More Of A Minor Nuisance, Really: H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror

The Holy Terror - Cover

The cover from the first American edition. I have a rather drab picture of a baby on the lackluster House of Stratus reprint I own, but better that than a paperback with Oswald-Bloody-Mosely on the front.

The Holy Terror has become a forgotten novel. It’s not hard to understand why; it’s a novel about a wannabe fascist dictator who takes over the world that had the grave misfortune to be published in 1939, when the public appetite for such things had dropped to precisely nil on September 1st. Furthermore, it’s an H. G. Wells novel from late in his career, long after the speculative whimsy that made his earliest works so endearing and enduring had given way to the Wells the Preacher, endlessly banging on about the Necessity of the World State, Property Held in Common, An End to Religion, And So On And So Forth. As a result, even though you could make a case for it being Wells’ last foray into the fantastic (depending on how you classify 1940’s All Aboard for Ararat), there generally hasn’t been much discussion of it, either at the time of its publication or in the following decades.

Certainly I had never heard of the book until coming across a blog post made by sf author/critic Adam Roberts a few years discussing the book as part of a literary biography of Wells he was putting together. Despite my wariness over late-period Wells, I was intrigued. The Grand Old Man of the Scientific Romance takes on fascism! What sort of hay could be spun from such a premise?

Sadly, the answer turns out to be very little. The Holy Terror is a bad book, both as an exploration of the rise of fascism and as a story in its own right. For those in the realm of dedicated Wellsian scholars, The Holy Terror is probably more interesting as an attempt by Wells to reconcile through prose the long-held ideals of his utopian World State with the actual world of the late 1930s. While the novel presents this attempt as a success, the compromises and misunderstandings required to achieve this success undermine the work, poking at the more unsavory aspects of Wells’ own utopian vision.

The story of The Holy Terror is the biographical narrative of Rudolph “Rud” Whitlow, the future architect of the World State. Little Rudolph enters the world as the youngest of three sons in a struggling lower-middle class living in a suburb of London sometime in the 1920s. An unlovely child with a pasty round face and a “delicate constitution”, little Rudolph spends his halcyon days making life miserable for everyone in his vicinity. He fights with his brothers constantly, gets in the occasional scrap at school, and torments animals given to him as pets. The seeds of a lifelong neurotic aversion to women are planted after being fought to a standstill by his cousin Rachel and from overhearing his mother lament over how she wanted a girl instead of him. Harboring a deep-seated fear of being in a position of powerlessness, he compensates by indulging in lurid fantasies of war and destruction where there is always an enemy to obliterate. The first stirrings of a greater destiny come at school when he his saved from a drubbing by a senior boy, Carstall, which instills in Rudolph a lifelong fascination with the mysticism of authority. While neither a profound thinker nor a soul blessed with any interiority, Rudolph is quite capable of regurgitating answers when called upon in examinations, and finishes his education in good standing. Along the way he also develops a talent for invective, and drops the “Rudolph” in favor of “Rud”, after Kipling.

After extorting the necessary funds out of his parents, Rud continues his education at “Camford” University in the early 1930s, only to find himself at a crossroads. Along with the general shabbiness of life brought on by the Great Depression, intellectual life in the United Kingdom is in a great funk. The institutions of liberal democracy are in crisis, and the great mass of people have little faith that they are worth saving. The socialists seem a more attractive cause, but are riven with factionalism and burdened with the disappointments of Stalin’s Soviet Union. As for the fascists, they’re a non-starter. (Suffice to say, Wells’ caricature of the Gloomy Thirties more than resonates with our lives in this, the miserable plague year of 2021.) Rud begins making speeches at various student clubs, articulating the malaise of the times but staying removed from any particular movement. However, while on break an argument at home sends him tramping cross-country, whereupon he meets Chiffan, an ex-communist window-shopping for ideologies. Chiffan becomes the first member of Rud’s inner circle and does much to influence Rud’s ideological development, instilling a crude pseudo-socialism built on the ideals of a permanent Anglo-American alliance, industrial expansion, and the belief that the state should be the primary moneyholder. Rud of course does not think too deeply about these ideas; his talent lies in synthesizing the input of multiple advisors, internalizing them as dogmas, and then delivering them to the masses with impassioned oratory.

