Just a reminder again that I’ll (hopefully) have a book out on the history and physics of invisibility next year, so keep an eye out!
Here we have a first in our discussion of invisibility in fiction — a sequel! “Land of the Shadow Dragons,” by Eando Binder, appeared in the May 1941 issue of Fantastic Adventures, and it is a direct sequel to Binder’s “The Invisible Robinhood.” It even merited a cover image:
It was weirdly thrilling to see the return of The Invisible Robinhood in print, even in this era of endless superhero movies and their sequels. This example, because it was much less common in that era, seems somehow more magical and precious to me. I’ll do some spoilers again, so read the story here first if you’re worried about that.
“Land of the Shadow Dragons” is really a classic “lost world” type story, with an invisible superhero thrown into the mix! The tale begins as an airplane takes off from Chicago for a mysterious destination. The pilot, Hugh Crane, finds takeoff harder than expected, as if the plane has extra weight on board! This is the first hint of The Invisible Robinhood, and part of the fun of the first half of the story is knowing that the character is there and manipulating things in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Crane has been hired to fly two passengers and their equipment to an unspecified destination in the Canadian wilds. One passenger is Jondra Damon, daughter of Dr. Sewell Damon; she is bringing supplies to her father for a mysterious research project. The other passenger is Paul Harlan, a chemist that Jondra hired to assist her father in his work.
Jondra provides more detailed directions while the plane is in flight, and soon they are landing in a mysterious and empty valley. Just before landing, however, they see Dr. Damon attempting to wave them off, and realize too late that they are landing in a valley filled with invisible trees! The plane makes a crash landing, and, though nobody is injured, the aircraft needs repairs. Here, their invisible stowaway makes himself more known, as he breaks up a fight between Crane and Harlan:
He lunged at Harlan, driving his fist forward.
The blow never landed. Crane was not quite sure why it didn’t. Some forces eemed to grasp his wrist and hold his arm back. He tried again, more enraged than ever.
But the group, which now includes Dr. Damon and his French-Canadian guide Pierre, still does not realize that there is an invisible person among them, even though they are in a valley filled not only with invisible trees, but invisible animals, as well! Dr. Damon stumbled across this remote valley with his guide, and is now obsessed with understanding how all living things ended up invisible. To Eando Binder’s credit, he leaves the explanation somewhat mysterious; when Damon is asked how the invisibility works, he first says:
“I’ve learned a little, and surmised a lot, in the six months I’ve been here. It traces down to a certain type of grass, which has the property of invisibility. The herbivorous creatures eat the grass —rabbits, deer, etc. The carnivores — bear, fox, weasel, lynx—eat them. Excrement and decaying bodies go back to the soil—and back to the vegetation, including trees, bushes, moss. It’s a closed cycle, mutually kept up, as it would be in any isolated valley.”
“But what causes this invisibility?” Harlan asks. Again, Damon is somewhat vague, but gives a fascinating evolutionary explanation:
“Perhaps it goes back a long way, in evolution. Evolution tries anything and everything. What does vegetation—to personify it—fear most? Being eaten. And being seen! If it were invisible, it might escape the crunching jaws of planteaters.
“Thus ages ago evolution may have tried this offshoot species, protected by invisibility. It failed, because of the animal sense of smell. It vanished in evolution, as so many abortive lifeforms have. Only here in this valley it survived, and stayed to the present day.”
This isn’t enough for the overly inquisitive Harlan, which forces Damon to admit that he doesn’t really know the physics and chemistry of the effect:
“But what is the exact agent of invisibility?” Harlan insisted. Crane didn’t like the tenseness in the chemist’s voice, nor the eager way he waited for an answer. “That’s what I want to find out,” Dr. Damon returned. “And where you come in. Between us, we may be able to find out. I suspect it’s a hormone, a gland-product. Transparent life-forms are not unknown, of course—jellyfish, many worms, tropical fish, etc.
“A jellyfish is practically invisible in water. Thus it is hidden from its enemies. Its protoplasm is no different from ours, but contains gland-products that render it highly transparent.
Why is Harlan so eager to learn the secret of invisibility? Because he is secretly working for a fifth column organization in the United States — a group of traitors seeking to undermine the government! With the power of invisibility, this group could cause the complete collapse of the U.S. government, aiding the war effort of America’s enemies. (This story was published in May 1941, before the U.S. entered World War II, but already people knew where their sympathies lay.)
Harlan plans to kill everyone and claim the secret for himself, but his attempts fall short in the most dramatic fashion:
Harlan had missed! Another shot . . . four more shots . . . and still no bullet touched Crane!
It was an impossible miracle. And then Crane gasped. He stopped short, staring at the amazing phenomenon occurring before him.
Harlan stood in a strangely unnatural position. His right arm was stiff before him, the wrist bent, the automatic pointed upward where he had pumped the useless shots. It was exactly as though a man had grasped Harlan’s wrist from the side, jerked his arm up, and twisted the wrist!
Yet there was no man there.
And so The Invisible Robinhood finally reveals himself, but the threat isn’t over. Harlan manages to escape, but injecting himself with the invisible blood of the creatures in the valley — and he meets up with well-armed friends that he had arranged to follow him. Soon it is a battle between Americans and traitors, with an invisible man leading the battle on each side!
Of course, that is not the only danger. There are also the “shadow dragons,” which cast a shadow even though they are themselves invisible!
Crane’s own mind and muscles turned numb. A mighty body reared in silhouette, at least twenty feet high. Great triangular spines ran the length of it. Two thick legs pumped thunderously, upholding the body like a kangaroo. The short forelegs displayed claws that could rend apart an elephant at one stroke. At the end of a serpentine neck slavered huge ridged jaws of more than crocodile magnitude.
Crane initially refers to it as a “dragon,” and the cover illustration of the story shows what looks like a Chinese dragon, but that written description suggests something else, as is later explained:
“Not dragons—dinosaurs,” smiled the biologist. “A species of them closely related to the extinct Tyrannosaurus rex fiercest of them all. The dinosaurs died out, millions of years ago, in competition with rising mammalian life. But this invisible species had just enough edge to survive, though it has narrowed down to this lone valley.”
Oh, yes — we not only have invisible dinosaurs, but we have invisible T-rexes! Is it any wonder that I love this story?
There are a number of twists and turns throughout the story, which is generally a ripping good yarn. The only thing I don’t like, as a scientist, is that by the end of the story the characters resolve to destroy all the life in the valley, to avoid the risk of invisibility getting into the hands of the wrong people. Destroying knowledge, especially unique living things, just doesn’t sit well with me.
But overall, I enjoyed this story a lot! I’m curious as to whether The Invisible Robinhood made any further appearances. I haven’t found one yet, but I’m going to keep looking…