Short Story Review: “The Stolen Body” by H. G. Wells

(Cover by Andrew Brosnatch. Weird Tales, November 1925.)

Who Goes There?

H. G. Wells is one of those authors who really needs no introduction. Of the forerunners to the great experiment we call science fiction, Wells was arguably the most influential and most talented; he was at least certainly the most direct ancestor to the likes of Heinlein and Asimov; he was also one of the first SF authors I remember reading with any enthusiasm. I picked up copies of The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau as a middle schooler and I was thus introduced to classic literature and classic science fiction in one swoop. Mind you that I—well, I didn’t like reading much up to that point in my life; I was a late bloomer when it came to the whole reading for fun thing. The Time Machine especially might’ve rewired my brain a bit, and I’ve gone back to it several times since then—which is easy, considering it’s really a novella. Point being, even though I don’t tend to think of him as one of my favorite authors, I owe quite a lot to Wells, as so do the rest of us who think of science fiction as our home turf.

Wells wrote a lot and lived a long time, but his legacy gets boiled down to a handful of novels that were written close together and a smattering of short stories and novellas that were written during that same period. This is fine, because with such pioneering works as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, Wells’s legacy was secured. It may seem odd to see him in the pages of Weird Tales, but consider both the story to follow and also how “weird” much of Wells’s fiction is. The Invisible Man would surely have been serialized in Weird Tales had it been published three decades later, and the beast men of The Island of Dr. Moreau are such grotesque creations as to make the average horror writer nod in gratitude. “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” is a mind-bending tale about seeing several places simultaneously, and actually “The Stolen Body” feels like a bit of a companion to that earlier short story.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the November 1898 issue of The Strand Magazine, but we’re reading “The Stolen Body” as it appeared in the November 1925 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Curiously, despite being a reprint, it was made the cover story. In what has to be one of the faster magazine reprints it also appeared just over two years later in the January 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, which you can find here. Because this is Wells it’s not hard to find. It was included in the collection Twelve Stories and a Dream, which is on Project Gutenberg. If you want a paper copy then your best bet is probably Selected Stories of H. G. Wells from Modern Library, which seems to still be in print. You have options is all I’m saying.

Enhancing Image

We start with two friends, Mr. Bessel and Mr. Vincey, who have the crippling combination of being bored and also into paranormal shit. This is Victorian England; people did some wild shit just to pass the time. Bessel thinks he can separate his spirit from his body by sheer force of will—as in he can hypnotize himself and astral project into Vincey’s apartment. Hypnotism is a running thing in SF of this vintage, and would sometimes even show up in Campbellian SF a few decades later. The most famous example in old-timey fiction might be Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a horror yarn that, curiously, could also be considered science fiction; it certainly convinced Gernsback enough to print it in Amazing Stories, as would “The Stolen Body” be a few years later.

Bessel simply trying hard enough in order to achieve this supernatural end also reminds me of another Wells story, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” but whereas that story makes no attempt to explain itself in rational terms, we’ll find “The Stolen Body” to be couched in science fictional rationalism. Anyway, the idea is that the spirit of Bessel will appear to Vincey, then Vincey will take a picture of this spirit before Bessel returns to his body. Well, the first part of the experiment works. Bessel’s spirit does indeed appear to Vincey, but for one, Vincey is too slow to take a picture with what admittedly has to be a slow and clunky camera, and second, when Vincey heads over to Bessel’s place, he’s nowhere to be found. For reasons unknown, Bessel has all but vanished into thin air. To make things even weirder, Bessel seems to have trashed his own apartment before vanishing—but then maybe there was foul play involved?

The answer is “yes” and also “no.”

What follows is very strange. Vincey has a series of vivid dreams in which he’s confronted with Bessel’s spirit, but he also sees Bessel—the man, or at least the body of the man—go on a rampage through the streets at night, assaulting people with a cane and blabbering the word “Life!” over and over. When Vincey wakes up, he finds that the dream was not really a dream; Bessel really did go on a rampage during the night, and at the same time that Vincey was sleeping. Vincey and Mr. Hart, a mutual friend, take this information to the police, and are told that not only was Vincey’s vision a projection of what really happened, but that despite quite a few eye witnesses, Bessel has not been found since the rampage.

