This short novel mixes multiple differently-tonal elements into an uneasy, but strangely memorable, emulsion. First there is the frame story, told by our narrator, George Frobisher, an egregiously unmasculine man, unusually close to the overprotective aunt who raised him. Both his aunt and he have devoted their lives to the sport of croquet. I mean, it's not just croquet. They also play tennis, and are, says the narrator ‘both quite extraordinarily good at the long-bow’. But ‘croquet is our especial gift. If we did not shrink from the publicity and vulgarity of it we could certainly be champions.’ 
When not knocking balls through hoops with a mallet, Georgie is keen on ‘the Woman's World Humanity Movement’, though he deflating adds ‘I have never clearly understood what it is all about’. Still, he's happy to support it ‘travelling over the world for it—so far, that is, as there are bathrooms en suite, upon which my aunt insists’ . So far, so caricatural: he's frittering his life away on an effete and pampered existence: pleasant travel, nothing too taxing and many games of croquet.
As the novel opens, George and his aunt are spending the summer at a luxury hotel on the Normandy coast, at a place called Les Noupets. Here, on the terrace, he strikes up a conversation with an English doctor named Dr. Finchatton, who is trying and failing, with some desperation, to find a book from a big pile collected from the library that will absorb his attention. He needs his mind taking off something. Off what, you ask?
Finchatton tells George how he took up General Practice in a remote East Anglian district called Cainsmarsh. But instead of a quiet life, he found a closed, superstition-haunted, uncommunicative world, plagued with violence and mysterious goings-on. There's a weird, subconscious thobbing unpleasantness in the air. The kids go to school with bruises on their bodies about which they will not speak. A dog's carcass turns up, beaten savagely to death. ‘I drove back home,’ Finchatton recalls at one point. ‘There was an old man bending down in a ditch doing something to a fallen sheep and he became a hunched, bent, and heavy-jawed savage. I did not dare look to see what he was doing’ . The fogs and remoteness of the place get under Finchatton's skin. He starts having nightmares. All this M R James mood of eerie dread is atmospherically rendered by Wells.
Finchatton speaks to the local vicar, who has been in the place long enough to be half mad, and who airs his theory that Cain is buried in the locality. He blames the recent nightmarish atmosphere on the activities of archaeologists, digging up gigantic bones. Finchatton insists these are dinosaur-bones, but the vicar isn't having that.
[He] grew fiercer and louder and hoarser. He wanted suppression, he wanted persecution of Science, of Rome, of every sort of immorality and immodesty, of every sort of creed except his own, persecution, enforced repentance, to save us from the Wrath that was coming steadily upon us. ‘They turn up the soil, they strip things bare, and we breathe the dust of long-dead men.’ It was as if he was trying to escape from our common marshland obsession by sheer screaming violence. ‘The doom of Cain!’ he shouted. ‘The punishment of Cain!’I liked this idea, and admire the way it is written. Ghost stories trade in the idea that we might be haunted by our recent ancestors; so why not our more geologically distant forebears? Finchatton doesn't buy the Cain argument, but he comes to believe that Neanderthal ghosts are haunting the area.
‘But why Cain?’ I managed to insert.
‘He ended his days here,’ the old man declared. ‘Oh, I know! Is this called Cainsmarsh for nothing? He wandered over the face of the earth and at last he came here, he and the worst of his sons. They poisoned the earth. Age after age of crime and cruelty, and then the Flood buried them under these marshes—and there they ought to be buried for ever.’
I tried to argue against this fantasy—Cainsmarsh is just a corruption of Gaynes Marsh, as all the guide books say; it is written Gaynes in Domesday Book—but the old man bore me down. [Croquet Player, 2]
Then: a third element to the story. Finchatton, terrified of losing his mind, consults a London psychiatrist called Norbert, and Norbert packs him off to Les Noupets to recuperate. More, Norbert has come along too, so as to continue his consultations with his patient. The final passage in the novella brings this character on scene: Finchatton goes off for a nap, and Norbert interrogates George as to what he thinks of the fellow's story. This is, if you like, the book's twist; for the doctor is adamant that ‘there is no such district in the world’ as Cainsmarsh. ‘It is a myth.’
