All through H.G. Wells’s novella The Croquet Player I was half scolding myself for enjoying it so much. The scene: Mr. Frobisher, man of leisure and player of croquet, listens to a tale of a supernatural fear told by a Dr. Finchatton, now taking a brief cure away from Cainsmarsh, the scene of his troubles. Cainsmarsh is appropriately eerie and the doctor tells his story well. Presently Dr. Norbert, Finchatton’s psychiatrist, appears and reveals the “truth” about Finchatton and the ghostly fear in the village.
Hardly original, and yet so finely done. The croquet player, who has “soft hands and an ineffectual will” and has been brought up to be a companion to his aunt, describes himself and his well-off brethren thus: “‘What shall we do?’ we ask. ‘Where shall we go?’ Nobody compels us. We are the floating cream of humanity.” The floating cream of humanity! But all is not as well as it might be. Frobisher is writing this little book, in fact, because something has troubled him, and
I want to set down what it is they have said to me in the first place for my own sake, so as to clear up my thoughts about it. What they told me was fantastic and unreasonable but I shall feel surer about that if I set it down in writing. Moreover I want to get my story into a shape that will enable one or two sympathetic readers to reassure me about the purely imaginative quality of what these two men had to say.
The croquet player’s troubles start when, after taking the waters one morning, he floats over to find Dr. Finchatton “having an almost violent quarrel with a number of books.” Finchatton doesn’t want to read romantic ghost stories, he wants to get away from one, and he wants to do so by telling it—and “not as though he particularly wished to tell it to me, but as though he wanted very badly to tell it to someone and hear how it sounded.” And the story, the story. You know the sort, though this one I think is particularly entertaining with its mad feuding vicars.
The haunting is in fact a strange one. A malaise over an entire countryside. Fear of the night, fear of other people, vague feelings of rage. Each with his own preferred explanation. As Frobisher puts it, “It’s incredible and yet—you almost make me believe it. I mean I don’t think it really happened—I wouldn’t go so far as that—but I believe it happened to you.” And Dr. Norbert explains that this is just the case. A “plague of the soul,” an “endemic panic,” that is to say “the modern condition.” The croquet player had been entirely immune to the horrors of reality, floating as he was over humanity, while the doctor succumbed to a nervous disorder brought on by reading the newspaper too much.
Unfortunately, the funny thing about Dr. Finchatton’s disease of the mind is that it begs telling, and inevitably infects the listener. And the telling is no cure: Frobisher “can no more get rid of it by telling it to you than Finchatton could get rid of it by telling it to me.” And of course, Wells couldn’t get rid of it either—all the better for us. And that thought can lead to quite a bit of mental wandering.
There are really so many wonderful little things here too: the psychiatrist madder than his patient; the false etymologies of Cainsmarsh; the perfectly circular form of the stories. Really excellent descriptions of existential ennui. And published in 1937, when the newspapers won’t be getting easier on the nerves for quite a while. A compact and lovely thing.