They confirmed Mr. Vincey’s overnight experiences and added fresh circumstances, some of an even graver character than those he knew—a list of smashed glass along the upper half of Tottenham Court Road, an attack upon a policeman in Hampstead Road, and an atrocious assault upon a woman. All these outrages were committed between half-past 12 and a quarter to 2 in the morning, and between those hours—and, indeed, from the very moment of Mr. Bessel’s first rush from his rooms at half-past 9 in the evening—they could trace the deepening violence of his fantastic career. For the last hour, at least from before 1, that is, until a quarter to 2, he had run amuck through London, eluding with amazing agility every effort to stop or capture him.

But after a quarter of 2 he had vanished. Up to that hour witnesses were multitudinous. Dozens of people had seen him, fled from him or pursued him, and then things suddenly came to an end. At a quarter to 2 he had been seen running down the Euston Road towards Baker Street, flourishing a can of burning colza oil and jerking splashes of flame therefrom at the windows of the houses he passed. But none of the policemen on Euston Road beyond the Waxwork Exhibition, nor any of those in the side streets down which he must have passed had he left the Euston Road, had seen anything of him. Abruptly he disappeared. Nothing of his subsequent doings came to light in spite of the keenest inquiry.

How Vincey was able to have a vision of something that happened simultaneously with his sleeping will be explained later, but it’s certainly hard to rationalize—thus an irrational explanation, never mind a solution, will have to do. Vincey gets in contact with a local medium, which strikes me as unusually dishonest for Wells since he depicts mediums as well-meaning people and not the con artists they actually are. Anyway, putting aside my intense ambivalence towards mediums and ghost hunters and whatnot, the visit pays off immensely, even if the message we get from what seems to be Bessel’s spirit is cryptic. The medium, as if hypnotized herself, writes down a message in what Vincey recognizes as Bessel’s handwriting, and with nothing else to go on the police use this clue to find Bessel, who following his deliriam from the previous night had apparently fallen down a shaft at a construction site and was unable to get out on his own.

A few broken bones aside, Bessel is in fine shape, and more importantly he acts like himself again. That’s basically the end of the story, if we were to map this whole thing out linearly, but there are still questions begging to be answered, such as “Why did Bessel go on that mad rampage?” and “How come Vincey was able to see said rampage in his dream as it was happening in the real world?” But those are spoilers…

Wells’s characters are not knowing for being all that colorful, with a few notable exceptions (Dr. Moreau and his henchman/boytoy Montgomery are far more memorable than the narrator), with “The Stolen Body” being an especially pronounced example. Bessel, Vincey, and the few other characters worth mentioning at all are very vanilla, and it struck me at some point while reading that there’s very little dialogue. We don’t even get Bessel and Vincey’s first names if I remember right. They serve their purpose, though; clearly Wells is far more interested in mapping out this strange sequence of events than having the characters act as the story’s anchor. We’re supposed to find these supernatural shenanigans as adequate compensation for the lack of actual character drama, and I think it worked out.

Anyway, we don’t go to Wells for the characters. It’d be like if you went to Hal Clement for characters, or Vernor Vinge; these writers are much more about the visionary potential of fiction than the potential of human drama. “The Stolen Body” isn’t scary, really, but it’s certainly perplexing, making us wonder what the hell is going on and where Bessel could have gone to during his astral projection. What makes “The Stolen Body” very much worth a recommendation is that it’s not simply a ghost story—it’s a ghost story as written by a real man of science, a man who refuses to let any substantial question go unanswered. It’s like when James Blish tried to rationalize werewolves in “There Shall Be No Darkness” (review here), except Wells’s rationalizing is a bit less labored, if also less eccentric.

There Be Spoilers Here

You may be thinking, “Brian, you handsome devil, why did you give away the end of the story in the non-spoiler section? What could you even have left to consider a spoiler?” Well that’s where you’d be mistaken, because we haven’t gotten Bessel’s side of the story up till now. While we know he more or less ended up fine, how we got to finding him in a shaft where he could’ve only been found with some supernatural assistance was not explained. Wells does something very peculiar here in that he rewinds the clock and retells most of the story, but from Bessel’s perspective.

So what happened when Bessel hypnotized himself and left his own body? Wasn’t he able to get back into it? How else could he have gone on that rampage, albeit seemingly in a state of shock? Well…

He enters a world that could be considered the shadow realm—a level of existence beyond the natural world. A world without sound, separated from the natural world by what seems like a glass pane. It’s uncanny and certainly intriguing, but Bessel finds that he can’t return to his body with ease; in fact, he soon finds that he’s not the only one looking for a body around here. While Bessel is currently apart from his body, he’s not technically dead, which I guess leaves it open to possession. (Is that how it works? I don’t think too hard about it.) There are spirits in this realm—people in limbo, between the living and the departed, neither alive nor totally dead. One of these spirits invades Bessel’s body and, after presumably being stuck in spirit form for a long time, immediately goes nuts with it.

