The Croquet Player (1936) by H G Wells is set in an alternative universe where croquet and archery have the same exalted sporting status as tennis. It’s a novella of serious frivolity, and seems to be most highly regarded now for its apparent foreshadowing of the Second World War. Given its publication date, after six or more years of literary anticipation of conflict with Nazi Germany, it would be astonishing if anything Wells wrote at this period did not anticipate war. His First World War novel, Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), and his own first-hand knowledge from that period, supply the detail of what happens when civilians are bombed.
Much more interesting is how he channels H P Lovecraft with Gothic horror. Georgie Frobisher is an international croquet and archery champion, and resides with his maiden aunt, Miss Frobisher. Out of season she and he concern themselves with the Woman’s World Humanity Movement, but as soon as mallets and longbows may be brandished, she drops political agitation and they go on tour. They are at the English seaside resort of Les Noupets, for its fine club croquet lawns, which is near Cainsmarsh, a village name with the highest Lovecraftian implications. The local doctor buttonholes Georgie with a dark and unnerving tale of hauntings, terror, tortured children and open graves.
The delight of this story is the impressive inverse bathos that Wells produces by making the frivolous Georgie, who only lives for his game and is under the severe thumb of his aunt, the serious, unaffected hero character. Wells piles on the Gothic, with a Neanderthal skeleton, a dog beaten to death, murderous threats, endemic panic and a thoroughly objectionable psychiatrist. The reader is thrilled and repelled: Georgie simply listens calmly and then leaves to play a game of croquet for which he has been engaged.
Lifting the surface layers of this intriguing and entertaining story, some interesting elements emerge, not least the wartime predictions, and Wells’ views on the misappropriation of science by the barely educated. I was so happy to stumble upon it.
H G Wells, The Croquet Player (1936), (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1998, 2003), ISBN 0-905488-89-X.