Yet another post about a story of invisibility. I keep finding more for my book bibliography, so I might as well blog about them here!
Invisibility has been a key feature of stories in pretty much every genre of writing. Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” for instance, is pretty much a straight horror tale. H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man is, of course, classic and even foundational science fiction, and tales like D.W. Hall’s “Raiders Invisible” are really straight up adventure fiction. Invisibility has even been used in romance; the 1895 novel Stella by C.H. Hinton tells the tale of a man who falls in love with a woman who has been turned invisible! (It’s not a very good story, IMHO.)
So it is not surprising to find invisibility used in comedy stories as well, and such is the case with Henry Kuttner’s “The Elixir of Invisibility,” published in Fantastic Adventures in October 1940.
Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was a versatile professional author for the pulp magazines who could write equally well in science fiction, fantasy, horror, or thriller. He really does seem to be the sort of author who was good enough to write “on demand” fiction for whatever an editor might need. And many of his stories are very, very good: the story “Private Eye,” written in 1949 under the pseudonym of Lewis Padgett which Kuttner often use in projects with his wife C.L. Moore, is one of my favorite science fiction stories of all time. In the future, scientists have developed the ability to look back at any moment in time. This would seem to make murder impossible to get away with, but one man, seeking revenge on a romantic rival, hatches a plan for the perfect murder even under 100% surveillance.
I’ll come back to “Private Eye” in another post, because now I really want to read it again! But what can we say about “The Elixir of Invisibility”?
The story is told from the point of view of Richard Raleigh, assistant to the famed scientist Dr. Gaspar Meek. As the tale begins, Raleigh is suddenly given a promotion to assistant researcher — but of course there’s a catch. Meek wants a living person to test his new elixir of invisibility: one dose will make you and everything you wear and carry invisible, and an antidote will return you to normal. Meek, frustrated by the press’ refusal to believe in his work, wants Raleigh to give them a proper demonstration, by slipping a business card into each reporter’s pocket. Raleigh is not too happy about the plan, but he is in love with Meek’s daughter Binnie and thus needs Meek’s approval.
The invisibility elixir works perfectly, and Raleigh goes out and performs the assignment. However, while he is out, a nearby bank is robbed by an invisible bandit, and Meek is arrested for the crime, being the only person who has claimed to have the power of invisibility. Raleigh sets out to find the true criminal and clear Meek’s name, and many hijinks ensue. This includes accidentally turning Binnie’s dog invisible and leading him on a hunt for the bank robber through the streets, as illustrated below.
Kuttner seems to have been aiming to make a comedy version of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. In Wells’ classic novel, a scientist turns himself invisible and finds that there are serious downsides that he had not considered. In “The Elixir of Invisibility,” the characters find that invisibility causes them all sorts of trouble, but more of the crazy chaos variety.
Overall, this is far from Kuttner’s best work, and probably one of those stories he wrote primarily to pay the bills. The humor hasn’t aged well, and though there are some clever twists and turns in the tale, there isn’t anything that jumps out as truly unique.
But what is the explanation for Meek’s invisibility elixir? As Meek tells the assembled reporters:
Meek coughed warningly. “Gentlemen,” he said loudly. “I apologize, of course. 1 had to insure your coming here to watch my little demonstration. As I wrote you before, I have invented a fluid that causes invisibility by creating complete transparency in material objects.
“I don’t know exactly how it works myself. I think some radiation is induced in the cellular or atomic structure— at least, it makes clothing invisible as well as flesh and blood.
A quite vague description! At least Kuttner was savvy enough to recognize that clothing would need to turn invisible as well, otherwise it would have been a very different type of story.
So overall I don’t really recommend “The Elixir of Invisibility,” but check out some of the other work of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore — they were both amazing authors. Let me end with a quote about their work together that I shared in another blog post ages ago that I’ve always loved:
“On one occasion I was invited to spend the weekend with Henry Kuttner at the home he shared with his wife, Catherine L. Moore, at Hastings–on–Hudson in New York state. About midnight Catherine went up to bed while Henry and I talked a little while longer. When it was time for me to hit the sack on the spare cot downstairs in the area of the house where the two did their writing, Kuttner took up his place on the other side of the room and set out to get some writing done. I eventually nodded off to the music of Henry Kuttner at the typewriter. Kuttner quit work at about 4:00 A.M. and the sudden interruption of keystrokes and his footsteps on the stairs woke me up. I turned over and was just nodding off again when the typewriter music began again with a slightly different pace and keystroke. Catherine had taken her husband’s place and was taking up right where he left off. They were really good collaborators, and their work together was so seamless that not even they could tell where one had left off and the other had started. Kuttner was the better plotter, but Catherine was the better craftsman in terms of literary ability.”