Priestess of the Moon, by Ray Cummings

More invisibility? Okay, sure, why not.

I may be cursed to blog about invisibility in fiction for the rest of my life. While preparing a post about McGivern’s “The Visible Invisible Man,” I suddenly realized that there is another story about invisibility in the very same issue of Amazing Stories!

As you can see from the short description, “Priestess of the Moon,” by Ray Cummings, features a woman fighting against an invisible being before disappearing herself. It is in fact another invisibility story, and quite frankly a very silly one. Let’s take a look… spoilers again, though I don’t think anyone will be particularly upset in the case of this story.

An original image from the story, if the description of abducted women wasn’t clear enough.

Ray Cummings is another classic science fiction author who wrote prodigiously for the pulp magazines; his most well-regarded work is The Girl in the Golden Atom, which I have not yet had the chance to read. According to Wikipedia, however, it is the origin of the rather famous phrase, “Time . . . is what keeps everything from happening at once.” In the story, a chemist perfects a microscope that allows him to image things below the atomic level, and he finds an entire world hidden in a single gold atom. He falls in love with a woman that he sees in the atom, and uses chemistry to shrink himself down to visit this world within a world.

The premise of the story is strikingly similar to Fitz James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens,” which originally appeared in 1858, that is also about a man using a microscope to fall in love with a subatomic woman. I imagine that Cummings read the earlier story and was inspired; I wonder if he also read Fitz James O’Brien’s famous invisibility story, “What Was It?” (1859) and it led to “Priestess of the Moon.”

“Priestess of the Moon,” set in the futuristic year 1992, begins with several young woman mysteriously disappearing in a rural area of upstate New York, one disappearing in plain sight of witnesses. This is especially troubling to the narrator of the story, journalist Alan Kent, and his hot-headed colleague George Merlin, as their current girlfriends are living in that area. When a group of women is abducted all at once, including George’s beau Anne, the two men hop in an aircraft to go investigate.

The authorities in the area have already cordoned off a suspicious area referred to only as a “blank spot,” and Alan decides to take a look at it from the air.

We were at an altitude now of perhaps a thousand feet. And then we saw the blank spot!

How shall I describe it? There was something down there near the west end of the lake. The terrain there was open, a level place with only a few trees. And something was there!

A blank spot . . . You couldn’t describe it any better. The moonlight shone clearly on it. A place where for fifty or a hundred feet there seemed a weird patch of—nothingness! The moonlit rocks were gone. The stunted trees that should have been there— weren’t.

Weirdly gruesome, that blank spot. Was it some monstrous Thing crouching there? A Thing of which you were aware only because you couldn’t see it? Wild thoughts flooded me . . .

Flying over this area, their aircraft is seized by an invisible force that nearly causes them to crash. Two police craft that follow in their path are not as lucky, and end up as flaming wrecks in the forest below.

Here, Cummings may have then paid a clever nod to another famous invisibility story:

I swung our plane away. Certainly we had lost our desire to investigate further. Within a few minutes we were back over Granton.

“Good Lord,” Merlin was muttering. “This damned Thing—what is it?”

The Damned Thing” (1893) is one of the most famous stories by the author and satirist Ambrose Bierce, and features a monster that is invisible because it is of an ultraviolet color. It seems like too much of a coincidence to imagine that Cummings used that particular phrase unintentionally.

Come to think of it, look at the whole phrase: “This damned Thing–what is it?” Recall that Fitz James O’Brien’s famed invisibility story is titled “What Was It?” Perhaps Cummings was cleverly giving a shoutout to two of the most famous invisibility stories of all time in a single sentence? Pure speculation on my part, but I’m going to assume it’s true…

Landing their plane, the pair proceed to the home of Professor Clayton, grandfather of Alan’s love Gloria. When they get there, however, they are all attacked and eventually overpowered by invisible foes, who turn out to be Lunites — another race of humans who live on the moon — who have come to Earth to steal women! Here Cummings seems to have anticipated the plot of a much later 1968 movie:

Mars Needs Women FilmPoster.jpeg

The Lunites bring the men and Gloria to the moon, where a bit of a tangled history is revealed. Professor Clayton’s former assistant, James Diller, stole Clayton’s secret plans for both space travel and invisibility, and managed to get both of them to work. Incidentally, this bit of alternate history amused me:

Space-flying! A new era. In this year of 1992, science was on the verge of that great achievement, of course. But as far as was known, it had not yet been accomplished.

