Is This The Best Short Story Ever Written?

Reading & Writing

the-door-in-the-wall

A short while ago I gave a talk about short stories that touched me and I remembered this one, which I first read as a child. It’s a small story about a big thing – life.

The start of the 20th century was a glorious time to be writing. There were lots of publishing outlets, and they weren’t divided into neat demographic groups as they are today. You could write a futuristic romance or a nostalgic ghost story, a fantasy thriller or a surrealist comedy from a male or female viewpoint and usually find an audience.

This was one of his last short stories HG Wells wrote, because he was starting to see that the market was controlling his output, and he no longer felt comfortable producing short fiction. So it’s a valedictory story, and all the more profound for being so.

The tale is called ‘The Door In The Wall’. Its sixteen pages hold within them an entire life, from innocence to experience, love and loss, hope and regret, closure and a hint of paradise. Let’s deal with one cavil; it’s that maligned beast, on the surface it’s a white middle-class middle-aged male story – and yet it’s not at all. It’s a story that could and should be appreciated by everyone in the world.

My favourite quote is from Albert Camus, who said that the whole of our adult life is an attempt to recover the images that first gained access to our souls. And that’s Wells’ theme here. The hero is a man called Lionel Wallace, a successful Edwardian gentleman living in Kensington. He tells his old friend Redmond of the inexplicable events which have dogged him all his life, starting when he was five years old.

Lionel is on his way home from school when he discovers a scruffy street, and a green door in a white wall surrounded by vines. He doesn’t know why, but he goes through the door and finds two spotted panthers, parrots, an exotic garden, a pretty girl, a capuchin monkey. An older lady takes him into the house and shows him a book where each page has moving images from his life. When he tries to see the future he ends up back on the street.

And so he goes home to the grey reality of English life.

Then, one day on the way to school he sees the door again. But he’s late, so he doesn’t stop. He’ll get into trouble. He tells his friends, and they demand to see this incredible place, but when he takes them there he can’t remember the name of the street. And he can’t find the door anywhere.

Time passes. He’s now seventeen, on his way to Oxford and a scholarship. In the cab, smoking a cigarette, and there it is – the door – but it’s his first day, so he sends the cabman onwards. He has a more important door to deal with, the door to his career is opening.

Lionel falls in and out of love, advances his career in politics, becomes successful, and throughout his life he sees the door every now and again – it seems to move about, from Campden Hill to Earl’s Court – but every time he sees it, he is not in a position to stop and go through it. One night he’s heading to the reading of a parliamentary bill and there it is again, before his car headlights. But if he stops the bill will be lost, so on he goes into parliament. The door has offered itself up again.

Heartbroken, empty, having told his friend his story, Lionel goes home. A few days later his body is found at the bottom of a deep excavation – they’re building a railway extension through London – behind a white hoarding with a small door cut in it. And his friend Redmond wonders. Was Lionel on his way home late from parliament, did he think he’d found the door? Did it ever even exist?

And did he somehow discover paradise once and for all time?

14 comments on “Is This The Best Short Story Ever Written?”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    Unfortunately H G Wells’ reputation has been rather tainted by his quaint-but-silly science fiction which is a pity. If he had stuck to mainstream writing I am sure he would be better respected. Kipps and The History of Mr Polly are excellent studies of everyday life in Edwardian times, and the story you describe would appear to be in the same vein, notwithstanding its seemingly paranormal subject matter.

  2. admin says:

    It’s less a paranormal story than a parable about making every moment count. And I wouldn’t call ‘War of the Worlds’ silly!

  3. Roger says:

    It’s a good story, but not the best ever written. In English alone there are superior stories from James, Kipling, Joyce, Conrad, Pritchett, Fitzgerald…

  4. admin says:

    I did pose it as a question. It’s too subjective to call definitively.

  5. Chris Webb says:

    OK, maybe “silly” was a bit strong but I have always had the problem with science fiction that a particular story could almost invariably be told in a far more meaningful and accessible way if written as non-sci-fi, and this particularly applies to H G Wells’ science fiction which often has some kind of social or even political subtext. His other works show that he was more than capable of putting the same message across in conventional fiction, and using science fiction (was it even called that then?) to write a parable is just off-putting and distracting.

    I wonder how many people have seen books like Kipps in a bookshop, noticed it’s by Wells, and put it straight back on the shelf because they think it will be some kind of proto-steampunk story. It’s a pity if many have as they are missing out on some excellent literature.

  6. Steveb says:

    I think the war of the worlds is very striking and memorable, especially in its opening, and works very well to give the imagined perspective of the receiving end of colonisation.
    I wonder how many people have seen a book by c fowler in a bookshop, thought oh no another horror book and moved on?
    Im also very dubious of taking some kind of measuring gizmo to stories, like getting a reading “oh that’s 9.5 on the goodness scale”
    There are several short stories I love which if the number of people knowing them reaches double figuers I’ll be surprised.
    I agree Door in the Wall” is very memorable and it did always stick in my memory.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I remember Admin mentioning this story before. The idea has been used a number of times (no, I can’t give you citations) and it is always a good reminder to use the time you have well. It’s what Bryant and May are doing after all.
    If you don’t like social and economic themes buried in SF stories, Chris W, then perhaps what you really don’t like is SF. For many readers the fact that SF often deals with issues that are relevant of today is the attraction and it is often how teen aged readers first confront “issues”.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    Would HG Wells be as well remembered without the SF, how many other of that time still have films being made based on their work.

    In fact how many people have put down a book thinking, ‘Not another worthy period piece?’

    Although we did do his other work at school, still people can point to ‘Half a Sixpence’ well it’s nice to know he inspired a musical.

    To be honest I don’t have a single favourite story, I like different stories for different reasons and find it impossible to choose, or am I just indecisive?

    Wayne.

  9. Colin says:

    It’s a great story, I read it on your recommendation a while back. You certainly get more from it in the 2nd or 3rd reading.
    An excellent short story I read recently was ‘The Children of Dr Lyall’ by John Connolly.
    Other story that improves with each reading

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Found the Complete HG Wells Short Stories at the library so I’ll take a look at some others as well.

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    Meant to say a reading was on BBC radio 4 Extra recently, it’s still available on the iplayer. With some of his other more supernatural stories. oddly enough in the old days no one really cared if you wrote across genres, it’s more a recent thing with pigeon holing now, Conrad wrote a famous ghost story, Dickens used crime and the supernatural in some of his most famous books. I guess it’s how they are marketed.

    Wayne.

  12. John Griffin says:

    I love that story, but think it ineffably sad, about the failure of the imagination and courage – a condition most of us are sadly familiar with.

  13. Don McNab says:

    Just discovered this site (through researching Nedra Tyre). Great synopsis of a short story- can’t wait to read. Thanks!

  14. Matthew Bycroft says:

    Radio 4 link here:
    Ghost Stories by HG Wells – The Door in the Wall, Episode 6 – @BBCRadio4Extra http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08wzgvx

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