25th July 2014

“…across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

In a list of the best horror stories ever written, I am repeatedly surprised not to see The War of the Worlds on that list.  Sure, on the surface of it, the novel is a science fiction one, a classic written by the absolute master of the genre, H.G Wells.  Reading the novel however, I was filled with a greater sense of fear than any of the better-known “classic” horror novels I have read.  It is stark; it is gruesome; it is suffocating, and it is unquestionably terrifying.

Readers of Wells will know how far ahead of his time he was; indeed mankind was only just beginning to make their baby steps into machine-powered flight around this time.  Wells was writing about the idea of alien invasion and forays into space almost 50 years before the real space race began and 60-odd years before man actually left earth for the first time.

Mankind has always looked to the stars, and was only a matter of time before the concept of there being life elsewhere in the galaxy, morphed into that life deciding they wanted to take earth for their own heinous means.  The Mars of this novel is not the red dead planet we know today, but one upon which signs of life can be seen from earth.

So the novel starts ominously; a huge metal cylinder arrives from space and crash lands in England in the last years of the 19th century.  We hear almost exclusively from the viewpoint of a local thinking-man who happens to live near where the first cylinder lands.  The local people are largely curious, but not exactly frightened of the cylinders, leading to them crowding round the huge craters left by the cylinder’s impact.  Other cylinders are arriving in other areas, with astronomers identifying them as being projected from the planet Mars.  Then the cylinders open.

Hideous Martians emerge from the cylinders, moving sluggishly in the heavier atmosphere of earth.  Again, humans show only curiosity and repulsion at the Martians, not exactly perceiving them as a threat.  Then the Martians fire their heat-rays; deadly invisible weapons which can kill instantly, demolish buildings and turn grass and trees to ash in seconds. 

Huge walking tripods – stored like flat-pack furniture inside the cylinders - are assembled by the Martians, and from inside these terrifying mechanical monsters, they begin to advance on a killing spree towards the symbol of the Empire - London; a city which until then had not taken the “alien problem” seriously at all.  The army are drafted in to take care of the invaders, but it becomes woefully apparent that despite being the greatest power on earth at that time, the army is facing an enemy they probably don’t have the technology to defeat.

The Martians start to change the environment of earth, planting a Red Weed to grow where it overcomes the local plants and chokes the rivers, with the obvious aim of emulating their home conditions on Mars.  They also lay waste to the English countryside, destroying entire villages in a single day, and using a Black Smoke to snuff out any survivors of the heat-ray. 

The Martians make a wasteland of England, with starving human survivors hiding out in cellars, forced to ransack houses and shops for subsistence, while packs of wild dogs roam the land eating any meat they can find.  The Martians are extremely self-sufficient; they can create the raw materials they require for their nefarious plans from scratch, and humans may yet be of use to their long-term goals.

There is an enormous sense of desperation on the part of humanity in the novel, that there appears to be nothing that anyone can do; mankind is in its darkest hour.  We hear the narrator, despite not being a pious man, praying to a higher power to release humanity from the death-grip of the Martians.  You never feel like the humans ever have the upper hand, and though I would never wish to spoil the ending for newbies to the novel, it is sheer luck in the end rather than guile that prevails.

It is easy for some to write off early science fiction, given how technologically advanced the modern world is in the 21st century.  I would urge everyone to try and imagine living in Victorian Britain, where the telephone and radio were still in their infancy, and reading of alien invaders who can construct walking machines capable of bringing destruction and death to all that cross their paths. 

The novel at the time was a sensation, and it is hard to believe a similar one updated to the modern day would hold the same shock value.  Few writers had written of the gruesome horrors of war at the time, and few have captured it so well since.  Wells played on the real fears of humanity – a legacy brilliantly carried on in the radio serial of the novel by Orson Welles in the 1930s - and in my opinion the novel deserves its reputation alongside the greatest fiction stories ever written.

Rating: 5/5 stars