I found another invisibility story! This allows me to keep talking about invisibility for at least one more day, with a reminder that my book on the history and science of invisibility is now available.
This next invisibility story is a somewhat different creature than many of the previous ones we’ve discussed. Most of the tales I’ve considered have been science fiction, and dealt with the how and why of invisibility; “The Vanishing American,” by Charles Beaumont, is more of a parable. It appeared in the August 1955 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
I will discuss some spoilers below, so go track down the story first if you’re worried about them!
Charles Beaumont (1929-1967) is one of those science fiction and horror authors who left a huge impact on the field, though many people are not aware of his contributions. He contributed many episodes to The Twilight Zone, including “The Howling Man,” about a traveler who discovers that the devil has been imprisoned by monks in a monastery. He also wrote numerous short stories, and a number of noteworthy screenplays, including co-writing Vincent Price’s infamous Masque of the Red Death!
“The Vanishing American” is one of his memorable short stories, and follows a Mr. Minchell one day as he signs out of his accounting job. He calls the elevator to his floor to leave the office, and the girl operating the lift doesn’t even seem to notice him. When he exits the building, several coworkers seem to outright ignore him, much to his relief. It is only when he gets home, and his wife and son act as if he is not there that he glances at a mirror and realizes that he has, in fact, become completely invisible, even to himself!
In a bit of a panic, Minchell wanders the streets, sensing that his endless uninspiring life of routine has simply made him less and less visible, by degrees. All the things he should’ve done in his life come to mind, missed opportunities that he would now never be able to accomplish.
At last, he finds himself in front of the stone lion guarding the doors to the library. As a child, he named the lion King Richard, and vowed he would ride the magnificent beast, but never did. In an unexpected burst of boldness, he clambers up the lion’s pedestal and hops on the back of the stone creature. A childhood dream, realized at last.
Only then does he realize that people are laughing at him. Teenagers have gathered, and are pointing and chucking at the absurd 40-something man astride a feline steed. He has returned from the brink! Instead of feeling shame, he instead exhorts others to join him. The tale concludes, “Later, when he was good and ready, he got down off the lion.”
It is definitely a story of invisibility, as Minchell realizes that he is still tangible and can physically affect things around him — he simply has disappeared due to his insignificance. Finally taking control of his life and doing something that he wants to do brings him back from irrelevance. As I said earlier, “The Vanishing American” serves as a parable for modern life.
Curiously, when I was writing fiction in high school, I came up with a very, very similar story idea! The major difference between Beaumont’s story and mine is that my character saw everyone else disappear around him as he became less and less significant to the world. But at the end of the story, he too makes a dramatic last-ditch effort to come back, and succeeds. I don’t think I had read Beaumont’s story before writing my own, so this suggests to me that the metaphor of being invisible in one’s own life is a powerful and possibly very common one.
The story is short — only about 8 magazine pages — but packs an emotional punch. It shows how one can stretch the limits of what an invisibility story can be.