New Yorker (blog)
HG Wells's Ghost
As it happens, “The Time Machine” belongs to an era of formidable competition for writers of supernatural fiction: the so-called golden age of the English ghost story, that pre-Great War era which included Henry James and M. R. James and Oliver Onions. The book illustrates the chilling principle that, scary though it may be to inhabit a ghost-riddled world, a ghost-free world is scarier still. In his despairing moments, Wells sometimes envisioned the human race as doomed, but between his periodic bouts of melancholy he was an irrepressible optimist, for whom any show of life was a show of hope. The past isn’t irredeemable so long as someone is around to learn from it. The scars of ancient battlefields, the vainglory of the pyramids, the sabre-rattling of Shelley’s Ozymandias—these things are not fully extinct so long as we’re here to deride and deplore them. But what if no one’s still around? It turns out that sediment and rock—the compressed geological strata of the ages—do not bury anyone as irrecoverably as does the invisible, accumulating strata of time itself. In the end, the real gravedigger isn’t Ares but Chronos.