Literature / Tales from the White Hart

Tales from the White Hart is a 1957 collection of short stories by Arthur C. Clarke. Rather different from his standard hard science fiction fare, Tales is a collection of stories—tall tales, really, in the English tradition of the "pub tale"—told by the bloviating, impossibly well-connected, and utterly enchanting Harry Purvis, at The White Hart, a pub at which London's SF fandom hung out in The '40s and The '50s. It's all told to us by an Expy of Clarke himself ("Charles Willis", one of his pseudonyms).

Fifteen White Hart stories are included in the collection:

  • "Silence Please" - About a student who invents active noise control and uses it to pull a tremendous prank.
  • "Big Game Hunt" - Some scientists invent a device which can control animals' movements by reproducing the electrical signals, but there has to be an electrical connection. They go out in the Atlantic, use the signals to force a giant squid to come to the surface, and film it - but the apparatus suddenly fails, and before they can get it started again, the understandably pissed-off squid sinks the ship.
  • "Patent Pending" - About a man who invents VCR for the brain.
  • "Armaments Race" - The guy in charge of props for a B-grade science fiction show develops a fake death ray that's supposed to create an impressive-looking electrical arc which actually works and destroys the studio, forcing said individual to make a hasty exit.
  • "Critical Mass" - A truck crashes near a facility where various very dangerous substances are manufactured and stored, and wrecks. The truck driver and some pedestrians both do a Don't Ask, Just Run. The locals in town conclude You Can Panic Now, and start to evacuate when someone volunteers to go up there and finds out it's time to Bee Afraid.
  • "The Ultimate Melody" - About inventing the ultimate Ear Worm.
  • "The Pacifist" - About the invention of a military computer
  • "The Next Tenants" - A scientist on a Pacific atoll is teaching termites how to use tools and human technology.
  • "Moving Spirit" - About a novel method of distilling and aging whisky.
  • "The Man Who Ploughed the Sea"
  • "The Reluctant Orchid" - About a seemingly dangerous carnivorous orchid.
  • "Cold War" - A submarine is hired by the California Chamber of Commerce to arrange an iceberg sighting off the coast of Florida. They end up in over their heads.
  • "What Goes Up" - About some Australians who invent Anti Gravity by accident
  • "Sleeping Beauty" - About a man who is given a drug that causes him to not require sleep.
  • "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch" - Wouldn't you like to find out!


  • Appeal to Audacity: Pretty much everything that comes out of Harry Purvis' mouth.
  • Destination Defenestration: "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch."
  • Disintegrator Ray: A disintegrator ray is the weapon ultimately (and accidentally) created in "Armaments Race".
  • During the War: "Moving Spirit" is set during World War II.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: "Charles Willis"
  • Giant Squid: "Big Game Hunt" describes the efforts of an eccentric professor to study the electrical circuitry of the brain. After using his research to develop robotic creatures, he then tries to use electrical stimulation of the brain to control the behavior of animals. The professor's work is discovered by a wildlife photographer, who tries to exploit it to film a giant squid. While their attempt is initially successful, the equipment blows a fuse, and the squid kills both scientist and photographer.
  • Henpecked Husband: Harry Purvis. His wife's name? Ermintrude.
  • Man-Eating Plant: In "The Reluctant Orchid", Hercules Keating is nearly killed by a carnivorous orchid. He then attempts to use the orchid to murder his overbearing aunt, but this does not go according to plan.
  • The Munchausen: Harry Purvis.
  • My Local: The White Hart. And it is local—the pub was chosen for its proximity to King's College London and other research institutions, not to mention the location just off Fleet Street that attracted those of a more literary bent, as well.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Often used to explain why no one's ever heard of the inventions or events described. Of course, it's not uncommon for the thing described to be the prototype, so somewhat justified. Charlie Willis lampshades this.
  • Recorded Spliced Conversation: In "The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch", sound engineer Osbert Inch makes a bet with his wife Ermintrude about which one of them speaks the most. He devises a device to count how many words his wife spoke in their London flat, versus how many he spoke. The counter is sealed for a week, and when it is unsealed, Osbert is shocked to discover that his word count far exceeds Ermintrude's. It does not take long for him to realize that she had taken a tape he had made using his own voice, made it into a loop and left it running in the flat while he was at work. This discovery results in the eponymous defenestration.
  • Tall Tale: All the stories.
  • The Rule of First Adopters: "Patent Pending."
  • The Sleepless: "Sleeping Beauty" is about a man who loses the need to sleep.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Chess seems to be more popular than darts at the White Hart. Given its clientele (writers, editors, scientists, and engineers), it's easy to see why.
  • Spiritual Successor: The 2011 collection "Fables from the Fountain" by Neil Gaiman, Stephen Baxter, Charles Stross and others.