As it turns out, Diller organized a group of Earth criminals together to commit crimes while invisible, but as the authorities closed in on them, they took to space and went to the moon to establish a hideout. Once there, they found the Lunites and made an alliance with them. The Earth criminals got bored with the bland and submissive Lunite women, however, and demanded that the Lunites fetch them some proper Earth women. The Lunites were happy to comply, because they had a prophecy that their new Priestess of the Moon would come from Earth — and they believed that Gloria was that priestess!

The above description is about all you need to know about the plot of the story. Once on the moon, there are betrayals and action sequences and daring escapes, but nothing particularly surprising.

A few weird things stood out to me in this story. First: Cummings seemed to have a bit of an obsession with skull-crushing. Early on, for example, Professor Clayton meets his doom:

I turned my head to stare at him. He had tumbled backward, lost his footing. The back of his skull had struck the wall.

Later, the jealous wife of one of the Lunite leaders attempts to murder Gloria:

But she was too late! One of the guards saw her. With a huge ten-foot pounce, he landed upon her. A knobbed metal bludgeon in his hand crashed down. With skull smashed into a noisome mass, Tara wilted down into a quivering, inert heap.

But that Lunite leader, Targg, ends up meeting the same fate:

With a wild lunge I heaved him upward, broke his hold upon my throat. And then I was back on him like a pouncing, snarling puma. I pounded his head on the rocky ground; lifted him, smashed him down again until his skull broke.

Why this obsession with broken skulls? I have no idea.

Something else that has aged very poorly is, well, age. Alan and George are explicitly said to be in their mid-twenties; Gloria and Anne, their loves, are seventeen and sixteen years old, respectively. I guess this was not an unusual age difference in the 1940s, but today it creeps me out.

One final thing disturbed me greatly: there were eight women kidnapped from Earth to the moon, but at the end of the story it is not at all clear that any of those women are rescued, other than Gloria and Anne. There is a vague implication earlier in the story that they might have been ferried to the spacecraft used in the escape, but nothing is explicitly said. An oversight on the author’s part, or a deliberately horrific scenario?

The invisibility is tentatively explained by Professor Clayton early in the story as one of those technologies that his corrupt assistant probably perfected:

“Well, there was something else on which I was working with him—the secret of mechanical, electronic invisibility. Our experiments resulted in a light-absorbing fabric. “Now I realize that if Diller was able subsequently to create a magnetic field, to bend light-rays from the background around an intervening object—that would be almost true invisibility. In that case, one might sometimes be aware of a blank spot—”

This is an interesting mixture of technologies that have actually been studied in modern times. Scientists have made materials that are blacker than the blackest natural pigment, and objects coated in these materials can appear as a blank void. And the idea of guiding light around a cloaked region is the foundation of all modern attempts at invisibility.

The idea was so out there for readers of Amazing Stories, however, that the editors added a note to the story, of which part is given below:

In the case of’ the Lunite encampment near Granton, no true invisibility was obtained. There was probably a barrage of light-absorbing electronic vibrations, but no enveloping magnetic field was possible. Only a “blank spot”—an area of weird emptiness—was to be seen.

Obviously this “blank spot” could only have emanated in some way from the malign genius of Professor Clayton’s ousted assistant, James Diller. An object—a man standing in the center of a room, let us say—is garbed so that no light-rays are reflected from him. His specially treated garments absorb every vestige of color, so that he is then not so invisible as an empty outline, because the background, the wall of the room behind him, is blotted out and the outline then appears.

Albert Einstein has demonstrated that by natural law, a magnetic field surrounding a solid body bends the light-rays which come from behind it. James Diller quite obviously discovered how to create that magnetic field. (Orentz demonstrated the principle fully in Baltimore in 1939.)

There is one huge error in this description: a “magnetic field” doesn’t bend light rays around a solid body. Einstein’s general theory of relativity describes how massive objects warp space and time around an object, and this results in a deflection of the path of light rays. This principle of warped space-time is used in the mathematical design of modern invisibility cloaks, though the “warping” for cloaks is purely mathematical. In Einstein’s theory, however, light rays are bent by gravity, not magnetism.

I have no idea what “Orentz” demonstrated in Baltimore in 1939. It looks like a misspelling of “Lorentz,” who was one of the researchers who developed the mathematics of relativity theory, but I am not sure.

To be frank, “Priestess of the Moon” is a rather uninspiring story. It comes from the later part of Cummings’ career, so he might have been “phoning it in” for a few dollars. But it is another fascinating example of invisibility being used to advance a science fiction tale.

This entry was posted in Invisibility, Science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Priestess of the Moon, by Ray Cummings

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    After the work of John Carpenter, the phrase “that damned Thing” takes on a whole new aspect.

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