When H.G Wells’ celebrated tale, War of the Worlds, was first serialised in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, the world was powered by steam and Queen Victoria was still on the throne.
Yet Wells had the foresight to envisage an alien invasion of Earth in which ultra-intelligent beings from Mars travel across the gulf of space in an attempt to colonise our planet, exterminating humans along the way with chemical weapons and nightmarish heat-rays.
Wells’ short novel is now rightfully considered a classic and a cornerstone of the science fiction genre. In the decades since, War of the Worlds has inspired countless writers, artists and other creators.
The story has also received numerous adaptations, one of the most famous being Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast which presented the invasion in the form of realistic newsflashes.
A new dramatisation of War of the Worlds is due to be broadcast soon on the BBC.
Unusually this version marks the first time in which the story has been dramatised in a period setting, close to the era in which the book was originally written; a vision which is long overdue.
The plot of War of the Worlds is relatively straightforward (although the novel is over 120 years old, I feel I should place a spoiler warning here!)
The inhabitants of Mars send an invasion force to Earth, firing themselves across space in cylindrical vessels.
Although highly advanced beings, the Martians are grotesque to human eyes as they resemble large, squid-like creatures; as described in chapter IV:
“Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance.
The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedge like lower lop, the incessant quivering of his mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of its lungs in a strange atmosphere… above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes…“
As soon as they emerge from their spacecraft the Martians begin constructing towering fighting machines; tripod like vehicles which enable them to march across the terrain and unleash their merciless onslaught…
The War of the Worlds Locations Map
One of the defining features of War of the Worlds is H.G Wells’ use of precise, real-life locations; a technique which makes the novel feel all the more believable.
All of the action described takes place in south-east England; namely Surrey, Essex and London.
I have compiled a map pinpointing as many of these locations as I can think of: zoom in, click on a pin and you’ll be able to read the relevant excerpt associated with the location and the chapter in which it appears.
There are over 180 sites to browse on the map!
Do you live or work near any of these areas that Wells imagined being trampled by Martians?
This map can be considered a work in progress, so if you notice any places which are missing please do let me know in the comments.
The War of the Worlds – Highlights
Here are are some of my personal favourites.
This major London railway terminal appears several times in War of the Worlds.
At first we’re informed that the narrator’s brother, who lived in London at the time of the invasion, headed to the station in the hope of catching a train to Surrey in order to witness the Martians first hand:
“In London, also, on Saturday night there was a thunderstorm, and my brother reached Waterloo in a cab.
On the platform from which the midnight train usually starts he learned, after some waiting that an accident prevented trains from reaching Woking that night. The nature of the accident he could not ascertain; indeed the railway authorities did not clearly know at that time.”
The “accident” in question is of course related to the Martian’s fierce onslaught, although news of its severity has not yet reached the capital.
Waterloo is mentioned again soon after when trains loaded with guns and troops are seen departing for Surrey:
“About five o’clock the gathering crowd in the station was immensely excited by the opening of the line of communication, which is almost invariably closed, between the South-Eastern and the South-Western stations, and the passage of carriage trucks bearing huge guns and carriages crammed with soldiers.
These were the guns that were brought up from Woolwich and Chatham to cover Kingston. There was an exchange of pleasantries: “You’ll get eaten!” “We’re the beast-tamers!” and so forth.
A little after that a squad of police came into the station and began to clear the public off the platforms.”
The “line of communication” mentioned in this passage refers to a railway track which, most unusually, once ran directly across the passenger concourse at Waterloo station. On the rare occasions it was used, it allowed trains to transfer between Waterloo and the smaller station nearby now known as Waterloo East.
The Thames Estuary
In chapter seventeen- The Thunder Child– the narrator’s brother, along with many other refugees, is on the Essex coast attempting to flee England via steamship.
As the steamer heads out to sea, a number of Martian walking machines are spotted striding through the water towards the helpless crowds.
“It was the first Martian my brother had seen, and he stood, more amazed than terrified, watching this Titan advancing deliberately towards the shipping, wading farther and farther into the water as the coast fell away.
Then, far away beyond the Crouch, came another, striding over some stunted trees, and then yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway up between sea and sky. They were all stalking seaward, as if to intercept the escape of the multitudinous vessels that were crowded between Foulness and the Naze.
In spite of the throbbing exertions of the engines of the little paddle-boat, and the pouring foam that her wheels flung behind her, she receded with terrifying slowness from this ominous advance.”
Noting this situation, the captain of the Thunder Child– a mighty, iron-clad warship comes to the refugees’ aid, steaming towards the invaders at full power like a battering ram, smashing the fighting machines’ legs and sending the aliens plunging into the sea.
This is a rare moment in which humankind manages to score a victory against the Martians, although the eventual fate of the Thunderchild is unknown.
In Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical version of War of the Worlds, the Thunder Child sequence is one of the album’s most thrilling tracks…
The Langham Hotel
Later in the story, on a desolate Putney Hill, the narrator meets a disheveled artilleryman who shares tales of his own experiences.
“The artilleryman began to tell me of the sort of people who still remained in London.
“One night last week,” he said, “some fools got the electric light in order, and there was all Regent Street and the Circus ablaze, crowded with painted and ragged drunkards, men and women, dancing and shouting till dawn.
A man who was there told me. And as the day came they became aware of a fighting-machine standing near by the Langham and looking down at them. Heaven knows how long he had been there. It must have given some of them a nasty turn. He came down the road towards them, and picked up nearly a hundred too drunk or frightened to run away.”
The Langham Hotel stands on Langham Place, between Regent’s Park and Oxford Circus and just opposite the BBC’s HQ, Broadcasting House. It was built in the 1860s and, at the time, was the largest and most modern hotel in London. It remains a luxury destination today.
This beautiful lookout point just north of Regent’s Park plays a key role in War of the Worlds.
One of the Martian cylinders lands here. Then, towards the end of the novel, it is on Primrose Hill that the narrator encounters a motionless fighting machine and, nearby, a group of dead Martians. The threat is finally over:
“I stood staring into the pit, and my heart lightened gloriously, even as the rising sun struck the world to fire about me with his rays. The pit was still in darkness; the mighty engines, so great and wonderful in their power and complexity, so unearthly in their tortuous forms, rose weird and vague and strange out of the shadows towards the light.
A multitude of dogs, I could hear, fought over the bodies that lay darkly in the depth of the pit, far below me. Across the pit on its farther lip, flat and vast and strange, lay the great flying-machine with which they had been experimenting upon our denser atmosphere when decay and death arrested them.
Death had come not a day too soon. At the sound of a cawing overhead I looked up at the huge fighting-machine that would fight no more for ever, at the tattered red shreds of flesh that dripped down upon the overturned seats on the summit of Primrose Hill.”
Primrose Hill also appears in the very last passage of the novel’s epilogue:
“I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body.
And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .
And strangest of all is it to hold my wife’s hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead.”
The Natural History Museum
In the Epilogue we are informed that a Martian specimen was subsequently housed in the National History Museum, its body pickled for preservation:
“Everyone is familiar with the magnificent and almost complete specimen in spirits at the Natural History Museum, and the countless drawings that have been made from it…”