As the Thirties grind on, Rud takes leave of his studies to fully devote himself to politics, slowly accreting a number of disaffected followers from other parties. Chief among these are Steenhold, a half-American ideological dilettante of means who helps bankroll Rud’s group and give them a house to set up shop, and Bodisham, who becomes the organizer and planner of the group. It is at this point that Rud begins casting his eye around for a movement, and spies a tempting target in the “Purple Shirts” of the “Popular Socialist Movement”, led by black-sheep establishment figure (and sexual sadist) Lord Horatio Bohun, a vicious parody of Oswald Moseley and his British Union of Fascists. (It is also at this point where we pass the date of the novel’s publication and enter the realm of alternate history. The Second World War does not break out in 1939, and we are in uncharted waters from here on out.) After meeting Bohun in person and finding him lacking, Rud makes his play for power, usurping the Popular Socialists in Hyde Park to deliver his own speech promulgating his “common-sense” doctrine: world government built on a permanent Anglo-American alliance, no private property, state control of finance, universal plenty through science, all that good stuff. The success of his speech emboldens Rud to stage a march of Bohun’s party headquarters, which he seizes for a few hours. Bohun agrees to a debate in a neutral location, which Rud turns into a circus and Bohun escalates into a fracas, leading to Rud’s incarceration in one of Bohun’s private prison cells. After a few hours spent soiling himself in terror, Rud is released by his joyous comrades, who inform him that Bohun has fled into Argentine exile and the Popular Socialist Movement is his.

The 1940s of The Holy Terror are essentially a continuation of the 1930s. The institutions of the liberal world order continue to creak and groan, minor wars break out in the Balkans and the Ukraine, and British troops are even sent to America to assist in putting down striking coal miners in the Carolinas. At the same time, Rud and his circle purge the Popular Socialist Movement of its fascist paraphernalia and rebrand as the “Common-Sense Movement”, a rather amusing name if you happened to live in Ontario in the late 1990s. Rather than engage in party politics, Rud turns the movement into a sort of political pressure group, appearing as all things to all people while aggressively recruiting among the learned professionals of the world: engineers, technicians, pilots, and the like. Before the decade is out, Rud has adherents in every nation on Earth. In the course of things, Rud also begins working out the more metaphysical elements of his movement, positing himself as the ultimate “common man” who will finally end the power of aristocrats, militarists, and financiers once and for all and usher mankind into a new era.

Rud’s hour finally comes at the end of the 1940s, when a second world war breaks out. Known by later histories as “the Ideological War”, the war is a dispirited, confused collage of conflicts that engulf the planet for years with no nation prevailing. While they cause a fair amount of damage and death, the relative poverty of the interwar years and general lack of enthusiasm keeps them from being too destructive. Throughout the conflict Rud comes into his own, drawing his supporters across the world together to take command of the airways and become a power in his own right. It is in the final stages of the conflict that Rud faces the first and greatest challenge to his power from Reedly, an associate member of Rud’s inner circle and commander-in-chief of the militaries of the democratic nations. Coming to believe that Rud’s ultimate goal is not the preservation of the democratic nations, but their collapse and replacement with Rud’s world-state, he makes his own play for power. However, with the intelligence provided by his secret policeman Thrip, Rud is able to escape Reedly’s assassins and kill him by sending planes to bomb his base in Poland where he has accepted the surrender of the German army. It’s a fairly minor tempest, and in due course mastery of the world passes into the hands of Rud Whitlow, the Common Man.

