatton goes to see the old vicar Rawdon who he imagines might be expected to have a view about things with a mystery attached to them. Rawdon told Finchatton that he was succumbing to the Evil sooner than he did when he first came to Cainsmarsh for a quiet & peaceful retirement. He fears his food is being poisoned. He expounds his theory with gusto:-
The evil was in the soil, he declared, underground. He laid great stress on the word ‘underground’. He made a downward gesture with his quivering hand. There was something mighty and dreadful buried in Cainsmarsh. Something colossally evil. Broken up. Scattered all over the Marsh. “I think I know what it is,” he whispered darkly, but for a time he would not explain… “They kept on stirring it up, he said; they would not let it rest.
It soon became clear who ‘they’ were: ‘those archaeologists’ digging everything up and the ploughing of old pastures where there was a ‘wilderness of graves’ with long-buried cavemen.
You found stones of the strangest shapes. Abominable shapes. “They keep on bringing things up,” he said, “Things that had better be left alone. Ought to be let alone. Making doubts and puzzles – destroying faith.”
He denounced Darwinism and evolution. And then there was the High Church rival with ‘his vestments & images & music & mummery’.
He poured out the festering accumulations of his brooding solitude. His sentences had the readiness of long-matured expression… Out of it all came a suggestion. I doubt if it will seem even remotely sane to you – in this clear air. But it was the suggestion that this haunting… was [done by] a something remote, archaic, bestial…
Finchatton said he ‘…drove back home more saturated with terror than when I went. I was beginning to see visions now everywhere…’ He took to drink.
He doesn’t realise it but Frobisher is already in deep trance in spite of his attempts to stave it off other-than-consciously by contrasting Finchatton’s account with life at Les Noupets: ‘“…sitting here at this table with everything bright and clear and definite, there is a certain unreality – if you understand me?”’ Finchatton agrees that drinking vermouth and seltzer at lunch-time does make Les Loupets seem far from Cainsmarsh, far from the threatening evil to which Frobisher imagines that he is immune. He likes a weird & eerie story like those of Edgar Allan Poe, in spite of his aunt’s objections, but keeps his imagination merely as a tame ‘domestic pet’.
I was oblivious then of the possibility that this story might ever disturb my own slumbers. I keep dreams for waking moments but I like them then. Fancies and reveries. I welcome them. One dreams then but one feels quite safe. There may be shivers in it but no real fear. It is just because they are impossible that I like impossible stories.
Finchatton determines to visit Mortover, the High Church man, to get his side of the story. He turns out to be just as irrational as his rival for God. He
…blamed the Reformation and made great play with the Puritan witch mania of the sixteenth century. Some spiritual control was broken then, he assured me with the utmost confidence. Diabolism had returned to the earth… We have to restore the unity of Christendom and exorcize these devils.
Mortover seems to Finchatton to be caught up in his own final solution.
As he talked I could see that his head was full of long slow processions winding across the marshes with banners, canopies, vestments, boys chanting, censers swinging, priests asperging. I thought of the old vicar peering out of his dirty study window and I had a vision of him running out hoarse and stumbling, with murder in his eyes.
When they should above all have been able to, neither man of religion could offer Finchatton any solace: ‘…They wanted to be at each other’s throats. That was where the haunting poison of the marsh came in. As if to put a final stamp on things, Mortover said, “The Greeks had a word for it… Panic. Endemic panic, that was the contagion of the marshes.”
Finchatton, being already in headlong panic, points out that ‘panic’ was just a label. He decides that a visit to the admired curator of Eastfolk museum where old bones were kept might provide him with a more balanced view of what was happening in Cainsmarsh. The curator explained that the locals mistrusted the archaeological digs and that their fear was contagious – he himself had felt it. Could the skull of the caveman they were looking at have left behind an angry spirit? The curator’s suggestion was to convert Finchatton’s fear into something that could be managed
If we can make a ghost of this fear of yours – well, ghosts can be laid. If we make a fever of it, fever can be cured. But while this remains merely panic fear and a smouldering rage, what can we do about it?
