Michael Sherborne on “The Haunted Ceiling” by H.G. Wells
(We had a chance to chat with Professor Michael Sherborne about “The Haunted Ceiling” an unpublished story by H.G. Wells which we’re publishing in the holiday issue of the Strand Magazine. Professor Sherborne was kind enough to share his expertise with us and speculate on why this short story was never published. Tomorrow, we’ll have Professor Patrick Parrinder’s take.)
AG: When do you think that Wells wrote this story? It seems like a very old manuscript.
MS: It sounds like 1894-96. The opening paragraph uses the phrase “the darkness … grew apace,” which also occurs in The Time Machine. The opening of The Time Machine also features the word patent, liberal combination of dashes and brackets, a scene where professional men chat about strange topics, and the use of someone smoking to break up the dialogue. So early 1895 maybe? The story has a resemblance to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which I think came out in 1892 in the USA; I don’t know if it had appeared in Britain, though.
AG: Physically it was very difficult to decipher and looking at his manuscript of The Time Machine, you could also see the writing was very tough to transcribe. Who transcribed the works of Wells?
MS: Wells’s wife edited and fair-copied his work. Her handwriting was virtually identical to his, but neater. I believe at this stage the typing was done by his cousin Bertha Williams.
AG: There is a mention of Sickert in the story; did Wells ever meet the artist?
MS: I’m not aware of any Wells-Sickert connection.
AG: What was his attitude toward ghosts and the occult? From the little that I know about Wells, he was a firm atheist but this story definitely has the feel of someone who ventured into a story about spirits.
MS: Wells had no time for the occult, but he knew there was money to be made from ghost stories. Although he was a champion of science, he understood that the universe was a mysterious place of which scientific knowledge was limited and provisional. In someone’s autobiography, maybe the cartoonist David Low, there’s a conversation where Wells admits this limitation and the writer retorts that it lets every superstition back into contention.
AG: His short story, “The Red Room,” was vintage Wells. How would you describe this story’s mood compared to some of the other horror stories that Wells wrote?
MS: “The Red Room” is feverish, even melodramatic, as are some Wells’s other horror stories. Some, of course, are comic like “The Inexperienced Ghost.” The very best. Like “ Elvesham,“ have a subtle mix of moods. I’d say “The Haunted Ceiling” was restrained and understated. Wells is trying to lull the reader into believing that there will be a simple, rational explanation, only to surprise us.
AG: Why do you think that Wells has not faded into obscurity like many of his contemporaries?
MS: There’s no short answer to this question unless we use that ambiguous word genius. There are so many aspects to Wells’s legacy and the best of his stories have so many strengths. Like all of us, he did, wrote, and said a huge amount of tosh, but there was also a part of him that was extraordinarily astute, a mixture of intuition and informed, wide-ranging intelligence, which cut through the jumble of appearances to see the truths and trends beneath.
AG: Are any of the themes of this story similar to anything else that Wells wrote?
MS: I think feminists could have a field day with this story. Impatience with the marriage bond runs through Wells’s work and life. Here, female presence is excluded from the story, with several examples of the narrator sniping at Meredith’s wife, but the repressed female element then returns accusingly in the form of the face in the ceiling. It could be relevant that the best-known book of verse by George Meredith, Modern Love, depicts a disintegrating marriage. Wells refers to it in a later short story, “Miss Winchelsea’s Heart.”
AG: How did these manuscripts end up in Illinois of all places?
MS: Wells died in 1946. At this period, having sold most of its assets and borrowed goods and money from the United States to fight two world wars, Britain was a financial wreck. (We only finished paying back the American loans in 2006.) The US, in contrast, was the wealthiest nation in history. No one in Britain could or would put up the money to buy the archive of a once-fashionable author, now rather looked down on by the elite. Professor Gordon N. Ray at Illinois could and did.
AG: Anything that readers you think should know about Wells?
MS: There’s so much! Everyone knows he was a science fiction writer, but he wrote many outstanding books of all kinds and was involved in so many activities and causes, not the least his work at the end of his life formulating and advocating human rights.
AG: What are your favorite Wells short stories and novels?
MS: Short stories: “The Country of the Blind,” “The Door in the Wall,” “The Star,” “The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham,” “Under the Knife,” “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” Novels: The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, Tono-Bungay, The History of Mr. Polly. Also two little-known novels from the 1920s: Christina Alberta’s Father and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, which the publisher Peter Owen is reprinting next year with introductions by me explaining their merits!