By the middle of the 1960s, the wars have been wound up, control of the planet’s industry, economy, and education have passed into the hands of the various members of Rud’s inner circle, and Rud reaches his forties with all of his life’s goals accomplished. Naturally, a man with his various complexes could never permit himself to sit back and dedicate his life to fly-fishing, so the final chapters of the book are dedicated to Rud’s unraveling. He begins to distance himself from his inner circle, relying more on Thrip’s secret police. In a series of events that seem to prefigure the death of Andrei Zhdanov and the Doctor’s Plot in the final years of Stalin’s reign, the death of Bodisham sends Rud’s paranoia into overdrive, and the execution of Bodisham’s doctors soon transmutes into a campaign by Thrip’s security services to destroy remaining religious organizations on Earth. Chiffan tries reason with Rud one-on-one, only for Rud to explode in a ball of resentment fueled by decades of sexual frustration and orders him to be dragged off and shot too. He descends even deeper into lurid fantasy, imagining a phantasmagorical campaign to exterminate both Judiasm and Christianity together. However, the nightmare never comes to pass. In a melodramatic twist, Rud, paranoid of all doctors, decides to seek out his old school acquaintance Carstall. Carstall, ever the good doctor, takes Rud in and kills him with an injection of arsenic. The matter is hushed up with the help of Rud’s private secretary, the body is embalmed and installed in a Lenin-esque monument in Rud’s “capital” on the Durance River in France. With that, the first and last “World-Director of the Common-Sense Revolution” passes into history as the world, united and freed from want, grows beyond him.

***

As I read The Holy Terror, I always kept in mind that as a reader from 2021, I have access to almost a century’s worth of studies and interpretations of fascism and totalitarianism, reams of material making use of archival documents and theories the people of the late 1930s would not be able to access. Still, I feel that even readers in 1939 would have felt The Holy Terror was lacking. Wells doesn’t really bother with a psychological portrait or a complex characterization for Rud; he starts life as a bad seed and just becomes a bigger one later in life. (In this way The Holy Terror reminds me of Brady Courbet’s stylish but frustrating 2016 film The Childhood of a Leader.) When comparing to Rud’s Common-Sense Revolution to the other great totalitarian movements of the early 20th century, the Bolsheviks and Fascists and Nazis, one cannot help but see Rud’s movement as an uncanny mimic, replicating the forms but lacking the substance. All those other movements were incubated in the First World War and the conflicts that spawned from it. Both Hitler and Mussolini were veterans, after all, and in the early days they recruited from right-leaning fellow veterans as a way of preserving “the brotherhood of the trenches”. The Soviet Union was a different experience, but the experience of the Russian Civil War was the mortar used to bind the Bolsheviks to the new socialist state. Despite Rud’s fantasies, he was born too late to see combat in WWI, and his movement considers recruiting among common soldiers a lesser priority than pilots. There’s also something very…rarefied about the ideology Wells assigns to Rud. All the talk of ending war, rationalizing the world, and putting everything under efficient administration sounds all very well and good to appeal to middle class folk with advanced technical educations, but it doesn’t seem to give anything to the masses. Their needs are to be satisfied materially, with food and education and physical safety and opportunity, but Rud’s new world doesn’t seem to have much interest in them beyond their utility to the projects of the technical elites. The Soviets drove people on with the narrative of the class struggle, the Fascists adopted nationalism, and the Nazis had their own version of biological race science, but all Rud’s new world really offers the masses is a nebulous idea of peace, world unity, and “enrich yourself”. Wells naturally describes Rud’s revolution as the physical manifestation of mankind’s evolution beyond childish beliefs and rivalries, where every man will become middle-class, but a cop-out via transcendence is still a cop-out.

The Shape of Things to Come - Penguin Books Cover

Part of the problem is that The Holy Terror was simply the latest gloss on the utopian scheme Wells had flogging for most of his literary career. Looking through Wells’ bibliography, The Holy Terror‘s closest model is probably his 1933 work The Shape of Things To Come. While that book was presented as a prophetic vision in the shape of a general history, the basic outline matches that of The Holy Terror almost identically. The 1930s are an age of frustration and disappointment as people lose faith in democracy and capitalism, as nations around the world descent into gangsterism and de facto warlord states. A second world war breaks out in 1940, but as a collection of smaller conflicts instead of a single major conflagration. These little wars peter out by the 1950s, when an outbreak of “maculated fever” in 1956 proceeds to finish off what’s left of the old world. Rather than a dictator taking the world in hand, the technicians and educated people of the world gather of their own volition in Basra, Iraq, in 1965 along with most of the remaining air transport companies into a sort of “Air Dictatorship” that make it their mission to rebuild and uplift the planet according to the same sort of ideals Rud would later espouse. Despite a few narrow flirtations with tyranny, their work is largely completed by the middle of the 21st century, and the state of things then is not so different from that at the end of The Holy Terror. (If I had to choose which of the two books I would recommend, I would have to go with The Shape of Things to Come. It’s slightly shorter, easier to acquire, and there are still a few touches of early-Wells technological whimsy here and there which The Holy Terror lacks.)

