Another invisibility story! This one’s more of a stretch, but it’s a fun one! Keeping up my reminders that my book on the history and science of invisibility is available now!
Our next science fiction story related to invisibility is “The Vanishers,” by Arthur J. Burks! It appeared in the May, 1950 issue of Super-Science Stories; the cover is shown below.
I’ve actually had this story in my collection for quite some time, but hadn’t written about it, because at first glance it didn’t seem to be an invisibility story! You’d think with a title like “The Vanishers” it might be, but… after reading the story, I’m still not sure who or what “The Vanishers” refers to! But it nevertheless includes an invisible object as a key part of the story, so let’s take a look! I will of course include a bunch of spoilers, so track down the story first to read if you don’t wanna get spoiled.
The story is set in 1949, and follows Major Rafe King and a platoon of US Marines performing a practice amphibious assault near Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At first, everything seems to be going smoothly, and the gates are lowered on their landing craft and they storm ashore, and then…
As a matter of habit every marine did his job. Without command, they sprayed out to right and left, getting unbunched as quickly as possible, just in case a theoretical enemy projectile should land among them.
But their deployment slowed and came to a halt. I think they, like myself, must instantly have missed the racketing of the jets. I looked up. The sky, a pale blue, with slowly moving clouds in which I was aware of greenish tints, was utterly empty of the four jets which were supposed to support our maneuver.
I whirled and looked back. Where the Caribbean had been there was a huge sprawl of desert, blinding in the midday sun, stretching away southward to a semicircle of brooding hills. I judged their crests to be at least four thousand feet high. And where those crests were, five minutes before, the Caribbean had been—fully a mile deep under the stern of the Odyssey! Where the Odyssey might now be I hadn’t the slightest idea.
Just before we hit the beach there had been thickets of broad-leaved squatty trees behind the ridges of sand, into which the marines had been headed for concealment. Now there was nothing of the kind. There was nothing but sand and silence—silence so deep that even breathing broke it into brittle bits.
The Marines find themselves in an unknown desert, apparently whisked away instantaneously from their original destination. Soon they fan out to explore a bit of their immediate surroundings, and then…
I traveled about four points north of the northeast group. I am a fast walker; even through sand I can travel faster than most men. I was slightly ahead of all the other groups when suddenly I could go no further. I could feel nothing, yet when I put out my foot to set it down in a new place, it struck an invisible something, dropped back, and my impetus carried me forward to involve my face in something much finer than cobwebs.
I jumped back, swearing, for I could see nothing except the hot waste of glistening sand. There were dunes, hummocks with strange grasses and brush sticking up through them like beards; but I had struck the limit of my trek and could not reach any of those visible spots beyond.
I pushed against it with my hands. It gave, but only as a taut wire net might give, then press back against the hands; it was a strain to make the thing bulge. The counterpressure was strong. I could not advance. I turned to the right and saw that the nearest patrol had stopped. The two men were fumbling in the air like blind men. They were raising and lowering their feet as if they felt for steps above an abyss. They, too, had come to the end of possible advance. They had come into contact with invisibility also—invisibility that was inflexibly tough beyond a certain brief limit.
The two men turned now and looked at me. I gave the halt signal and started toward them. I ran into something and caromed off, falling to my knees. The horrible thought struck me that each group might have stumbled inside some hideous globe and become separated from all other groups. But it wasn’t so. I got to my feet, put my left hand out against the invisible wall—which felt warm to the touch, as if it were a living thing—and started toward the northeast group.
They have hit an invisible barrier, one that turns out to be impervious to their weapons and any attempts to breach it! Further experimentation demonstrates that they are, in fact, under an invisible indestructible dome. No, not this one:
So the invisibility in this story is another invisible structure, like the invisible maze in Lovecraft’s In the Walls of Eryx or the invisible temple in Hamilton’s Monster God of Mamurth! The situation seems dire, but the men curiously realize that they do not appear to be getting hungry or thirsty, even after hours have passed. Apparently the dome is somehow sustaining them.
Day passes into night, and with darkness comes a real threat. Along the boundary of the dome suddenly appear a ring of Shadow Men, apparently tangible but with unrecognizable features due to the shadowy nature of their bodies. The Shadow Men slowly begin to advance towards the center of the dome where the Marines and the beached landing craft are resting. Shadow Men pull out of the circle and fall back in formation as the ring closes around the Marines. The military men begin firing their weapons, but they are as ineffective against the Shadow Men as they were against the dome!
Then, finally, one Marine leaps forward to tackle a Shadow Man, and we get the best image of the entire story (borrowed the full image from the Project Gutenberg link above):
A human body part that passes through a Shadow Man gets stripped to the bone! This leads the Marines to make a desperate dash between the advancing shadows, which fortunately only causes the loss of a few more limbs, and no additional lives. The Shadow Men converge on the landing craft, and… disappear!
Other strange things happen. A group of Japanese soldiers from World War II (insultingly called “Japs” in the story) appear next at the boundary, and are as perplexed as the Americans. They were hiding out on Guam, unaware that the war had ended. They establish a friendly rapport with the Marines, and all wait for something else to happen. One of the Japanese soldiers, who is an avid stargazer, realizes that they are in an African desert.
Finally, as if all of this is not strange enough, a nuclear bomb gets dropped on them! Well, on the dome — they see the approaching and falling missile, and are astonished to find that they and the dome are unhurt from the blast, which turns the sand all around the dome into glass.
Finally, the Japanese soldiers disappear as mysteriously as they came, and the dome begins to contract upon the Americans that remain. Everyone piles back into the landing craft to wait for the end, and… they find themselves back on the waters off Cuba!
The ending of the story is presented as a collection of official reports from military officials, giving more context. It turns out that the invisible dome is an American invention, a new type of atomic bomb shelter, and the Marines were test subjects in the dome, which can pull people from any location and be erected instantly. It is also designed to provide sustenance to those inside it in the event of nuclear war. The Japanese soldiers were picked up as part of that test (and later rescued from Guam, officially).
The one unsolved mystery? The Shadow Men were not part of the test, and nobody knows where they came from! All governments in the world deny sending them, so either someone is lying, or… the Shadow Men have come from elsewhere. The story ends by noting that for every new military technology, someone comes up with a counter. The dome was a counter to nuclear weapons, and the Shadow Men are apparently a counter to it, tested at the same time. But who sent them is a mystery unsolved.
So, who are “The Vanishers” in this story? The Marines, who vanished from Cuba? The Shadow Men, who vanish after converging on the center of the dome? The Japanese? The unseen creators of the Shadow Men? I rather enjoy the fact that the title is completely ambiguous.
“The Vanishers” is a very strange story, as it has no real character development, and might really be described as “a bunch of stuff that happened,” but it has a peculiar charm to it — and a great image of the deadly Shadow Men turning Marines into skeletons.