Yesterday I was in Sandgate, the Folkstone suburb where H. G. Wells was based from soon after he became a bestseller in 1896 until 1909 – and discovered I was inadvertently marking HG’s or Bertie’s 154th birthday. In 1901 he was able to move from a beach-side cottage into a handsome Voysey-designed mansion, Spade House, with a stunning cliff-top view over the Channel. And it was here that he wrote many of his most famous social and prophetic novels, as well as the part-autobiographical Kipps.
But what drew me to visit Sandgate was one story in particular, ‘The New Accelerator’ (1901), which is one of Wells’ small-scale adventures in speculative physics, following his breakthrough with The Time Machine. Readers of this post will probably recall that Robert Paul read The Time Machine when it was appearing as a serial in 1895, contacted Wells and registered a draft patent for a ‘time machine’ entertainment. Meanwhile, projected films dawned just months later, and turned out to perform the same trick more cheaply and flexibly.
However, the influence wasn’t just one-way. Wells reproduces some of the earliest effects of filmic magic in his fiction – reverse-motion in The Time Machine, huge outdoor screens and miniature playback devices in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), and in ‘The New Accelerator’, slow-motion enjoys its first apotheosis. As in so many of Wells’ great ‘tales of space and time’, rooted in a down-to-earth Victorian and Edwardian world, the Accelerator involves little more than two gents on an afternoon jaunt around Sandgate, after they’ve both taken a highly unusual potion, which speeds up their metabolism so that everything around them seems almost frozen.
Nicholson Baker may have revived this idea with erotic intent in The Fermata, but for Wells it’s an innocent outing, with a precise local geography. The narrator and his friend Professor Gibberne leave the latter’s house ‘at the western end of Upper Sandgate Road’, to make their ‘little raid on the Folkestone Leas’, a cliff-top promenade, ‘under the influence of the New Accelerator’ – a jaunt that could have been closer to some of the episodes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than to the frozen vista of Marienbad.
Wells’ imagining of an effect we have seen achieved on-screen with growing sophistication is brilliant. ‘And so we came out on the Leas. There the thing seemed madder than ever. The band was playing in the upper stand, though all the sound it made for us was a low-pitched wheezy rattle… Frozen people stood erect; strange, silent, self-conscious-looking dummies hung unstably in mid-stride, promenading upon the grass.’ Our heroes initially resist the temptation to intervene in several tableaux, until Gibberne grabs an offensive lap-dog and starts to run. The narrator urges him to stop – ‘Friction of the air… like meteorites. Too hot!’.
Then they realise the effect is wearing off: nearby figures are starting to move. The pair return to Gibberne’s ‘pleasant detached house in the mixed style’, and the narrator ends by describing how they plan to bring the Accelerator to market, ‘in three strengths’, hopefully with an accompanying Retarder, ‘which has indeed still to be discovered’. I wanted to see this scene of utopian speculation at first hand, to walk around it like Wells’ protagonists. The day was ideal, and the very same bandstand is still there. Under normal conditions the Leas would have been crowded with people enjoying its spacious views. But of course these aren’t normal times, so I had it almost to myself, free to imagine HG taking a walk from Spade House – and maybe being struck by an idea for a story.
So many of Wells’ stories prefigure the imaginative worlds of cinema, although he had little success developing ideas for films. The one occasion when Alexander Korda gave him a virtually free hand to script Things to Come from his own ‘dream novel’ The Shape of Things to Come disappointed all concerned, including Wells. One reason was that Wells had become too much of a prophet by this stage in his career, too concerned to preach. What was missing was the everydayness that made his early scientific romances so beguiling and infinitely suggestive. Back to the Future is more authentically Wellsian. So too is the little 1928 surreal comedy he scripted for his son, Frank, to work on, Blue Bottles.