A few problems Bessel must solve: the obvious is that he has to get back into his body, but he can’t do that if someone else has it; the second, arguably bigger problem is making contact with Vincey or someone who might help him get back itno his body; the third is hoping to God or whoever it is that the spirit that hijacked his body doesn’t kill it somehow. Indeed that second problem takes up most of the back end of the story, and goes a long way in explaining some earlier events that might seem inexplicable to us.

For instance, Vincey has the dream about Bessel going on his rampage because the real Bessel messes with his… pineal gland. Lovecraft fans may note that this peculiar little gland in the brain gets used as a plot device in that dude’s early story “From Beyond,” with similarly supernatural but far more negative results. Apparently writers in the 19th and early 20th century were fucking stoked about all the weird little things in the human body, like the appendix and all that. The pineal gland in old-timey (we’re talking pre-Campbellian SF, it’s that old) SF serves as basically one’s third eye, which Bessel opens for Vincey; he witnesses the rampage as it’s occurring, though he doesn’t realize that until later.

Confused slightly? Don’t worry, Wells catches us up:

And now the attentive reader begins to understand Mr. Bessel’s interpretation of the first part of this strange story. The being whose frantic rush through London had inflicted so much injury and disaster had indeed Mr. Bessel’s body, but it was not Mr. Bessel. It was an evil spirit out of that strange world beyond existence, into which Mr. Bessel had so rashly ventured. For twenty hours it held possession of him, and for all those twenty hours the dispossessed spirit-body of Mr. Bessel was going to and fro in that unheard-of middle world of shadows seeking help in vain. He spent many hours beating at the minds of Mr. Vincey and of his friend Mr. Hart. Each, as we know, he roused by his efforts. But the language that might convey his situation to these helpers across the gulf he did not know; his feeble fingers groped vainly and powerlessly in their brains. Once, indeed, as we have already told, he was able to turn Mr. Vincey aside from his path so that he encountered the stolen body in its career, but he could not make him understand the thing that had happened; he was unable to draw any help from that encounter…

Also, while Bessel isn’t allowed to talk to normal people, he can make indirect messages through people’s pineal glands if they’re juiced up enough, I guess, hence, the medium writing down Bessel’s cryptic message and even mimicking Bessel’s handwriting. Bessel has to fight other spirits for control of the medium’s body, but he gets in there just long enough to let Vincey know what happened to his body and where it is.

Meanwhile the spirit, having had an accident and fallen down the shaft, breaking a few bones in the process, is not happy to be in Bessel’s body anymore and eventually leaves it, allowing Bessel to return. He’s hurt badly and the whole experience has been pretty traumatic, never mind, outlandish, but he’s more or less fine at the end. What lingers far more than the physical pain is the knowledge that, for a relatively brief time, he experienced the afterlife—and it SUCKS.

A Step Farther Out

Is it science fiction? Is it supernatural horror? It’s kinda both. It’s interesting to look back at pre-Gernsbackian SF and see how these writers were playing with genre boundaries when they didn’t even know what that genre was yet. Wells was on to something, though, and it’s no wonder that “The Stolen Body” was reprinted in two genre magazines a few decades after initial publication—because no doubt Hugo Gernsback would have bought it even if it had never been published before. As it turns out, scientific (or often pseudo-scientific) concerns did not change much among those who were “in the know” between the tail end of the 19th century and around the time of the stock market crash. What makes an artifact like “The Stolen Body” especially interesting is that because our understanding of the human body has advanced so much since Wells’s time, Victorian superstition about ghosts and whatnot now sounds more fantastical than it would’ve at the time. Wells was a materialist, but even so he appealed to Victorian fears about damnation and voices from beyond the grave.

Wells would become a more frequent contributor to Amazing Stories, but “The Stolen Body” was not his last appearance in Weird Tales and if you know enough about his work it’s not hard to see why. It’s strange, considering how much he is known as an optimist and utopian socialist, that so much of Wells’s fiction could be classified as horror; indeed he is much more famous for crafting bad futures than good ones. Whereas The Time Machine shows a bad distant future, hundreds of thousands of years from now, “The Stolen Body” shows a much more immediate but still horrific (at least on a personal level) future: the life that comes after death.

See you next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: