A short while back I wrote about H. G. Wells’ “The Plattner Story” for my Amazing Stories series. I hadn’t read this particular Wells story before, and it’s stuck in my mind since my short write-up, I thought I’d devote a bit more space to it.
Here’s the thing: “The Plattner Story” strikes me as a work ahead of its time. It’s a ghost story that edges into science fiction, and in the process, verges on a kind of proto-Lovecraftian cosmic horror. It depicts a weird extra-dimensional world which has a few similarities to conventional notions of the afterlife, but is largely Wells’ own creation — making it all the more disturbing, as it is ultimately unclear as to what is happening. This is similar to how Lovecraft gave new life to old horror concepts by transplanting demons and devils to the alternate dimensions of science fiction, creating his own pantheon apart from traditional demonology.
It’s well-known that Lovecraft was influenced by The King in Yellow, an 1895 collection by Robert W. Chambers, but it’s news to me that H. G. Wells made his own contribution to the proto-genre of cosmic horror just two years after Chambers’ book was published. Perhaps it’s time this lesser-known H. G. Wells story got a bit more recognition as a part of horror history…?
“The Plattner Story” gets off to a fairly slow start, with a lengthy description of schoolteacher Gottfried Plattner that establishes him as an everyday sort of fellow who happens to have undergone a single remarkable experience. This ordeal began when Plattner was caught in an explosion brought about by a misfiring chemical experiment. As far as the others in the room were concerned, he disappeared without a trace.
Now, at this point, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that Wells is telling a story about invisibility, as a dry-run for his later The Invisible Man. But no, it turns out that something weirder is afoot…
First come the dreams:
[A] large number of people in the neighbourhood dreamed singularly vivid dreams of Plattner […] In almost all of them Plattner was seen, sometimes singly, sometimes in company, wandering about through acoruscating iridescence. In all cases his face was pale and distressed,and in some he gesticulated towards the dreamer. One or two of the boys, evidently under the influence of nightmare, fancied that Plattner approached them with remarkable swiftness, and seemed to look closely into their very eyes. Others fled with Plattner from the pursuit of vague and extraordinary creatures of a globular shape.
Then Plattner returns as abruptly as he vanished. He gives an account of his experiences during his disappearance, and this is where the story really pays off.
First, we learn that after the explosion, Plattner realised that he had become intangible:
His first definite thoughts seem to have been of his personal safety. He thought he was perhaps blinded and deafened. He felt his limbs and face in a gingerly manner. Then his perceptions grew clearer, and he was astonished to miss the old familiar desks and other schoolroom furniture about him. Only dim, uncertain, grey shapes stood in the place of these. Then came a thing that made him shout aloud, and awoke his stunned faculties to instant activity. Two of the boys, gesticulating, walked one after the other clean through him! Neither manifested the slightest consciousness of his presence. It is difficult to imagine the sensation he felt. They came against him, he says, with no more force than a wisp of mist.
Plattner’s first thought after that was that he was dead. Having been brought up with thoroughly sound views in these matters, however he was a little surprised to find his body still about him. His second conclusion was that he was not dead, but that the others were: that the explosion had destroyed the Sussexville Proprietary School and every soul in it except himself. But that too, was scarcely satisfactory. He was thrown back upon astonished observation.
His surroundings had also taken on a weird colouration:
Everything about him was extraordinarily dark: at first it seemed to have an altogether ebony blackness. Overhead was a black firmament. The only touch of light in the scene was a faint greenish glow at the edge of the sky in one direction, which threw into prominence a horizon of undulating black hills. This I say, was his impression at first. As his eye grew accustomed to the darkness, he began to distinguish a faint quality of differentiating greenish colour in the circumambient night. Against this background the furniture and occupants of the classroom, it seems, stood out like phosphorescent spectres, faint and impalpable.
The lingering traces of the mundane world give way to a more alien environment, prompting Wells’ narrator to begin theorising:
This extinction of our world, when the green sun of this other universe rose, is a curious point upon which Plattner insists. During the Other-World night, it is difficult to move about, on account of the vividness with which the things of this world are visible. It becomes a riddle to explain why, if this is the case, we in this world catch no glimpse of the Other-World. It is due, perhaps, to the comparatively vivid illumination of this world of ours. Plattner describes the midday of the Other-World, at its brightest as not being nearly so bright as this world at full moon, while its night is profoundly black. Consequently, the amount of light, even in an ordinary dark room, is sufficient to render the things of the Other-World invisible, on the same principle that faint phosphorescence is only visible in the profoundest darkness.
Exploring his new surroundings, Plattner comes across buildings — and inhabitants, which resemble floating tadpoles with human heads:
As he drew nearer, he perceived that the various edifices had a singular resemblance to tombs and mausoleums and monuments, saving only that they were all uniformly black instead of being white, as most sepulchres are. And then he saw, crowding out of the largest building, very much as people disperse from church, a number of pallid, rounded, pale-green figures. These dispersed in several directions about the broad street of the place, some going through side alleys and reappearing upon the steepness of the hill, others entering some of the small black buildings which lined the way.
At the sight of these things drifting up towards him, Plattner stopped staring. They were not walking, they were indeed limbless, and they had the appearance of human heads, beneath which a tadpole-like body swung. He was too astonished at their strangeness, too full, indeed of strangeness, to be seriously alarmed by them. They drove towards him, in front of the chill wind that was blowing uphill, much as soap-bubbles drive before a draught. And as he looked at the nearest of those approaching, he saw it was indeed a human head, albeit with singularly large eyes, and wearing such an expression of distress and anguish as he had never seen before upon mortal countenance.
He encounters more of these beings:
Upon most of them he saw the same expression of unavailing regret he had seen upon the first, and heard the same faint sounds of wretchedness from them. One or two wept, and one rolling swiftly uphill wore an expression of diabolical rage. But others were cold, and several had a look of gratified interest in their eyes. One at least, was almost in an ecstasy of happiness.
Plattner reaches the building from where these creatures emanate:
After a long time he came to the entrance of the big mausoleum-like building from which the heads had issued. In this he found a group of green lights burning upon a kind of basaltic altar, and a bell-rope from a belfry overhead hanging down into the centre of the place. Round the wall ran a lettering of fire in a character unknown to him.
He then once again finds the shade of the mundane world existing within this other-world, and finds that the drifting heads spend their time watching mortals:
What are they–these Watchers of the Living? Plattner never learned. But two, that presently found and followed him, were like his childhood’s memory of his father and mother. Now and then other faces turned their eyes upon him: eyes like those of dead people who had swayed him, or injured him, or helped him in his youth and manhood. Whenever they looked at him, Plattner was overcome with a strange sense of responsibility. To his mother he ventured to speak; but she made no answer. She looked sadly, steadfastly, and tenderly–a little reproachfully too, it seemed–into his eyes.
After a close encounter with a shadowy figure — the Grim Reaper, perhaps? — Plattner flees, and stumbles back into the mortal world… and the reader is left to make up their own mind about everything that happened.