Finchatton is intrigued by the suggestion but not impressed. What the curator had said with a certain objectivity contrasted greatly with the responses of the religious men who had nothing practical to offer but what the curator said required serious pondering.
It was queer theoretical stuff and yet, in a way, it had a sort of air of explanation… The expression he used was that we were breaking the frame of our present… I had not the remotest idea what the frame of our present might be.
The Curator Seeks to Explain the Idea of
BREAKING THE FRAME OF THE PRESENT.
“A century or so ago,” he said, “men lived in the present far more than they do now. Their past went back four or five thousand years, their future hardly went as far; they lived for now. And what they called the eternities. They knew nothing of the remote real past. They cared nothing for the real future. That,” he nodded at the cave-man’s skull, “just wasn’t there. All that was buried and forgotten and out of life. We lived in a magic sphere and we felt taken care of and safe. And now in the last century or so, we have broken that. We have poked into the past, unearthing age after age and we peer more and more forward into the future. And that’s what’s the matter with us.”
What is the present? A moment now… and now and now? An emptiness? History since the 2nd World War? My last 25 years? What they call The Present Day? The undifferentiated omnipresence of a God? The feeling of present is different for different people at different times? Perhaps the feeling of NOW incorporates everything that’s led to this moment?
Let’s say that it does: the present includes everything that has led us to this moment now – a historical unity, a personal selection, one unique to every individual, but capable of including a personal collection of all the good (and maybe bad) things from the past, all the I-tags connected with places, events, people, things that go to make you who you are in the present moment; this might include things from the long past – visiting Stonehenge now in 1947, for instance. One puts a personal frame round everything that fits with NOW; within the frame things are just as they always have been; one could rely on this being the case: the present thus defined was preserved and curated by knowledgeable old men who would keep the stones safe and the furniture polished for all time. The trains would always run and on time and there would be a hospital bed when you needed it. But now your painstakingly constructed frame is broken and it’s all rumpus & hooded hordes.
The carnage that is Syria, the wanton destruction of historical artefacts in Iraq by the Western invader as well, the demolition of Buddhist statues by the Taliban, . The contents of the frame explode and destroy it from within. This is breaking the frame of the historic present.
The magic sphere of security in lastingness is blown apart. The security came from knowing that the present was a completion, the temples preserved by settled institutions, a sure heritage. In The Croquet Player it was the archaeologists who were poking around; now there’s a quite different poking around – the Americans and their so-called allies and the other terrorists whom it’s quite impossible ever to sit round a table in Geneva to negotiate with. Why would they want to negotiate when their intention is to destroy ‘civilisation’? Along with the Americans they seem quite good at it; theirs is a position of strength.
Broken the frame of the present; the past destroyed and the future corrupted; meanwhile there’s the golden pretence that everything is normal: the game of croquet will take place this afternoon.
The old fearful past re-appears in the vacuum of the empty frame and the future ‘opens like a gulf to swallow us’. The ancestral brute returns, resurrected savageries unstoppable. ‘The world is full of menace…’
The curator says it is a matter of the mind. To counter his mental oppression, Finchatton must enlarge his mind ‘…to a vaster world where the caveman was as present as the daily paper and a thousand years ahead was on the doorstep…’ Put things into perspective, see them sub specie aeternitatis, as it were.
The curator recommends Finchatton to see Norbert, a psychiatrist of Harley Street who was one of the first to realise ‘this spreading miasma of the mind’. In spite of the curator’s helpful comments Finchatton’s horrors increased. The caveman’s skull’s descendents like ants made chase.
Swarms of human beings hurrying to and fro, making helpless gestures of submission or deference, resisting an overpowering impulse to throw themselves under [the skull’s] all-devouring shadow. Presently these swarms began to fall into lines and columns, were clad in uniforms, formed up and began marching and trotting towards the black shadows under those worn and rust-stained teeth. From which darkness there presently oozed something – something winding and trickling, and something that manifestly tasted very agreeably to him. Blood.”
