Review: ‘The Purple Pileus’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Purple Pileus’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in Black and White at Christmas 1896. The story tells of a man who eats a purple fungus – the ‘purple pileus’ of the story’s title – and becomes intoxicated. This experience alters the whole course of his life.

Here’s a brief summary of the plot of ‘The Purple Pileus’. Coombes is a shopkeeper and a bit of a weak, henpecked husband. His wife isn’t exactly happy with the husband she’s got either. She invites Jennie, a former colleague, and Jennie’s beau, a man named Clarence, around to spend Sundays with them. When Coombes becomes annoyed with Jennie and her fondness for music, he storms out of the house and goes for a walk.

While on this walk, he curses his lot and decides to take some of the strange purple fungus he finds growing along the side of the path. This ‘purple pileus’ brings about all the effects of drunkenness:

It was so pungent that he almost spat it out again, then merely hot and full-flavoured: a kind of German mustard with a touch of horse-radish and – well, mushroom. He swallowed it in the excitement of the moment. Did he like it or did he not? His mind was curiously careless. He would try another bit. It really wasn’t bad–it was good. He forgot his troubles in the interest of the immediate moment. Playing with death it was.

This game of mushroom Russian roulette is a triumph, and the intoxicating effects of the fungus – perhaps coupled with Coombes’ knowledge that he has cheated death – lend him a new resolve. He returns home, throws his weight about, throws Clarence out of the house, and asserts himself against his wife.

Five years later, Coombes is walking along the same stretch of path with his brother. He tells him how his life changed that day, when he stood up to his wife and told her what he was capable of if he was ‘roused’. Since then, their marriage has been much happier. He omits the part about taking the mushrooms, but when his brother points them out as they walk past them, he comments that they probably serve some purpose.

Coombes is a typical Wellsian protagonist, belonging to the lower-middle-class stratum of shopkeepers and clerks who we find in both his science fiction and many of his social novels. ‘The Purple Pileus’ only tangentially qualifies as science fiction because the mushrooms he takes are so potent, they may well represent a new species, although people who’ve experienced the effects of magic mushrooms (I’m not one of them, hating all forms of fungi) would perhaps beg to differ that no mushroom known to man is capable of such mind-altering results.

It is unclear, though, whether we should respond to the end of ‘The Purple Pileus’ as a victory (Coombes has made himself and his wife happier) or a defeat, or at best a hollow victory (he has had to become not just a strong but an overbearing husband in order to achieve marital stability).

Certainly, though, the story suggests that in order to be happy and successful, one must be assertive and strong. Weak men will never attain either. One wonders whether the writers of Back to the Future knew of ‘The Purple Pileus’ when they wrote the script for their time-travel blockbuster, in which weak husband and father George McFly becomes strong and successful thanks to one incident, when he punched out the bullying Biff Tannen at the school prom.


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