But still there is a deeper problem with The Holy Terror, and to properly diagnose it I find myself turning to George Orwell’s infamous 1941 essay, “Wells, Hitler, and the World State”. While Orwell was an admirer of Wells, the essay, written as a response to some of the more embarrassing things Wells wrote about the state of the Second World War in 1940, serves as a pungent little critique of the weaknesses of Wells’ later thought. To make a brief article even briefer, Orwell’s main argument is that ever since the dawn of the 20th century, Wells had locked himself into a binary. On the one hand was the rational scientific man working to bring about a world utopia filled with peace, communal ownership, egalitarianism, free love, airplanes, and towers of glass and snow-white concrete. Against him was the reactionary, ally of aristocracy, religion, hierarchy, militarism, and horses, who sought to keep progress at bay. In Wells’ conception, history should be the endless triumph of the former over the latter.

The fact that the reactionary never seemed to go away naturally caused Wells no end of grief. The Holy Terror is a novel written, to quote Orwell, “with an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can fail to grasp anything so obvious”. The England Rud inhabits in the 1930s and 1940s is described by Wells with a mixture of frustration and contempt, with an endless parade of fools with power while the rational men remain unaware of their own potential. A lot of the middle sections of the book feel like a combination of sour grapes and grudge-settling, as the press barons and political parties of the day are set up as fools for Rud to effortlessly manipulate and dispose of once he’s extracted what he needs from them.

In expanding on Wells’ background, Orwell’s essay touches on the fundamental problem that cripples The Holy Terror. Orwell describes Wells as “a member of the non-military middle class”, as someone who was unaffected by invocations of patriotic feeling, and as such could not understand how such feelings could inspire and motivate others. Men would be willing to die in the name of Hitler or Stalin or for King and Country, but “hardly a human creature [would be] willing to shed a pint of blood” for Wells’ rational world state. On some level The Holy Terror feels like an attempt by Wells to conjure the demon of the reactionary for his purposes, to use him to serve the forces of progress. However, Wells does not quite understand or trust the demon, so he feels indistinct and neutered, as if Wells is afraid he will come to life and make a mess of his wonderful future if let off the leash. No better example of Wells’ failure to grasp the sort of personality he was conjuring than from his offhand mention in the middle of the book that by 1941, Adolf Hitler had resigned from his position as führer and passed out of history in quiet retirement in a Black Forest hunting lodge.

Now I’ve been letting Orwell do a lot of the heavy lifting, so to close this piece out I will give him a rest and come to the fore. Speaking for myself, I do not like the brave new world Wells envisions. As he rhapsodizes about rationality and worlds run by impartial technicians, I think about the world of today, in the late summer of 2021, as I read news about “delta variants”, threats of endless future lockdowns, and a seemingly bottomless zeal to inflict punitive measures on people who don’t mask up or get their vaccines. I see the slow disappearance of public spaces and public life, of people growing miserable and weary, dying deaths of despair with their only companion being the hateful feed flickering on the LCD screen. I see people with mountains of credentials telling us that all these sacrifices and restrictions are for our own safety, who would rather let the world die than admit they were wrong or that they have no idea what they’re doing. I see this, and I think of that line in David Cronenberg’s 2003 adaptation Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis: “What is the flaw of human rationality? […] It pretends not to see the horrors at the end of the schemes it builds.”

And yet, while I hate the world Wells wished to call into being, I cannot hate the man himself. In his youth he spun fantastic romances that changed the shape of fiction and will live on for centuries. Even in his old age, with an awkward failure of a book like The Holy Terror, I find that I pity Wells more than anything. He wanted desperately for there to be a better, cleaner world, free of the pain of the past, that he could not let go even as it led him away from the world into a cul-de-sac. We all get dragged into our own cul-de-sacs, and many of us don’t handle it very well. Still, I respect the man we was, and while I cannot share his vision, I respect it all the same.

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