Review: ‘The Plattner Story’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Plattner Story’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), whom Brian Aldiss dubbed ‘the Shakespeare of science fiction’. This story demonstrates why. Originally published in the New Review in 1896, the story concerns a schoolteacher who accidentally projects himself into another world.

The plot of ‘The Plattner Story’ can be summarised briefly enough. The narrator describes the strange case of Gottfried Plattner, a schoolteacher in England, whose body was asymmetrical following a mysterious incident. His heart was on the right side of his body and he became left-handed where previously he used his right.

One day, in a chemistry lesson, an explosion caused by some green powder caused Plattner to disappear from the classroom. He returned nine days later, when he appeared in the garden of a Mr Lidgett. The narrator then relates Plattner’s own account of what happened to him during his nine days’ absence.

Plattner claims that he found himself in some sort of dim, shadowy other-world during those nine days, where mysterious Watchers of the Living surrounded him, including people who resembled dead friends, relatives, and associates of Plattner. The implication is that he was in some sort of afterlife or ghostly realm which maps onto the real world.

Towards the end of his nine days in this strange world, Plattner witnessed a dying man in a room on a street he recognised as near the school where he teaches. The Watchers of the Living crowded around the man, when a shadowy arm reached out as if to take the dying man. Plattner fled and it was at that moment that he found himself in Mr Lidgett’s garden.

The narrator reports that Plattner’s description of the dying man’s room matches a real room not far from the school, where a man did die around the time Plattner claimed to have witnessed this scene. However, he encourages the reader to make up their own mind about the events Plattner described.

In an incisive analysis and overview of Wells’s science fiction (reprinted in Patrick Parrinder’s Science Fiction: A Critical Guide), John Huntington observes ‘the balanced opposition between the true and the false’ which he often find in Wells’s science fiction. There are two worlds in much of Wells’s early writing: the present and the future in The Time Machine, the Earth and the Moon in The First Men in the Moon, the world around us and the strange paradisal world one character accesses through ‘the door in the wall’ in the short story with that title.

‘The Plattner Story’ is another variation on this theme, but with the possibility of a supernatural element. I say ‘possibility’ because the ‘Watchers of the Living’ which Plattner claims to have witnessed suggest that this other-world is the afterlife, or a ghostly plane which surrounds us and which he has somehow managed to access. Even the scientific explanation for Plattner’s sudden transportation into this ethereal realm (the botched chemistry experiment) would make this story fantasy rather than science fiction.

However, Wells is careful to keep the story open to interpretation, making this a variation on the ‘ambiguous ghost story’ which became more common during the 1890s, as some of Vernon Lee’s ghost stories, and more famous narratives like Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw demonstrate.

Whether it is meant to be a ‘hallucination’ experienced by Plattner (and if it was, where exactly was he for those nine days?) or a genuine ghostly encounter, what Plattner witnesses clearly suggests some kind of afterlife:

As he drew nearer, he perceived that the various edifices had a singular resemblance to tombs and mausoleums and monuments, saving only that they were all uniformly black instead of being white, as most sepulchres are. And then he saw, crowding out of the largest building, very much as people disperse from church, a number of pallid, rounded, pale-green figures. These dispersed in several directions about the broad street of the place, some going through side alleys and reappearing upon the steepness of the hill, others entering some of the small black buildings which lined the way.

In many ways, the rational, even scientific approach adopted by the narrator of ‘The Plattner Story’ lends extra force to the fantastical elements of the story. We are being asked to suspend our disbelief, but not to hang it from the rafters. In this regard, Wells may have been recalling recent accounts of supposedly ‘genuine’ ghostly and supernatural experiences, such as those documented in Edmund Gurney’s 1886 bestseller Phantasms of the Living. It is the matter-of-fact, unsensational style of the story which gives it its power to unsettle us without terrifying us.


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