Yet another post of invisibility fiction, driven by all the stories I found while researching my invisibility book!
Here we have a curious case: an invisibility story written by a lawyer-turned-author, Arthur Leo Zagat (1896-1949)! Zagat wrote for many pulp magazines, and published one novel, Seven Out of Time, that was released the year of his death. But let’s look at his invisibility story, “Beyond the Spectrum,” which appeared in the August 1934 issue of Astounding Stories.
This particular story doesn’t do much of anything that hasn’t been done by other tales, but does introduce a race of invisible monsters that seem very Lovecraftian!
The story begins with Professor Edgar Thomasson arriving by train at the remote Florida town of Tanasota, at the end of the rail line. He has received a bizarre telegram from his best friend, Tom Denton, which reads:
PROF EDGAR THOMASSON
PHYSICS DEPT KINGS UNIVERSITY NY
DO NOT NEED YOU STOP NO TROUBLE STOP ON NO ACCOUNT TAKE SIX FORTY ONE FROM NEW YORK TO-DAY
The message baffles Thomasson, until he realizes that the signature is “Tom Denton” in reverse, which he takes as code to do the opposite of what the telegram asks!
Arriving in Tanasota, Thomasson is picked up by car by a frantic Denton. Denton, a geologist, had been hired by the Tanasota Chamber of Commerce to figure out why the city’s aquifers had all suddenly gone dry. Drilling into the earth, Denton soon learns the reason: a subterranean race of invisible monsters has been working its way towards the surface, and Denton’s drill hole gives them the opening they need to attack! Since the drill hole was bored, the invisible monsters have expanded the size and depth of the hole, and have been snatching townsfolk and dragging them into the depths… to steal their eyes. One victim, returning to the surface, has gone completely insane, with massive holes where his eyes should be, which have been removed with surgical precision.
Denton and Thomasson must take swift action to repel the invisible invaders, their quest becoming more urgent when Denton’s wife Mary is abducted!
That’s about all the summary needed for this tale. “Beyond the Spectrum” doesn’t have a lot of surprises in it, overall, and things play out pretty much as one might expect.
One amusing note: why did Denton need to send a cryptic message in the first place? Because the mayor of Tanasota, fearing that negative press might hurt their town’s reputation, has refused to request outside help! Denton convinces the mayor that he had already called Thomasson, and that the telegram is a legitimate message to tell him not to come. The backwards name is a not-so-sneaky way to convince Thomasson to do the opposite of what the message says.
So, “Beyond the Spectrum” contains an early version of a classic character type in horror stories: the “Jaws” mayor!
But how does their invisibility work? Thomasson later explains, after examining the corpse of one of the invisible tentacled invaders:
The secret of their invisibility lay in their epidermis, corresponding to our skin. This refracted all the light between ultra-violet and infra-red, the spectrum by which we humans see; carried it clear around them so that to our eyes they appeared perfectly transparent. I have done the same thing with a set of refracting prisms.
In essence, Zagat imagines their skin acting as a sort of cloaking device, guiding light around their otherwise opaque bodies. As for the refracting prism comment, Zagat may very well be referring to the sort of demonstration I’ve blogged about before, using prisms to guide light around a central hidden region:
Why do the intruders steal eyes, though?
My assistant, Jim Thorne, was puzzled. “How then do they see? If light passes around them, none reaches their brains.”
I smiled. “They are, of course, absolutely blind to our light. But remember sunlight never reaches them in their underground home. It is ultra-violet light, and other vibrations beyond our spectrum, emitted by radio-active sub stances in the rotting rock that pervade that region. Utterly black to us, they see by it as perfectly as we do by the light of the sun.”
Thorne got it. “Then that is why they cut out Phelps’ eyes, and the others?” “Right! They were blind, or almost so, in our world, which they sensed was a so much better abode than their own. They wanted human eyes to see things here above. It must have been poor Jim’s optics that glared at me through the window, his eyes in the head of one of the monsters.”
This description reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), in which a monstrous race of aliens surgically remove the brains of humans and keep them alive in metal cylinders!
So “Beyond the Spectrum” isn’t an outstanding example of invisibility in fiction, but it contains some nice ghastly elements to it. I enjoyed it just enough to make me plan to look up more of Zagat’s work in the future.