October 17, 2016
The Art of the Novella challenge 53: The Invisible Man
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Invisible Man
Author: HG Wells
First published: 1897
Page count: 128
First line: The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking from Bramblehurst railway station and carrying a little portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.
From one grand old dead white male of English literature to another. Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells were exact contemporaries, born within a year of each other, and they very much lorded it over the Edwardian era. These were writers who had an influence over their contemporary culture the like of which we didn’t see again in the UK until, perhaps, the arrival of JK Rowling. Here’s George Orwell — as for Kipling, an excellent guide to these figures, who towered over his generation, and against whom he resolutely kicked:
Thinking people who were born about the turn of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation. How much influence any mere writer has, and especially a ‘popular’ writer whose work takes effect quickly, is questionable, but I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much. The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.
As with Kipling, I’ve read very little Wells since childhood, if even then, but like Kipling his influence has been magnified, and extended, thanks to the ease with which his work transfers to mass media entertainments. As a case in point, has there ever been a more scintillating and productive run of sci-fi movie pitches—for both big-budget and B-movie—than that produced by Wells in the final years of the nineteenth century: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898)?
I have no idea if I actually read any of those books, myself, in the sci-fi fiction sweet spot of pre-puberty to early teens. Looking at The Invisible Man now, I think probably not. Incidentally, I tried to interest my just-teenage sons in The War of the Worlds recently, but to no avail. They’ve seen the Spielberg/Cruise film, I think. I may have too, though I really have no memory of it, beyond the poster. That’s the problem with these classics. They offer themselves up too easily to adaptation, by which I mean they can easily be reduced to a functional premise and a few memorable scenes and tropes, allowing the rest of the running time to be filled with familiar film star faces, and symbolic obeisance to whatever bogeyman is currently coming out top in Hollywood focus groups. Reading The Invisible Man shows up just how much we’re missing.
The book has many similarities to The War of the Worlds, not least its wildly incongruous setting of the Home Counties—that quiet, rich, verdant part of the country that surrounds London—but it’s shorter and less ambitious. As it must be. Griffin, the titular scientist, who has succeeded in making himself invisible but, in the process, has made himself mad, is able to embark on a “reign of terror”—
“Port Burdock is no longer under the Queen, tell your Colonel of Police, and the rest of them; it is under me — the Terror! This is day one of year one of the new epoch, — the Epoch of the Invisible Man.”
— but the mayhem he creates can be local only.
What is remarkable about that run of four books is how distinctly they show the growth in ambition in Wells’s writing, with each book seeing him drive his sci-fi premise deeper into the ‘real world’ of the reader. In The Time Machine the main action of the novel takes place on Earth, but thousands and millions of years in the future; it is essentially fantasy. Doctor Moreau is contemporary, and its animal-human mutations come closest to achievable, credible science, but the creatures are confined to the island of the title; unlike King Kong, none of them make it back to civilisation.
It is in The Invisible Man that the extraordinary finally meets the ordinary, as the book’s anti-hero Griffin runs amok in a West Sussex village and its environs, robbing, terrorising, and murdering until he is brought to justice by a mob. His planned reign of terror, though, was always going to be the delusion of a paranoiac. It was never going to happen. It would take the Martians’ heat-rays and tripods in The War of the Worlds to give Wells the wider canvas he seemed to be stretching for, and raze London to the ground.
To the extent that its action centres around a single person, rather than the world at large, The Invisible Man is as much a Gothic tale as a sci-fi one. There are elements of body horror in the other stories, but none of them is so intently, intimately, and personally concerned with the unheimlichness of corporeality, and the way the body acts as the meeting place between the self and the world — a Checkpoint Charlie, as it were. It’s also worth noting that the first two of this quartet were first published entire, as books, while the latter two were serialised. This works brilliantly in The War of the Worlds, but shows up the shakiness of the structure of The Invisible Man.
Here’s the problem: the book’s conclusion, with a clearly deranged Griffin hell-bent on murder and destruction, like a Macbeth without an army or wife, is full of fear and terror, but these are decidedly absent, and not even implicit, in the opening, which tends to comedy.
Griffin arrives as the stranger at the Coach and Horses Inn in Iping, in that wonderful first sentence, and the first few chapters show the gradual revelation of his situation — to his hosts and neighbours, as well as to the reader. A strangely large, black gap of a mouth here; a dismayingly empty coat sleeve there. But this is done as much as slapstick as mystery, and much is made of the humble perplexity of the locals. Weirdly, Wells’s tendency to comedy encompasses a crispness of expression that reminded me at times of Raymond Chandler. Here is a villager being tripped up by the invisible Griffin:
He bawled ‘Stop thief!’ again, and set off gallantly. He had hardly gone ten strides before his shin was caught in some mysterious fashion, and he was no longer running, but flying with incredible velocity through the air. He saw the ground suddenly close to his head. The world seemed to splash into a million whirling specks of light, and ‘subsequent proceedings interested him no more’.