‘Our friend,’ he said, ‘was a doctor near Ely. Everything he told you was true and everything he told you was a lie. He is troubled beyond reason by certain things and the only way in which he can express them even to himself is by a fable.’Which realities? Well, the horrors of the contemporary life, the rise of fascism, the Spanish Civil War (these things are not spelled out in the text, but that's the unmissable imputation), all that. When he's telling his story Finchatton keeps interpolating little comments: ‘And then Finchatton said a queer thing. “Little children killed by air-raids in the street.” I made no comment. I remained quietly attentive. It was an “aside”, as actors used to say. He took up his story where he had left it’ ). And this reality has infected the doctor's wits too.
‘But some of these things—really happened?’
‘Oh yes. There was a case of gross cruelty to a dog. There was a poor old drunken parson who beat his wife. Things of that sort are happening all over the world every day. They are in the nature of things. If you cannot accept things like that, sir, you cannot live. And Finchatton really went to the Tressider Museum at Ely, and Cunningham, the custodian, had the sense to spot his condition and send him on to me. But the mischief was already done to him before he went into the marsh. He's told you practically everything—but as though he showed it through bottle glass that distorted it all. And the reason why he has made it all up into that story—’
Dr Norbert turned upon me, putting his arms akimbo and glaring at my face. He spoke with slow deliberation, as if he was speaking in capital letters, ‘—is because the realities that are overwhelming him are so monstrous and frightful that he has to transform them into this fairy tale about old skulls and silences in butterfly land, in the hope of getting them down to the dimensions of an hallucination and so presently expelling them from his thoughts.’ [Croquet Player, 4]
Indeed, in a sort of second twist, the doctor has his own theory, to set alongside the ghost of Cain explanation and the restless Neanderthal spirits explanation, to explain all this madness, his own included. It is that we have, by expanding our consciousness of the past and future, through archaeology and speculation, somehow broken time and let in monsters. ‘“Animals,” he said, “live wholly in the present. They are framed in immediate things. So are really unsophisticated people ... But we men, we have been probing and piercing into the past and future. We have been multiplying memories, histories, traditions, we have filled ourselves with forebodings and plannings and apprehensions. And so our worlds have become overwhelmingly vast for us, terrific, appalling. Things that had seemed forgotten for ever have suddenly come back into the very present of our consciousness”.’  Norbert insists that George must feel the same way, but George refuses to get sucked in.
I stood up. ‘I must be going,’ I said. ‘I have to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve.’Fin, as they say in the French films.
‘But what does croquet matter,’ [Norbert] cried in that intolerable voice of his, ‘if your world is falling in ruins about you?’
He made a move almost as though he would impede my retreat. He just wanted to go on being apocalyptic. But I had had enough of this apocalyptic stuff.
I looked him in the face, firmly but politely. I said, ‘I don't care. The world may be going to pieces. The Stone Age may be returning. This may, as you say, be the sunset of civilization. I'm sorry, but I can't help it this morning. I have other engagements. All the same ... I am going to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve today.’ [Croquet Player, 4]
It's an odd book, this one. Hard to shake the sense, on a first read, that it (excuse my French) pisses away all the expertly generated M R Jamesiness, or Lovecrafty ghoulish eeriness of its Cainsmarsh sections in a string of increasingly arbitrary, less resonant shifts in story-direction. And the assumptions embodied in the frame narrative, the effeminate passivity and ostrich-head-in-sand-y Georgie, drips with unpleasant preconceptions. Wells wants doers, agents, active men (and women, but that's not what this book is about) to help humanity into its utopian inheritance. Georgie pretends an interest in global justice, but in practice he washes his hand of the horrors of his contemporary world, and looks to his own comfort and habit. That's bad, to Wells; and coding George as so mincingly effete and mummy's-boy a type is problematic. There's no specific indication in the novel that George is gay, but he crosses off several boxes in the homophobic gay-stereotype bingo. Put it that way.
