If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Apocalypse: reading science fiction; The Shop Assistant's Tale 9


Read the story, then answer the practice question.

The following story is based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. In Wells's original novel, a large object crashes into a park. The novel's narrator goes to view the wreck, where he then sees a young shop assistant fall into the crater created by the unknown object. This story is a retelling of those events, written from the shop assistant’s point of view.

The Shop Assistant's Tale

  1. When the morning newspapers informed readers that the crash in the commons was possibly a spaceship from Mars, I was determined to view the wreck. By mid-morning, I had finished sweeping out the shop and had sorted the cans so that they faced forward with military precision. Peas, carrots, and pickled beets all stood grandly, ready to salute any customer who would inspect them. Then I wiped my hands on my apron and inquired if I could go to the commons. “Go if you must,” said Mr. Pickering, not looking up from his accounts book. “There’s a swell o’ people out there, and they’ll probably all stop in ‘ungry on the way ‘ome. Be back as soon as you’ve seen it, mind.”
“What if it’s a ‘istorical moment, Mr. Pickering?” I asked.
The nub of pencil hovered over the register. Pickering shook his head.
“Youth,” he muttered. “Off you go, then.”
  1. All around the commons, the trees and brush were former shadows of themselves, burned black and turned into wasteland. Although the area still smelled of smoke and smoldered in places, a throng of onlookers swelled around the ruin. An enterprising shopkeeper stood jauntily with his barrow of over-ripened apples, pears, and ginger beer for sale, grinning madly at sharply dressed townies rushing to get a look. Overhead, an angry sun shone luminously, searing its faint displeasure onto everyone’s backs. I pushed through the buzzing swarm and found myself standing on the edge of a hole the size of a circus tent, staring at a rusting cylinder that filled it to the brim. Along the sides, the mud was unnaturally smooth. We could not see to the bottom of the pit, and I heard people all around me comparing the cylinder to a forest of felled trees, or twenty railway carriages, or some other measure.
  2. How curious it was! Something like a giant’s thermos. I gaped at it, having forgotten Mr. Pickering’s demands that I return immediately upon having viewed the strange monstrosity.
  3. “It’s a-movin!” a voice suddenly squawked from across the pit. “It’s a-movin! A-movin!” A ruddy-faced, grimy boy pointed towards the bulk with a bony finger. Despite the fact that I was petrified, I leaned in, straining for a better look. As the child continued to yawp inarticulately, becoming increasingly frightened, the horde bulged, winching forward towards the grating noise. A hideous, sour smell rang in my nose—the foul stench of human sweat turned rancid under the sun—causing my eyes to water. We moved closer in, craning our necks, jostling against each other. My shoes hooked around the edge of the pit. A sharp elbow thrust into my back; I lost my footing and was flung into the pit, landing with a thud on my back. Winded, I lay corpse-like, gasping for air.
  4. When I caught my breath, I discerned with horror that the sweltering pit would roast me alive unless I were to immediately remove myself. Above me, I heard the whirring cylinder; beyond that still, the faint racket of screams. My mind churned; I had to get back to the shop in time to help Mr. Pickering with the crowds. Panicked, I started pawing at the ground, clawing my way back up out of the pit, hand over hand. Shoes were no assistance—they slipped against the slick sides of the hole. I kicked them off and attempted again; before long, I was making progress. Arms flailing, feet floundering, I gritted my teeth and feverishly scraped my way upwards.
  5. Then, something blood-warm and slippery slithered across my back. I froze in the dark, paralyzed by what I could not name. There it was again; this time, ruffling my hair with its minute rubbery fangs. Before horror eclipsed me, I scrambled up the last few meters and finally emerged, eyes blinking away sweat as I attempted to readjust to the light. From the edge of the crater, I swung myself onto the still-spinning barrel, barely registering the apocalyptic creature swaying like seaweed in the chasm. Looking around briefly, I saw the crowd staring back, their faces aghast. The metal churned underneath and pitched me back into terrifying darkness. Since I had made the ascent once before, I was not long coming back, fear boosting me to the surface.
  6. That’s when I heard the tumultuous screams and footsteps of the multitude stampeding across charred earth. I looked up and saw what they were escaping from. A grotesque, amorphous mass with glaring orbs that stared directly at me, a slit where lips should be, and the absence of a nose rendering it gruesome. This was no human come to us from Mars—it was a monstrosity! The sweat of terror seeped down the sides of my face and drenched my clothes. A memory of a labeled diagram from my schoolboy days of a soft-limbed mollusk, the words underneath—the Hapalochlaena lunulata, or the southern blue-ringed octopus—lodged in my brain like a song in another tongue.
  7. Five tentacles reared up, as graceful as a ballerina’s arms. Their tips fluttered a moment, then blocked out the sun.

Practice Question

Read this sentence from the passage.
“When the morning newspapers informed readers that the crash in the commons was possibly a spaceship from Mars, I was determined to view the wreck.”
How does this detail introduce a theme of the passage?
Choose 1 answer: