Continuing a discussion of odd stories of invisibility in fiction that I came across in writing my book on the history of invisibility physics.
Pulp stories are sometimes quite a ride. They can be filled with bizarre ideas and twists and turns that are often largely nonsensical, tailored to bring people back to read what happens in the next issue.
One spectacular example of this is The Sea Demons, by Victor Rousseau Emanuel, first serialized in All Story Weekly starting in January of 1916 and then published as a novel in 1924. In August of this year, Armchair Fiction released a reprint of this otherwise hard to find novel:
This book is a wild ride and, relevant to my interest, features an undersea species of near-invisible humanoids, who threaten to destroy the surface world!
The novel follows the adventures of submarine captain Donald Paget and his attempts to defeat the monstrous horde. While waiting for his next assignment, Paget meets Captain Masterman, an old colleague. Masterman has just come back from a deep ocean expedition and has now been desperately trying to warn the admiralty of the horrific invasion from the depths that is coming. Paget himself writes off Masterman as senile and deluded until, in the wake of a submarine battle, he finds himself locked in hand-to-hand combat with one of the creatures, that turn out to be nearly invisible:
He fancied that he could discern its shadowy outlines. At the instant the fog dispersed, and the red rim of the setting sun burst through. Now he was sure; the monster was not wholly invisible.
He was the rays deflected from the creature’s body, dancing in prismatic colors upon the edge of its leathery hide. He saw it dimly as one sees the full moon in the arms of the new.
This passing encounter, which he alone experiences, is not enough to convince his crew of the threat. Unfortunate, because soon the entire submarine is overrun with the creatures. In the end, there are only a few survivors who must fight to warn the world of the impending invasion, while staying alive themselves. To make things worse, a former rival of Masterman’s, Professor MacBeard, has learned how to partially control the sea demons and he plans to use them as part of his own plan of world conquest! To make things even worse, the invisible queen of the sea demons decides that she fancies Paget for herself…
As I said, the novel is filled with twists and turns and nonsensical science that reads like someone who slept through 2/3rds of a college course and tried to summarize what they learned. For example:
“What I’m going to tell you will sound impossible, but it happens to be true. You know, Davies, our ancestors were marine creatures?”
“I thought they were monkeys, sir. At least, a long time ago.”
“Long before they were monkeys, Davies. At least, they first lived in the sea. Then they came out on the dry land. And we became monkeys afterward, and then men.”
Not a bad description of the evolution of man for a pulp science fiction novel, but I’m sure quite painful for a biologist to read!
The science gets even weirder, as it is revealed that the sea demons have the ability to spontaneously generate air from water by decomposing the water into hydrogen and oxygen. If you are wondering what happens to the dangerous hydrogen gas, well, there are explosive consequences later in the novel, as the demons advance on the UK and Europe. The novel takes on an almost apocalyptic tone at that late stage, as humanity struggles to avoid being supplanted.
The creatures themselves are described as having a hive mind, like bees. Most of the creatures are almost mindless drones, except for their queen, who possesses some rudimentary intelligence.
Hopefully this short description gives an impression of how wild The Sea Demons is, and how packed it is with strange and unusual ideas. It also suffers from some stereotypical views of women at the time, as the sole female character, a love interest for Paget, is largely a helpless swooning victim. Though even she surprises, in what is probably an unintentionally humorous scene:
“What was it, dear?” she asked. “I don’t know whether I have been delirious since my rescue, but I thought the most dreadful thing had happened. Tell me truly, Donald!”
“It is not necessary, dear,” he answered. “We shall be in Lerwick this afternoon, and you need never think about yesterday all your life.”
“You need not tell me, of course,” she answered. “But I thought some sea-beasts, something unknown before, something half human attacked us in the boat, and afterward the sailors here.”
She saw by his face that she had guessed correctly.
I love the fact that Paget is more or less like, “oh you wouldn’t understand and couldn’t handle it,” and she shows that she knows exactly what has been going on!
The Armchair Fiction edition of The Sea Demons reproduces the original cover image of the story that appeared in All Story Weekly, as shown below (image via Galactic Central):
Incidentally, the story was first published in 1916, during the First World War, and it is set during the war. There is a submarine combat early in the book that is quite well written and thrilling, and I kind of wish that more of the book were filled with such scenes.
So what do I think of The Sea Demons? I enjoyed it! I think it is a fun, weird ride, though it will appeal most to people who enjoy silliness in their fiction and don’t mind dated fiction.