And yet, and yet. The test of a ghost story's effectiveness is not rational analysis, but the quiver in the heart, the sensations of tendrils of dread being dragged down the tender membrane of the imagination. And, fitfully but unmistakably, this short novel achieves that. And there's a genuinely interesting notion structuring the whole: that instead of being scarily haunted by recent history, by our beheaded great-great-grandfather, or the ghost of our walled-up great-great-great-aunt—that instead what truly haunts us nowadays is the deep pre-human past and the technologically-monstrous future. That these two things, counter-intuitive as it might seem to say so, are psycho-symbolically speaking the same thing. Jason Gleckman [Science Fiction Studies, 32:3 (2005), 540-542] praises it as ‘A Ghost Story for the Atomic Age’, which is the right ball-park.
The rightness, here, I might say, has to do with a curious illogicality about what it is that scares us, the underlying affective rationale of ‘the ghost story’ as such. What is the pleasure we derive from this curious mode? The classic ghost story is saying something about the relationship of the past and the present. Whatever else it does, it embroiders one central idea: that the past still touches the present. Common sense and intellect tell us that death draws a line beyond which a person can no longer reach, but our emotions and our subconscious tell us, on the contrary, that death can only drain momentum from, it cannot stop, the past grasping hold of us with its chilly grip. This is, at least in part, because the idiom of the subconscious, and the substrate of all emotion, is memory. A Freudian might put it this way: the classic ghost story is the objective correlative to the inevitable return of the repressed. But a Freudian should also say: the way to exorcise the ghost of the returning repressed is to acknowledge it, to talk it to a cure, to shine the light upon it. That process of explanation dissolves away not the ghost as such, which is always built around the existential truth that we never really get mentally past the dead, so much as the specific, nightmarish form the ghost adopts. Existential truths aren't to be wished away, and they are far from comforting, but at least their starkness and enormousness blow away the carefully chilling and unnerving uncertainties out of which M R James et al conjure their most readerly-somatic effects: shivers up the spine; hairs bristling; eyes widening.
And that's where Wells comes in. He writes a ghost story that says: it makes no sense to be scared of what's been and gone. The dead past is outside the circle of what can harm us. Harm lives in the future, not the past. The truly scary ghost is what is still to come, and what makes it scary is its inevitability.
In other words, Wells is tacitly saying: the real reason ‘we’ enjoy in classic ghost stories is that we know, on some level, that the unnerving sensations we experience are safe, because they are linked to something—the past—that can't ‘really’ hurt us. It's a fairground-ride or bungee-jump sense of alarm, not an actually-falling-off-a-cliff sense of alarm. The future though can hurt us, and probably will hurt us, and by 1936 Wells could see that a war was coming that was going to hurt us all on an unprecedented scale. That's where the reader's frights, and dread, and unease should be focused.
He had a point.
Let me put it this way. Perhaps my single favourite short-story is Nabokov's ‘Symbols and Signs’ (New Yorker, 1948). The characters are two elderly Russian Jews, living in New York after the war and trying to find the wherewithal to keep their deranged, paranoiac, possibly suicidal son in the mental institution that cares for him. At one point, the mother pulls out a photograph album and looks through the memories of her boy as a youngster, from before the madness really took hold. Her attention is mostly on her son, of course; but I want to draw your attention to the story's exquisite, single-sentence mention of Aunt Rosa, at the end of this passage.
She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he [the son] looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.There's a whole novel in that sentence (I often think Nabokov doesn't get enough credit for the sometimes extraordinary tenderness with which he writes): tartly funny and heartbreaking, both at once. It isn't that we simply dismiss Rosa for worrying about what she worried about, I think. These are the kinds of things people do worry about, after all. But, still: her fears were misplaced, fussing at the near-by trivia and not seeing the storm-front rearing over the horizon. Wells's novella, from twelve years previously, and looking forward to the same catastrophe at which Nabokov's story looks back, says the same thing. It says: what ought to scare our socks off, the real Pennywise the Clown, is the doom that's coming.
The cover at the head of this post is the UK first edition; and here is the US first edition cover.