By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), first published in the New Budget on 23 May 1895. Set in Africa, it’s a tale of magic, revenge, and adventure, and can perhaps best be categorised as a horror story, with a hint of fantasy.
First, here’s a brief summary of ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’. In Sierra Leone, a British man named Pollock narrowly avoids being stabbed to death by a Porroh man, whom he had angered when he was caught with a woman who ‘belonged’ to the Porroh.
Although it isn’t openly stated, the insinuation is that Pollock, who is something of a dissolute and directionless fellow, has been sleeping with the man’s wife (this would explain why the Porroh man stabs the woman: for being unfaithful). Pollock escapes, but the Porroh man, a witch-doctor, is after him.
Another British man, Waterhouse, berates Pollock for always getting into fights with the African natives, and for failing to respect them and their beliefs. For instance, Pollock wrote his name on an idol, and this was considered an act of sacrilege or blasphemy by the locals.
Waterhouse orders Pollock to return to England, and Pollock – initially with Waterhouse – begins the journey through Sierra Leone to where he can get a ship home. While waiting for his ship, Pollock strikes up a friendship with another European there, a man named Perera. As he becomes increasingly worried about the dark magic practised by the Porroh, Pollock pays a native man named Mendi to go and kill the Porroh man who is after Pollock.
When this native man presents the severed head of the dead Porroh at the card table where Pollock and Perera are playing, Perera is shocked that Pollock has paid another man to do his killing for him, and insists Pollock get rid of the head himself. Pollock tries burying the head, but a dog digs it up again.
He casts it into the sea, but an Arabian man finds it and, having failed to sell it to anyone as a curiosity, throws it into Pollock’s shed, where Pollock finds it waiting for him next morning.
Next, Pollock tries to burn the head. When his boat arrives, he gets on board, only for the captain of the steamer to present him with the Porroh man’s head. Although he swaps boats, the head manages to follow him. He starts to doubt his own sanity:
He knew clearly enough that his imagination was growing traitor to him, and yet at times it seemed the ship he sailed in, his fellow-passengers, the sailors, the wide sea, was all part of a filmy phantasmagoria that hung, scarcely veiling it, between him and a horrible real world. Then the Porroh man, thrusting his diabolical face through that curtain, was the one real and undeniable thing.
When he arrives back in London, he sees the head bouncing ‘like an indiarubber ball’ between his legs, and he is so busy trying to kick it away that he is hit by the pole of an omnibus (a forerunner to the modern bus, driven by horses). A horse kicks his hand, and he is taken to a doctor for treatment.
The doctor who treats him recommends trying various attempts to cure him of his mental obsession, including playing football, but this doesn’t work because ‘to Pollock the game consisted in kicking a furious inverted head about a field.’
Try as he might, the head continues to follow him around. He becomes convinced it is a hallucination, but when he looks at the head again, he decides to cut his throat with a razor and put an end to his mental torment.
‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ is one of H. G. Wells’s most haunting and unnerving stories, and perhaps one of the great short stories about an African curse.
But Wells, ever the rationalist, blurs the boundaries between the supernatural and the psychological, leaving us to wonder, at the end of the story, whether Pollock was right that the head had become a mere hallucination, or whether he was actually being punished with powerful west African magic. The Porroh, or Poro, really exists, by the way: it’s an African secret society.
‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ can be productively compared with another Wells tale, ‘The Moth’, which similarly sees a man ‘pursued’ by an object (in that story, the titular moth) until he goes mad, his life destroyed. Both stories are about obsession, although the imperial setting for ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’ is, I think, more than just a convenient backdrop for a bit of exotic magic.
As a representative of the British empire, Pollock is a disgrace, and Wells appears to go out of his way to make the man as unsympathetic as possible. One cannot help but feel that, whether his obsession is down to a genuine supernatural curse or merely the psychological suggestion that he is being dogged by the witch-doctor from beyond the grave, he was somewhat deserving of his fate.