“The Purple Pileus” by H.G. Wells

A lot of good, even classic, science fiction stories are currently available for free as HTML, PDF or some e-reader format. I decided to feature some of these “freebee” pieces on a semi-regular basis this year. 

Recently, I was trading ideas about Dashiell Hammett’s famously cryptic novel The Glass Key on another review site. There are significant gaps in the narrative of that book, the source of the friendship between the principal characters, the true culprit of the murder, etc., that seem to hinted at by objects with a symbolic significance. These include a hat and a cane, items that are either missing or perceived to be missing at the scene of the crime. Sometimes, of course, a hat is just a hat — but is it in The Glass Key? I’m still making up my mind.

The “hats” in H.G. Wells’ 1896 short story “The Purple Pileus” certainly carry a significant symbolic meaning. They are the caps of hallucinogenic toadstools discovered in the woods by a frustrated husband as he contemplates ending his life. Wells was known for his fiction discussing the consequences of aggressive experimentation, but usually the culprits were well-meaning and knowledgeable scientists. Here, we have an ordinary shopkeeper in a moment of weakness — or shall we say, irrational clarity. “The Purple Pileus” is freely available in PDF format.

purple pileus

The story begins by describing a provincial shopkeeper mired in psychological crisis:

Mr. Coombes was sick of life. He walked away from his unhappy home, and, sick not only of his own existence, but of everybody else’s, turned aside down Gaswork Lane to avoid the town, and, crossing the wooden bridge that goes over the canal to Starling’s Cottages, was presently alone in the damp pinewoods and out of sight and sound of human inhabitation.

Mr. Coombes is wandering in the woods, having exiled himself from his own house during a party. It’s only a small party, hosted by Mrs. Coombes, but he can barely stand the two guests, the loud Jennie and her “intended,” the obnoxious Mr. Clarence. Orderly and quiet, Coombes seems to only wish for the satisfaction of maintaining his home and business. Unfortunately, he has lost the respect of his wife, who refuses to help in the shop (she’s not a “slavey,” as she puts it), calls him a “grub of a man,” and with her horrid friends denies him the quiet rest of a proper Sunday.

From the opening paragraph (quoted above), Wells shows us how small Coombes’ world is. It’s another commentary on the lives being led in provincial England, where the isolation of the villagers spawn backwards attitudes. In The Food of the Gods, the local farmers were incapable of carrying out a simple experiment. Here, Coombes and his spouse fail to manage their personality differences.

“The Purple Pileus” opens with this walk into the pinewoods, accompanied by Coombes’ recollection of the Sunday afternoon. Jennie and Mr. Clarence arrived for dinner and spent the meal laughing with Mrs. Coombes and talking “foolishly and undesirably,” while Mr. Coombes “sat dumb and wrathful at his own table.” Then Jennie started to play the piano, sending Coombes over the edge:

Coombes saw it was going to be a row, and opened too vigorously, as is common with your timid, nervous men all the world over. “Steady on with that music-stool!” said he; “it ain’t made for ‘eavy weights.”

“Never you mind about heavy weights,” said Jennie, incensed. “What was you saying behind my back about my playing?”

The argument doesn’t proceed in Coombes’ favor, as his wife encourages Jennie to continue playing and Mr. Clarence inserts himself into the argument. Soon enough, Coombes is out the door, away from the village and into the forest. It’s not the first time he has stalked the woods after an argument, but this time his typical (but quickly languishing) rage gives way to a helpless depression.

He thought of the canal he had just crossed, and doubted whether he shouldn’t just stand with his head out, even in the middle, and was while drowning was in his mind that the purple pileus caught his eye.

The purple pileus is a toadstool, known to Coombes as poisonous. Given his suicidal ideation, he thinks why not? to himself and eats a small piece of it. Finding the taste inoffensive, he soon finds more toadstools and finishes a mouthful. Playing with death, it was. Soon he’s face down in the woods, but then he recovers his senses.

We’re told that his silk hat has fallen off, after he’s eaten the purple “hats” of the mushrooms. The word pileus is an unusual term to describe a fungus, and Wells was likely alluding to the brimless hats worn by freed slaves in the Roman Empire. Over the centuries the pileus has been used as a symbol of liberty on coins and commissioned artworks. Coombes’ reckless actions have granted him a respite from his oppressed state of mind, and soon he’s filling his hat with the fungi — identified by Wells as scarlet agaric — so he can go back to the house and share with the others.

“Jim!” shrieked Mrs. Coombes, and Mr. Clarence sat petrified, with a dropping lower jaw.

