Continuing my run of stories of invisibility to celebrate finishing the draft of my book on the history and physics of invisibility! I probably should’ve waited to do this until my book is actually out… ah, well.
With so many invisibility stories having been written, it was inevitable that I would come across one that seems like a re-run of earlier classics. Such is the case with “Beyond Power of Man,” by Paul Ernst, which appeared in the December 1928 issue of Weird Tales!
This story seems like a striking mishmash of several classic stories about invisibility! Let’s take a look.
“Beyond Power of Man” begins with some pretty dodgy anthropology and paleontology:
The Brandsted Institute experts thought the fossilized thigh-bone and skull to be the remains of some enormous, hitherto unknown ape that had lived in the time of the dinosaur when life was cast in a heroic mold. The professors of Ambridge pointed out the high dome of the cranium and the unmistakably human tooth, and insisted that the creature had been a full-fledged man, possessed of nearly as much intelligence as the lower orders of present-day savages. The controversy that followed filled all the Sunday supplements and nearly caused some dislocations in the scientific world.
One immediate problem: human-like apes did not exist in the time of the dinosaurs, though some of the earliest primates likely did. The next big problem: talking about the “lowest orders of present-day savages,” which is just completely a racist and inaccurate view of contemporary humans!
But let’s continue:
In only one point were the debaters agreed. This was– the size. Intricate calculations based on microscopic examination of the fossil fragments revealed that the creature, whether man or ape, had stood nearly eleven feet high. Also the structure of the thigh-bone indicated immense weight carried and enormous muscular activity.
Intrigued by the discovery, Doctor Wayne Early travels to the site of the discovery to see whether there are any other fossil fragments to be discovered. He is unsuccessful in his search, but learns from the landowner that a nearby house is haunted by a powerful physical spirit of some sort. The landowner offers Early the princely sum of $500 ($8000 in today’s dollars) to exorcise the house of this sinister presence. Early cannot resist the offer, and enters the house through the only unboarded window to explore.
At this point, the story turns to a first-person narration, in the form of a diary written by Early during his exploration of the house. Time passes quite uneventfully at first, but unusual events start piling up: a rat dies mysteriously, the sound of heavy footfalls echo through the house. Eventually Early finds himself trapped in the house by a massive and powerful unseen being, one that appears to have sinister plans for him. Can Early defeat the creature and escape with his life?
This story is strikingly similar to two classics of invisibility in fiction. The first classic is Fitz James O’Brien’s “What Was It?”, which was first published in 1859 and it thought to be the first story to attempt a scientific explanation for invisibility. In the story, two men decide to spend the night in a house that is thought to be haunted, when one of them is attacked by an invisible monster! They capture the monster and tie it up, and it eventually dies of starvation. Not a particularly exciting story, but groundbreaking in its discussion of invisibility physics.
The second classic is Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” published in its final form in 1887. In this tale, a man in Paris becomes convinced that his home has been taken over by an invisible being, and much like Wayne Early he makes a dramatic desperate attempt to kill the being and free himself. (In both stories, the outcome is the same.) “The Horla” is told in first person, like “Beyond Power of Man,” and one can’t help but suspect that Paul Ernst was consciously or unconsciously influenced by it.
The biggest twist in “Beyond Power of Man” is the idea that the house is in fact haunted by the spirit of the primeval man whose fossilized remains were dug up! So we can add one new class of beings that have appeared in invisibility stories: ancient ghosts! This is a story that provides no scientific explanation for invisibility, but is based on a scientific idea.
The story is reasonably well-written, but is lacking in that it treads very familiar ground in the genre of invisibility fiction!
PS one ironic reason that Weird Tales is so weird is that sooooo many covers feature nearly naked woman, often captured or otherwise subjugated. This is also true for the December 1928 issue, but I really love the color scheme of the cover: