Tomorrow is the day! Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not to Be Seen will be officially released in hardback and e-book! Audio book I believe is coming soon! Here’s a discussion of another classic story of invisibility…
We have run into a few authors who made it a bit of a career to write stories about invisibility, including Captain S.P. Meek, who wrote “The Attack From Space” and “The Cave of Horror,” as well as Victor Rousseau, who wrote “The Invisible Death” and The Sea Demons. We may also add Edmond Hamilton, who wrote “Valley of Invisible Men” that I’ve blogged about previously, but also whose very first science fiction story was “The Monster-God of Mamurth,” published in August of 1926 in Weird Tales!
Hamilton became an incredibly prolific writer for Weird Tales, joining H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard as regulars, and branched out into other magazines and genres over his productive career. And it all started with an invisibility story!
“The Monster-God of Mamurth” begins in the deserts of North Africa, when a dying and desperate man stumbles into the camp of two prospectors. As he slowly expires, he tells his own story, which forms the bulk of the narrative. (Once again, spoilers follow, so read the story first here if you desire.)
The man, who remains nameless, is an archaeologist studying ancient Carthage. While traveling between Arab villages, he finds an ancient “Phenician” tablet that warns travelers to stay away from the city of Mamurth, beyond a nearby mountain pass. The tablet says that the writer and his companions strayed too close to Mamurth and his companions were captured by its priests, who sacrificed them to the evil god they worshipped.
Such talk does not dissuade the archaeologist, who realizes that an unknown city in the desert is an amazing archaeological discovery. He is unable to find a guide willing to take him through the pass, so he goes himself with a pair of camels and enough food and water for the journey.
He soon finds the white ruins of Mamurth, and finds that every inscription on the stone includes a symbol of a strange creature:
It was a rough picture of a queer, outlandish creature, much like an octopus, with a round, almost shapeless body, and several long tentacles or arms branching out from the body, not supple and boneless, like those of an octopus, but seemingly stiff and jointed, like a spider’s legs. In fact, the thing might have been intended to represent a spider, I thought, though some of the details were wrong.
This again does not dissuade him, nor is he dissuaded later that night when something he cannot see creeps into his camp and he chases it off with fire. The archaeologist continues on deeper into the city to see what he can learn. He is puzzled by what appears to be a completely empty region right in the middle of the ruins, but what he finds next is even more unbelievable:
“Gradually I began to see that there was something queer about the part of the desert that lay directly before me. It was flat. For an area, seemingly round in shape, that must have covered several acres the surface of the desert seemed absolutely level. It was as though the sands within that great circle had been packed down with tremendous force, leaving not even the littlest ridge of dune on its surface. Beyond this flat area, and all around it, the desert was broken up by small hills and valleys, and traversed by whirling sand-clouds, but nothing stirred on the flat surface of the circle.
“Interested at once, I strode forward to the edge of the circle, only a few yards away. I had just reached that edge when an invisible hand seemed to strike me a great blow on the face and chest, knocking me backward in the sand.
“It was minutes before I advanced again, but I did advance, for all my curiosity was now aroused. I crawled toward the circle’s edge, holding my pistol before me, pushing slowly forward.
“When the automatic in my outstretched hand reached the line of the circle, it struck against something hard, and I could push it no farther. It was exactly as if it had struck against the side of a wall, but no wall or anything else was to be seen. Reaching out my hand, I touched the same hard barrier, and in a moment I was on my feet.
There is an invisible temple in the city, completely undetectable by the eye! The archaeologist manages to work his way into the temple, which is completely invisible inside and out, to explore further.
It is at this point that the sun begins to set again, and to the archaeologist’s horror he sees that large footprints are being made in the sand outside, leading toward the temple — the Monster-God of Mamurth that he had unknowingly chased off before!
“What strange creatures might there not have been in the dawn of time? And this one, this gigantic monster in a spider’s form—had not those who built the city found it here when they came, and, in awe, taken it as the city’s god, and built for it the mighty temple in which I now stood? And they, who had the wisdom and art to make this vast fane invisible, not to be seen by human eyes, had they done the same to their god, and made of him almost a true god, invisible, powerful, undying? Undying! Almost it must have been, to survive the ages as it had done. Yet I knew that even some kinds of parrots live for centuries, and what could I know of this monstrous relic of dead ages? And when the city died and crumbled, and the victims were no longer brought to its lair in the temple, did it not live, as I thought, by ranging the desert? No wonder the Arabs had feared the country in this direction! It would be death for anything that came even within view of such a horror, that could clutch and spring and chase, and yet remain always unseen. And was it death for me?
The archaeologist manages, ironically, to hide in the shadows of the setting sun, even though the temple he is in is invisible. But he manages to alert the creature anyway, and it pursues him, leading him to make a desperate act to pin one of its legs underneath an invisible stone of the temple, as seen in the illustration that opens the story! (Apparently spoilers were not a big thing in the 1920s.) He then flees in a panic, and makes his way to the prospectors, where he tells his tale and expires.
How does Hamilton explain the invisibility? He writes:
“For I knew now that it was solid matter I had run into, not force. When I thrust out my hands, the edge of the circle was as far as they would go, for there they met a smooth wall, totally invisible, yet at the same time quite material. And the phenomenon was one which even I could partly understand. Somehow, in the dead past, the scientists of the city behind me, the ‘wise men’ mentioned in the inscription, had discovered the secret of making solid matter invisible, and had applied it to the work that I was now examining. Such a thing was far from impossible. Even our own scientists can make matter partly invisible, with the X-ray. Evidently these people had known the whole process, a secret that had been lost in the succeeding ages, like the secret of hard gold, and malleable glass, and others that we find mentioned in ancient writings. Yet I wondered how they had done this, so that, ages after those who had built the thing were wind-driven dust, it remained as invisible as ever.
We find the old “X-rays as invisibility maker” trope that has been used in many stories since the discovery of the X-ray in 1895; H.G. Wells used mysterious rays in his 1897 novel The Invisible Man. When X-rays were first discovered, people largely associated them with invisibility, which is what helped make Wells’ story so successful. Of course, X-rays do not make a being invisible, and they don’t for the most part change the structure of the thing they image — because they are high-energy particles, they pass through the human body with little interaction.
One thing that amuses me about this story is that the monster is actually much less of a threat than the archaeologist believes. When he first encounters it at his camp, he chases it away with a flame! When it attacks him on the stairs of the invisible temple, he manages to pin one of its legs to the floor with a heavy stone, causing it to bleed profusely and be trapped in place. Nevertheless, the archaeologist is so scared that he runs his camels to death in fleeing, and one of the falling camels crushes his water supply, leaving him to wander the desert without sustenance. The character’s fear is the greatest danger in the story, not the monster!
It is interesting to note that another invisibility story is featured in the same issue: a reprint of Guy de Maupassant’s classic 1887 story “The Horla,” though sadly Weird Tales did not see fit to create an illustration for this tale.
As I’ve noted before, “The Monster-God of Mamurth” is one of a surprising number of stories about invisible buildings, which includes H.P. Lovecraft’s “In the Walls of Eryx” as well as Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Invisible City.” The latter story was certainly inspired by Hamilton’s, and we’ll return to it in a future blog post.
What a terrific story! Thanks for the link. I will have to investigate the others you have been mentioning.
You’re welcome! They’re fascinating stories to read.