Earlier this month, on the way home from World Fantasy Con, we stopped in the town of Ben Lomond, in the mountains south of San Jose and just north of Santa Cruz, to visit Marina Fitch and Mark Budz, old friends. We walked through downtown Santa Cruz to have dinner and visit a couple bookshops — including Logos Books & Records — the likes of which have vanished in big cities like Los Angeles, where I live.
At Logos (which reminded me of Sam Weller’s Bookstore in Salt Lake City, which I visit every time I’m there for a software engineering convention, with its mix of new and used books and its basement floor where the SF section is located) I bought, almost at random, as a souvenir, a small hardback book by H. G. Wells, called The Croquet Player. For $5.
It was a title I’d never heard of, copyright 1937, but then I knew that Wells had published many works in his latter years that have never gained the reputation of his earlier works — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, etc etc — that so prefigured and defined the genre of ‘science fiction’.
“The Croquet Player” is a slim volume of 98 pages, a novella at best, that according to Bill Contento’s Locus Index, was first published in 1936 in London, and rarely reprinted since then. (The volume I purchased is apparently the first US edition, though without dust jacket.)
The story’s narrator, in the first of four sections, describes himself as something of a dandy, with “soft hands and an ineffective will”. He then meets a stranger who tells him of strange circumstances in Cainsmarsh. At the midpoint of the story, it seems we’re reading Wells’ version of an HP Lovecraft tale — a rural community haunted by an otherworldly presence, or infestation. But as the tale continues, it develops that this presence is subjective, an effect due to the awareness of the vastness of time revealed by modern science — an effect so disconcerting that our narrator cannot comprehend its significance. He is content, as the story closes, to dismiss it entirely, to return to his passtime of playing croquet.
It’s a surprisingly postmodern story (and not, in the end, strictly SF or fantasy at all). But what I find most curious is that this tale has been completely forgotten. It’s an example, as with other authors we might think of, of how an author’s early works have outlasted the later, supposedly more mature ones.
Addendum: here, via Google, is Time Magazine’s March 1st, 1937 review of the book.