Of all of the short stories written by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), ‘In the Avu Observatory’ is one of the most genuinely frightening. In this story, Wells’s writing is sublime, and the way he slowly builds suspense as a mysterious monstrous creature attacks the scientist manning an observatory in Borneo serves as a masterclass in how to write a ‘monster tale’ such as this.
The plot of ‘In the Avu Observatory’ can be summarised in a couple of paragraphs. One night, at the titular astronomical observatory, a dome-shaped building located on the island of Borneo, a man named Woodhouse mans the observatory alone and uses the telescope to watch the Milky Way. A large creature appears inside the observatory; it turns out to be a giant bat. Woodhouse defends himself as the creature attacks him, wounding it so that it goes into retreat.
When morning arrives, his fellow scientist, Thaddy, tells him that the native Dyats talk of a Colugo (a gliding mammal), but Woodhouse believes that the thing he fought was a giant bat. He ends by quoting Hamlet’s famous statement that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, referring to the host of unusual species found on the island of Borneo.
In ‘In the Avu Observatory’, Wells offers an exceptionally effective example of ‘how to write about a weird creature attacking someone’. At first, the bat is merely ‘a flash of blackness’ as it flies past the roof of the observatory, blotting out the stars momentarily. Then it happens again, this time with a ‘scraping sound’.
Next, a few body parts are glimpsed as the creature flies wildly around the observatory. Then we get the size comparison which provides a slightly clearer idea of the creature’s scale: he tells us that the head of the bat seems to be ‘as big as a mastiff’s’. Of course, this comparison also has the effect of summoning an especially violent breed of dog to the reader’s mind.
Of course, the night-time setting of the story also helps. Darkness breeds the unknown, and thus cultivates our terror. Woodhouse, like the Time Traveller in The Time Machine, has his matches to use against the darkness, but he only has one left. In ‘The Red Room’, the narrator tries desperately to stop the candles going out in his room while darkness threatens to overtake him in a haunted chamber.
‘In the Avu Observatory’ is also about man’s vulnerability among the animal kingdom: all it takes is one stray bat, which, according to Thaddy, only went for Woodhouse because he scared it in some way, to threaten the survival of a man who sits within a modern-day fortress, the astronomical observatory whose only aperture is the small slit or ‘parallelogram’ in the building’s roof. While Woodhouse has his eyes on the stars, a mysterious terrestrial phenomenon far closer to home appears and literally blots out those stars:
Suddenly the stars were blotted out. A flash of blackness passed, and they were visible again.
Then the thing began clambering up the side of the observatory, and he saw its black outline gradually blot out the skylight.
But in the last analysis, ‘In the Avu Observatory’ qualifies as a gripping horror story, which, like Conan Doyle’s ‘The Brazilian Cat’, masterfully builds suspense as one man finds himself threatened by a fearsome animal he is trapped with, while nobody comes to help.