“Tea,” said Mr. Coombes. “Jol’ thing, tea. Tose-stools, too. Brosher.”

“He’s drunk,” said Jennie in a weak voice. Never before had she seen this intense pallor in a drunken man, or such shining, dilated eyes.

Mr. Coombes held out a handful of scarlet agaric to Mr. Clarence. “Jo’ stuff,” said he; “ta’ some.”

At that moment he was genial. Then at the sight of their startled faces he changed, with the swift transition of insanity, into overbearing fury. And it seemed as if he suddenly recalled the quarrel of his departure. In such a huge voice as Mrs. Coombes had never heard before, he shouted, “My house. I’m master ‘ere. Eat what I give yer!” He bawled this, as it seemed, without an effort, without a violent gesture, standing there as motionless as one who whispers, holding out a handful of fungus.

Clarence approved himself a coward. He could not meet the mad fury in Coombes’ eyes; he rose to his feet, pushing back his chair, and turned, stooping. At that Coombes rushed at him. Jennie saw her opportunity, and with the ghost of a shriek, made for the door. Mrs. Coombes followed her. Clarence tried to dodge. Over went the tea-table with a smash as Coombes clutched him by the collar and tried to thrust the fungus in his mouth. Clarence was content to leave his collar behind him, and shot out into the passage with red patches of fly agaric still adherent to his face.

Well, now it’s a party. While he may not have been able to stuff the scarlet agaric into the mouth of Mr. Clarence, Mr. Coombes successfully challenges his place at the bottom of the pecking order. Clarence is smeared with fungi, but Coombes manages to forcefully scrub him clean with the kitchen “blacking brush.” Jennie locks herself in the shop for the remainder of the evening, and Coombes finishes off several bottles of his wife’s stout.

What we get afterward, in a scene five years later, is an improved Mr. Coombes with new clothes and confidence. His keen businessman’s mind has blessed him with the ability to rationalize the incident in terms of Victorian macho bluffing. It’s an interesting — and culturally outdated — conclusion to an unusual story about one man’s escape from his miserable circumstances. He lives in the same house and with the same Mrs. Coombes, only now he’s conquered his fears and embraced more of what his small world had to offer.


NOTE: The screenshot is from a four-part anthology series called The Nightmare Worlds of H.G. Wells, presently accessible with Amazon Prime. “The Purple Pileus” is the fourth episode and I can recommend it, with two reservations. There is some narration by a strangely cast Ray Winstone as H.G. Wells, looking like a bearded gangster. The story also features an “updated” ending to make it more of a horror story than science fiction.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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6 Responses to “The Purple Pileus” by H.G. Wells

  1. fredfitch says:

    Toxins can sometimes have unexpected effects, something the Victorians were well-aware of. Frank Harris in his scandalous (and often dubious) autobiography “My Life and Loves” wrote about an affair he had with a Welsh girl, Lizzie, who was in service (as they say) in his sister’s house. All freckles and red hair, and he helped himself, as he so often did (according to him, it was always consensual).

    He enjoyed her, and she him, and they engaged in the usual pillow talk, but basically felt she wasn’t stimulating enough intellectually, so the affair languished, and he devoted more attention to a better-educated young woman of better family, and he wasn’t going to marry her either, but the seduction was well under way and of course Lizzie saw it, though he doesn’t mention that.

    So there was this preparation called a ‘black draught’ they would prepare. Quite strong, supposedly medicinal. He had one made up for him (he was suffering from lumbago), and asked the maid to bring it. (Actually, he says he reproached her for not bringing it up to him sooner.)

    She brought him a glass full of what looked like the draught, and he drank it down, only to realize he’d drunk a belladonna mixture he’d had made up for external use. He assumed the girl had made a mistake, but there was enough poison there to kill a dozen men, according to the doctor who’d concocted it. So he took what counter measures he could, while saying goodbye to his family in case they didn’t work. It was a near thing, but he survived, and it actually cured his lumbago!

    Harris writes about how the Lizzie was strangely cool to him afterwards. Never came to his room while he was recovering. His sister told him she had sent the girl for a prescription to help him when he was near death, and she took hours longer than should have been the case. “I was listening to the band,” she supposedly said.

    “Lizzie’s callousness seemed to me even stranger than it seemed to my sister. I have often noticed that girls are less considerate of others than even boys, unless their affections are engaged, but I certainly thought I had half won Lizzie at least! However, the fact is so peculiar that I insert it here for what it may be worth.”

    And you’re left to wonder if Harris could possibly be that naive. Or did he just want to imply what the reader is clearly meant to infer? Or did he just make the whole thing up?