Then à propos of nothing, as though his mind was fixed elsewhere ‘…Finchatton said a queer thing: “Little children killed by air-raids in the street.”’ It seems that Wells himself was under the spell of what was happening in Spain at the time he wrote The Croquet Player.
Comparable is the stray thought about the Syrian boy washed up dead on a beach. “But I never really think about it… There’s nothing I can do…”
Now Finchatton is under Norbert’s supervision in Les Noupets. Quite unaware of the profound effect he’s had on Frobisher, he is grateful for the opportunity to tell his story.
It’s what Norbert wants me to do. He wants me to familiarize myself with what has just happened to me, just in the spirit in which you have taken it, so as to be able to distinguish between the realities of my experience, the realities of life, he calls them, and the fears and fancies and dreams I have wrapped about them. His idea is that I ought to see things unfeelingly… Norbert’s idea, you know, is that I should talk it quietly over with anyone who – who seems reasonably balanced and not too worried about the past or the future. So as to get these facts as facts and not as dreads and horrors. He wants to bring me back so to speak to what he calls a rational insensitiveness, rational insensitiveness, that’s his formula, and so get a firmer foothold for – whatever I have to do next.”
Norbert appears suddenly and says he’s been observing the conversation (like God) ‘from above’. He assumes that Finchatton has told Frobisher about the horrors in Cainsmarsh. He makes a demand that Frobisher tells them both what he thought of the story but he resents Norbert’s air of commanding superiority and refuses; he expresses the hope that he will see Finchatton again so that they can continue their conversation.
The Following Morning
Norbert on his own is waiting to hear a commonsense outside view of Finchatton’s account. Frobisher remains noncommittal. Norbert asks him if he’s ever heard of any part of the world called ‘Cainsmarsh’. He tells him that there’s no such place. ‘It is a myth.’
It seems that Finchatton was certainly working as a doctor near Ely.
… “Finchatton really went to the Tressider Museum at Ely, and Cunningham, the custodian, had the sense to spot his condition and send him to me… Everything he told you was true and everything was a lie. He is troubled beyond reason… the only way he can express himself is by fable… the realities that are overwhelming him are so monstrous and frightful that he has to transform them into this fairy tale about old skulls and silences in butterfly land, in the hope of getting them down to the dimensions of an hallucination and so presently expelling them from his thoughts.”
Frobisher wants to know what’s made Finchatton get to the end of his tether.
“Didn’t he repeat my phrase – endemic panic? A contagion in our atmosphere. A sickness in the very grounds of our lives, breaking out here and there and filling men’s minds with a paralysing, irrational fear?”
“He did use that expression.”
“Yes, sir. And it is what I am dealing with here. It is what even I am only beginning to realize. A new Plague – of the soul. A distress of the mind that has long lurked in odd corners of the mind, an endemic disorder, rising suddenly and spreading into a world epidemic. The story our friend put away into a sort of fairyland fenland is really the story of thousands of people today – and it will be the story of hundreds of thousands tomorrow…
Partly to re-assure himself, Frobisher wonders if Norbert is not as mad as Finchatton. He admits that he was an early case but he was able to use his professional inderstanding to crawl out the other side of the horror and take a firm grip on life.
Norbert repeats the idea of ‘breaking the Frame of the Present’ which Cunningham, the curator, had only half-grasped the meaning of in his conversation with Finchatton.
“Animals,” he said, “live wholly in the present. They are framed in immediate things. So are really unsophisticated people… But we humans, we have been probing and piercing into the past and future. We have been multiplying memories, histories, traditions, we have filled ourselves with forebodings and plannings and apprehensions. And so our worlds have become overwhelmingly vast for us, terrific, appalling. Things that had seemed forgotten for ever have suddenly come back into the very present of our consciousness.”
“In other words,” said I, trying to keep him moored to current realities, “we have found out
about the cave-man.”
