The Invisible City, by Clark Ashton Smith

How many more invisibility stories in science fiction and horror can I find? I’m not even close to being done! In the meantime, remember that my book on the history and science of invisibility is now available!

Just as there are a surprising number of stories about invisibility, there are a surprising number of stories featuring invisible buildings! We’ve already talked about Lovecraft and Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939) and Hamilton’s “The Monster-God of Mamurth” (1926), but we can also add to this list Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Invisible City,” which appeared in the June 1932 issue of Wonder Stories!

Smith’s story was even featured on the cover and, as the title suggests, features an entire invisible city!

As always, some major spoilers follow, so if you like you can read the story first at this link.

Clark Ashton Smith was a contemporary and friend of H.P. Lovecraft, and is also considered one of the great authors of weird fiction of the era. His work includes a mixture of contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and haunting poetry. Some of his classic tales — and my personal favorites — include “The Double Shadow,” about a sorcerer who summons an inevitable doom upon himself, and “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan,” about a cruel money-lender who pursues wealth just a bit too far and meets a horrible fate.

Smith’s portrait in the issue of Wonder Stories.

“The Invisible City” is one of Smith’s contemporary stories, and begins with two archaeologists lost in the deserts of Turkestan and dying of thirst. Abandoned by their guides days before, the two wander aimlessly until they reach a valley with a curious and very large rectangular depression in its center. The two men go to investigate the depression, and find something completely unexpected:

The coolness became even more noticeable when they reached the very verge of the precipice. Here, peering over, they saw that the sides fell unbroken at all ponts for a depth of twenty feet or more. In the smooth bottom, the cellar-like pits yawned darkly and unfathomably. The floor about the pits was free of sand, pebbles or detritus.

“Heavens, what do you make of that?” muttered Furnham to himself rather than to Langley. He stooped over the edge, staring down with feverish and inconclusive speculations. The riddle was beyond his experience — he had met nothing like it in all his researches. His puzzlement, however, was partly submerged in the more pressing problem of how he and Langley were to descend the sheer walls. Thirst — and the hope of finding water in one of the pits — were more important at that moment than the origin and nature of the square basin.

Suddenly, in his stooping position, a kind of giddiness seized him, and the earth seemed to pitch deliriously beneath his feet. He staggered, he lost his balance, and fell forward from the verge.

Half-fainting, he closed his eyes against the hurtling descent and the crash twenty feet below. Instantly, it seemed, he struck bottom, Amazed and incomprehending, he found that he was lying at full length, prone on his stomach in mid-air, upborne by a hard, flat, invisible substance. His outflung hands encountered an obstruction, cool as ice and smooth as marble; and the chill of it smote through his clothing as he lay gazing down into the gulf. Wrenched from his grasp by the fall, his rifle hung beside him.

The depression is the lower floors and foundation of a completely invisible city! Their curiosity leaves their desperate predicament forgotten, and the men stumble about until they find an entrance to the complex, where they begin to explore…

If you have read Hamilton’s “Monster-God of Marmuth,” the story up to this point will sound familiar. In that tale, it is also an archaeologist exploring the desert who comes across an invisible temple complex, and the monstrous god within. Smith was clearly inspired by Hamilton’s earlier story, and who can blame him? It is a fantastic concept.

The stories diverge at this point, however. Hamilton’s hero encounters a city that has been long deserted except for its immortal god; Smith’s adventurers find that their invisible city is still very much occupied by an alien race:

“We have dwelt here for many ages, The Lob-nor desert was a fertile realm when we first established our city. We came to your world as fugitives from a great planet that once formed part of the solar system — a planet composed entirely of ultra-violet substances, which was destroyed in a terrible cataclysm. Knowing the imminence of the catastrophe, some of us were able to build a huge space-flier, in which we fled to the Earth. From the materials of the flier, and other materials we had brought along for the express purpose, we built our city, whose name, as well as it can be conveyed in human phonetics, is Ciis.

“The things of your world have always been plainly visible to us; and, in fact, due to our immense scale of perceptions, we probably see much that is not manifest to you. Also, we have no need of artificial light at any time. We discovered, however, at an early date, that we ourselves and our buildings were invisible to men. Strangely enough, our bodies undergo in death a degeneration of substance which brings them within the infra-violet range; and thus within the scope of your visual cognition.”

Here we find an explanation of invisibility of the style imagined by Ambrose Bierce in his classic 1893 story “The Damned Thing.” Ambrose Bierce appears to be the first author to imagine a creature that is entirely of a color outside the visible spectrum, and Smith also uses that conceit, imagining an entire planet made of materials that are only visible in the ultraviolet.

(Incidentally, this is not possible, to the best of our knowledge! The “colors” of matter arise from the energy levels of electrons orbiting their nuclei, and it just so happens that basically all elements have some significant interaction with visible light. Indeed, the reason we see in the visible light spectrum is almost certainly, from an evolutionary sense, because that spectrum is what interacts with matter the most.)

As the quote above indicates, the aliens are actually quite friendly, except that they refuse to let the explorers leave, for fear of them telling others about their secret home. They even begin injecting the humans with a substance that will allow them to see the invisible creatures and their city — and that ends up being their downfall.

Faced with life among the aliens, the explorers learn of and manage to seize a gem called the Doir, which serves as a source of life for the aliens. This is dramatized on the story’s opening page:

The archaeologists basically hold the gem hostage to escape the city. They leave it for the aliens, but the aliens in turn send monsters to kill the men. So, in response, the men shoot the Doir with a rifle, causing the entire city and its inhabitants to break up and launch into space! (As depicted on the magazine cover.) The same gravitational anomaly floats the two men miles away, dropping them near a river and salvation.

This is one of those curious stories where I am not sure if the author wanted us to be sympathetic to the aliens or not! Their reaction to the human intruders and their decision to keep them as prisoners seems not unreasonable, and the story makes it clear that the men are to be treated well and assimilated into their society. In response, the humans destroy their entire civilization. Was Smith simply telling an adventure story, or was this also a commentary on humanity? I can imagine it both ways.

Overall, “The Invisible City” is a fun tale. Not one of Clark Ashton Smith’s best, in my opinion, but really enjoyable to read.

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