‘The Cone’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in Unicorn magazine on 18 September 1895. The story is one of Wells’s few works of fiction to be set in the Potteries in Staffordshire, England: a part of the country in which he lived for a short while. It’s also an early work, written in 1888 when Wells was only in his early twenties.
To summarise the plot of ‘The Cone’: a man, Raut, is having an affair with the wife of his friend, a man named Horrocks. Horrocks never shows his wife any affection, his life being governed by the ‘iron’ with which he works, in the industrial midlands. He has driven her into the arms of his friend.
The story opens with Raut meeting with Horrocks’ wife at the latter’s home. As they are talking about their affair, they become aware of Horrocks standing in the doorway, regarding them. However, they are unsure how long he has been standing there, and how much of their conversation he overheard. When Raut reminds Horrocks that the latter promised to show him ‘the works’ (i.e., the ironworks) one evening, Horrocks is initially forgetful, but then a ‘new light’ appears in his eyes, and he recovers his enthusiasm for the idea.
Mrs Horrocks, who knows her husband’s moods well, realises that he knows about their affair, but she is powerless to warn Raut as he heads off with Horrocks. Horrocks shows Raut around the ironworks as the suspense builds: does Horrocks definitely know about Raut and his wife? And what does he intend to do?
Horrocks takes Raut to look at the cones which are at the top of pipes which run off the fire and smoke from the furnaces. Horrocks appears to save Raut from being struck by a passing steam engine, but after the event, Raut realises he was confused in the moment and Horrocks may have been putting him in front of the train, with the intention of killing him.
Raut overcomes his fear and decides that he is probably safe with Horrocks. But when Horrocks takes Raut to the furnace and shows him the extreme heat coming up from the cone, Horrocks seizes his chance – and his rival – and a struggle ensues. Raut ends up being thrown into the cone and is boiled and burned alive.
No sooner has Horrocks eliminated his love rival than he feels contrition for what he has done. He covers up the dead body with coal, but the final paragraph of the story suggests that Horrocks’ crime has already been discovered.
Much of H. G. Wells’s work is marked by an ambivalence or a kind of internal dialectic, whereby he uses his fiction – and especially his science fiction – to explore the pros and cons of a particular idea or invention. And ‘The Cone’ is a classic example of this. The ironworks where Horrocks works are strangely beautiful, as the following description hammers home (as it were):
Here and there a pallid patch and ghostly stunted beehive shapes showed the position of a pot-bank, or a wheel, black and sharp against the hot lower sky, marked some colliery where they raise the iridescent coal of the place.
Raut is clearly a more romantic and poetic soul than Horrocks (who, at one point, comments that Raut would describe the ‘line of red’ as ‘a lovely bit of warm orange’), but even the usually laconic Horrocks finds himself waxing lyrical about the beauty of the place.
And yet Horrocks – his very name hinting at the ‘horrors’ of such an industrial landscape of fire and smoke – uses this oddly attractive setting to commit the murder of his love rival. ‘The Cone’ thus might be analysed in terms of the Sublime: that concept, advanced by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century, that nature is both beautiful and horrific, both pleasing and frightening, especially when it reminds man of his smallness next to a storm, or the sea, or a mountain.
Of course, there is little that is natural about the Staffordshire ironworks, but in this respect we might view ‘The Cone’ as a classic example of Brian Aldiss’s thesis (in Trillion Year Spree) that science fiction emerged from earlier Gothic fiction, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein demonstrates.
The Sublime is everywhere in the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and Shelley herself; Wells’s ‘The Cone’ takes this concept and applies it to the unnatural, man-made landscape of industrialisation, which is both awe-inspiring and dangerous: awesome and awful, we might say. Doubtless Raut would agree.