“Found out about him!” he shouted. “We live in his presence. He has never died. He is anything but dead. Only… he was shut off from us and hidden. For a long time. And now we see him here face to face and his grin derides us. Man is still what he was. Invincibly bestial, envious, malicious, greedy. Man, sir, unmasked and disillusioned is the same fearing, snarling, fighting beast he was a hundred thousand years ago. These are no metaphors, sir. What I tell you is the monstrous reality. The brute has been marking time and dreaming of a progress it has failed to make. Any archaeologist will tell you as much; modern man has no better skull, no better brain. Just a cave-man, more or less trained. There has been no real change, no real escape. Civilization, progress, all that, we are discovering, was a delusion. Nothing was secured. Nothing. For a time man built himself in, into his neat little present world of Gods and Providences, rainbow promises and so forth. It was artificial, it was artistic, fictitious. We are only beginning to realize how artificial… And when sensitive, unprepared men like our poor friend Finchatton become aware of it, they show themselves too weak to face it. They refuse to face a world so grim and great as this world really is. They take refuge in stories of hauntings and personal madness in the hope of some sort of exorcism, something they think will be a cure…. There is no such cure…
From bawling, his voice sank to a deep heavy undertone. “Madness, sir, from the mental side, is poor Nature’s answer to overwhelming fact. It is flight. And today all over the world, intellectual men are going mad. They are dithering, because they realize that the fight against this cave-man who is over us, who is in us, who is indeed us, is going against these imaginary selves. The world is no longer safe for anything. It was sheer delusion that we had Him under…
What’s to be done then? Frobisher wonders. It all seems hopeless.
Face the facts! Face the facts, sir! Go through with it. Survive if you can and perish if you can’t. Do as I have done and shape your mind to a new scale. Only giants can save the world from complete relapse and so we – we who care for civilization – have to become giants. We have to bind a harder, stronger civilization like steel about the world. We have to make such a mental effort as the stars have never witnessed yet. Arise, O mind of Man!” (He called me that!) “Or be for ever defeated.”
Frobisher has no giant-potential; he’s the ordinary man-in-the-street who just wants to get on with his life without having to consider the larger issues. He dismisses Norbert’s ‘epoch-making rhetoric’.
I suppose from first to last throughout the ages decent people of my sort have had to listen to this kind of thing, but it seemed to me beyond all reason that I should have to listen it on the terrace of the Source Hotel at Perona above Les Noupets on a lovely morning in this year of grace nineteen hundred and thirty-six… I ceased to mark or remember half the things he said…
Thus the majority of the population when faced with the manifold horrors of the world-scene. The media reports are designed to have us think that for the most part everything is just like it’s always been – the process is called ‘hypernormalisation’.
He reeled off a list of atrocities, murders and horrors all over the world. I suppose there is a rather unusual amount of massacre and torture going on nowadays. I suppose the outlook is pretty black. I suppose there may be frightful wars, air raids and pogroms ahead of us. But what am I to do about it? What was the good of bow-wow-wowing at me?
The net effect on Frobisher of listening to Finchatton and then Norbert’s interpretation of Finchatton is to slightly unhinge his mind; he has strongly identified with what both men have said so that he has to admit that
… these two men have in a sort of way hypnotized me after all, and put something of this anxiety and something of this haunting of theirs upon me. I try and get them in a proper perspective by writing down this story, but the mere writing of it makes me realize how much I can’t detach myself. I can no more get rid of it by telling it to you than Finchatton could get rid of it by telling it to me. I did not know that one could be hypnotized in this fashion, by people just sitting about or talking to you. I thought you had to sit still and give yourself up to hypnotism or else there was nothing doing. But now I find I don’t sleep as well as I used to do, I catch myself anxious about world affairs, I read evil things between the lines in the newspapers, and usually very faintly but sometimes quite plainly I see, behind the transparent front of things, that cave-man face.
Like many in our world Frobisher refuses to face the facts. The world may crumble about us, life as we used to know it is over & done for, but we leave the solution to the politicians who are presumably paid to know what to do. But they, of course, are part of the problem – they contribute to the horror.
But I had had enough of this apocalyptic stuff. I looked [Norbert] in the face, firmly but politely. I said, “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.”
Yes, I have outlined the whole story of The Croquet Player but I do not think I have ruined it for the reader: re-reading with the outcome in mind adds another layer to one’s experience of it.