    There have never been stranger people than the Victorian Brits. Ever. Ever. Ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Well, there are two points I can see from “The Purple Pileus” that can link Wells’ society with our own times:

      1. It’s pretty clear that Wells wants to show that suicidal ideation and experimenting with drugs are two actions that arise from the same place. Coombes crosses a physical bridge into the woods, and seriously entertains killing himself – crossing another bridge – soon afterward. Coombes is telling himself that he’s playing with death as he eats the toadstool pieces.

      2. Wells indicates that there’s a clear value for drugs — don’t depend on the doctor or the alienist — as a means of making a needed transformation of personality. The fly agaric treats Coombes’ anxiety, many people use cannabis for the same reason; additionally, ketamine is gaining traction for depression, as is MDMA for post traumatic stress disorder and psilocybin for fear. Our present state of overwhelming regulation with drug research and drug use has resulted in a growing distrust in our institutions.

      How these things were discussed back then were completely different. As you pointed out, the indirection was so obvious that any decent reader would interpret the real story. In Wells’ story, Coombes hides the benefits of his drug use when he talks to his brother Thomas (that’s the Victorian macho bluffing). Nowadays we have doublespeak and political correctness to cover our tracks.

      Frank Harris sounds like a real character!

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Playboy of the Western World doesn’t half say it (he was of British ancestry, but born in Ireland, considered himself Irish). Adventurer, author, businessman, newspaper editor (we have him to thank for British tabloid journalism to some extent–he said all the average person wants to read about is what the average adolescent boy wants–kissing and fighting–still a thing).

        He is perhaps best remembered as a close friend of Oscar Wilde, and he wrote the first biography of that tragic genius (Harris himself was a decent prose-smith, but hardly in Wilde’s class). He had fallen on hard times when he wrote those memoirs (they are long), and it is suspected that he spiced up his famously rowdy love life to gin up sales. It worked. The more they banned it (for sex scenes that are as explicit as explicit gets, even today), the more people bought it. He may also have inserted himself into some historical events he didn’t really play any part in.

        (He also got old, like many a lecher, and after having had all those women, somehow still wanted more. I read an account by a young woman who was thrilled to meet such a distinguished fellow–but said the aging Harris tried to seduce her, and let’s just say it doesn’t play out like a scene from his autobiography, she makes him look ridiculous, and you end up feeling sad for him. #EtTu?)

        The Victorians were not the stuck-up prisses we think of them as being. But as you say, they came at life from a different angle. There were things you didn’t talk about, but did anyway. Honestly, I don’t know it’s so different now, but the style certainly is. And we talk about EVERYTHING. In Allcaps, even.

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        As to drug use, yesterday and today–the difference is that drugs now are so sophisticated, the making of them ends up being done entirely by specialists–corporate or criminal.

        Even cannibis–who grows their own, when the pot geniuses of California and Colorado can do it for them? But with more complex substances, that require huge laboratories, there’s no way for most of us to even understand the chemical composition of what we’re taking.

        My favorite SF story about drug use is “No Direction Home” by Norman Spinrad. Wells is taking a very positive view–back then, the potentials of experimenting with exotic substances must have seemed limitless. Spinrad, writing in the 60’s and 70’s, the aftermath of Timothy Leary & Co., (and a lot of lost friends, I’m guessing) knew the dangers far better than Wells could. You end up so alienated from yourself, you don’t have an identity to change anymore. You have to know where to draw the line. You don’t know where the line is.

        And maybe we should distrust our institutions (though that usually leads to even worse institutions), but if everything we think, do and say is in the pills we took today, we should trust ourselves even less. Oh well, that’s still 1,517 years off, right?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. marzaat says:

    Somehow I missed reading this Wells’ story.

    Obviously, there’s an element of personal horror here for Wells: the traps of marriage and middle class, shop-keeping drudgery.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pete says:

      I’m starting to re-think the ending to this story, where Coombes is doing his macho-bragging to his brother Thomas. Yes, it covers up his mushroom-eating. But it also indicates his evolution from a weak man who was a danger to himself (and his wife, as he considered both suicide and murder on his walk) into a stronger figure with a perception of danger. This character growth, couched in terms of the Victorian era, has allowed Coombes to be in a better place, without leaving his home or business.

      There’s also much discussion in Coombes’ absence about his lack of assertiveness in his marriage, and his failure to live up to the masculine ideals his wife had in mind. So I think this story has much more to do with marriage than class, although the latter is a frequent obsession in Wells’ fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

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