Perseus Had a Helmet, by Richard Sale

Fate has led me to another invisibility story while looking for something completely different! This gives me one more opportunity to remind people that my book on invisibility is available while I blog about this story.

One of the very oldest stories about invisibility in the history of humanity is the story of Perseus from ancient Greek folklore. Perseus, the son of Zeus, is given gifts by the gods to accomplish his quest. One of these is the Cap of Hades, that confers invisibility on the wearer; Perseus uses it to sneak up on Medusa and her immortal sisters and escape safely with her head. This story has been told in many versions, though one of the most detailed was written in the first or second century CE in the Bibliotheca of an author known as pseudo-Apollodorus. (For years, scholars thought that Apollodorus wrote the Bibliotheca, but now believe this not to be true, so the unknown author is simply known as pseudo-Apollodorus.)

With this in mind, you’d think that I would’ve found a significant number of modern stories inspired by Perseus, but so far I’ve only found one: “Perseus Had a Helmet,” by Richard Sale, which appeared in the very first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy, Fall 1949. (I’ll give a few spoilers again, so please read the story first if you’re concerned.)

You may have heard of Richard Sale, and not for pulp fiction — he is best known as a Hollywood screenwriter and director. He directed and co-wrote, for example, the 1955 romantic comedy Gentleman Marry Brunettes, with Jane Russell.

“Perseus Had a Helmet” is a curious story; it is a narrative told by Captain McGrail, recounting a curious criminal case he oversaw and which Sale has dutifully recounted. This was a regular device of Sale’s, much like William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Hunter stories. In each McGrail story, there is some strange possibly supernatural twist. In Sale’s 1938 story “Death Had a Pencil,” an “X” on a photo done by an ancient writing implement seemingly condemns the person to death, preceding Death Note by decades!

In “Perseus Had a Helmet,” McGrail shares the story of a mild little man named Perseus Smith, an insurance salesman with the hots for a woman named Ruby Miller. Ruby, in turn, is leading along a brute named Bill Jordan, and she sees flirting with Perseus as an opportunity to make Bill jealous. So when Perseus asks her to a costume ball, Ruby says yes.

Perseus doesn’t have a great idea for a costume, so Ruby suggests going as his ancient Greek namesake. Perseus scrounges together a costume, including a helmet, and is all ready to get dressed for the ball when Bill shows up and beats him to a pulp.

With both his body and his ego bruised, Perseus opts to go to the ball anyway. However, it dawns on him after some confusing encounters that wearing the costume helmet of Perseus actually makes him invisible! Almost immediately, Perseus’ plans change from attending the ball to… murder. He goes home, has a doctor visit to confirm his injuries. His landlady volunteers that she will keep a close eye on him, and that he couldn’t possibly leave without her seeing, giving him a perfect alibi. He sends a classic anonymous newspaper clipping note to Bill, letting him know that he will die promptly at eight o’clock. Perseus steals some jewelry from a jewelry store and some money from the bank to make Ruby happy in the future, steals a gun from the window of a pawn shop, and heads to kill Bill.

It almost works! He shoots Bill dead promptly at eight, but as he moves to escape out the window and the fire escape, he knocks the helmet off of his own head. He is immediately visible, and the police on watch, due to his threat, immediately apprehend him.

The helmet is never found. Perseus could have gotten the death penalty for premeditated murder, but his story is so outlandish he ends up in an asylum instead. The reader is thus left with the mystery — did Perseus really find a magical invisibility helmet, or did he just make up an insane story in the end to save himself?

Obviously, this is not a story that explains how the invisibility is accomplished. It is closer to the magic of ancient Greece than the science of Wells’ The Invisible Man. But it is a curious tale which leaves the reader puzzled!

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