Things deepen in the middle section, when Griffin stumbles, by chance, into the home of Doctor Kemp, another scientist and former fellow student. Thinking himself safe, he tells Kemp the story of his scientific experiments, and his escapades since their successful conclusion. These are some of the best sections of the book, as Wells thinks through the practical difficulties of something—invisibility—that, you come to feel, has been summarily waved through as a magical power in myths and fairy tales down the centuries.
It’s there from the off, with Griffin experiencing unforeseen difficulty in going downstairs “because I could not see my feet”; and with the cold he picks up because—of course!—he is naked. (Now we see why invisibility cloaks have been such a standby in fantasy fiction: so much more convenient!) There is a wonderful moment when Griffin, realising that Kemp has betrayed him, and the house is about to be raided by police, frantically starts to take off the clothes that, feeling safe, he’s been wearing. It’s a far cry from the no-fuss transformations afforded most contemporary superheroes. As well as the cold, there are dogs, who can smell what they can’t see, and snow, and rain and mud.
Griffin, in his account to Kemp, is barely out and about in the London streets before a couple of “urchins” spot the incongruity.
I looked down and saw the youngsters had stopped and were gaping at the muddy footmarks I had left behind me up the newly whitened steps. The passing people elbowed and jostled them, but their confounded intelligence was arrested. “There’s a barefoot man gone up them steps, or I don’t know nothing,” said one. “And he ain’t never come down again. And his foot was a-bleeding.”
What is brilliant about this is that Griffin is stood right there, next to them. The great twist of the story is how Wells so quickly turns Griffin’s invisibility from an advantage to a disadvantage. He gets across the helplessness of Griffin standing there, unable to move, waiting to be discovered, like a child playing hide and seek. And the… what? the embarrassment that would follow detection. The awkwardness of explaining to someone that you’re invisible. It is superbly English.
But awkwardness soon turns to something darker. The chapter where a still-invisible Griffin inveigles himself into the shop, then the house, of a theatrical costumier, in the search for clothes to use as a disguise, is a masterpiece in suspense writing, and shows up just how much the various film adaptations of the book were on a hiding to nothing in their attempt to dramatise these scenes.
(The memory of the grimly misogynistic Verhoeven/Bacon Hollow Man lies heavy on someone of my age — although you have to ask yourself what Wells might not have written had the times been different. These books might be devoid of sex, but Wells was dedicated to it in his private life, and wrote candidly about his affairs in a postscript to his autobiography, which he insisted would only be published once he and the women involved were all dead. And also in passing, I can’t think about the nastiness of Hollow Man without remembering the wonderful treatment of broadly the same aspect of male voyeuristic tendencies in Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata. A book that, you think, Wells would surely have loved, for its insistence on the details if nothing else.)
But that scene in the costumier’s house is breathless, claustrophobic.
On the staircase he stopped suddenly, so that I very nearly blundered into him. He stood looking back right into my face and listening. “I could have sworn,” he said. His long hairy hand pulled at his lower lip. His eye went up and down the staircase. Then he grunted and went on up again.
His hand was on the handle of a door, and then he stopped again with the same puzzled anger on his face. He was becoming aware of the faint sounds of my movements about him. The man must have had diabolically acute hearing. He suddenly flashed into rage. “If there’s anyone in this house,” he cried with an oath, and left the threat unfinished. He put his hand in his pocket, failed to find what he wanted, and rushing past me went blundering noisily and pugnaciously downstairs.
You can almost forgive that repetition of “blundered/blundering,” what with those two spoken sentences both left unfinished, and that “diabolically,” so erroneously used of the shopkeeper by the genuinely diabolical Griffin.
Wells can be equally chilling at a distance, as, here, when Kemp watches from an upstairs window as an invisible Griffin marches the local police chief, Colonel Adye, up to his front door.
Adye’s decision seemed suddenly made. He turned towards the house, walking slowly with his hands behind him. Kemp watched him — puzzled. The revolver vanished, flashed again into sight, vanished again, and became evident on a closer scrutiny as a little dark object following Adye. Then things happened very quickly. Adye leaped backwards, swung round, clutched at this little object, missed it, threw up his hands and fell forward on his face, leaving a little puff of blue in the air. Kemp did not hear the sound of the shot. Adye writhed, raised himself on one arm, fell forward, and lay still.
The Invisible Man is just the right length for a novella, but the weakness of the structure does show. The introduction of Kemp, a third of the way through, is an obvious device to allow Griffin to recount his tale, and there are a few chapters in which nothing happens, and the story moves forward not at all. The descent of Griffin from obsessed scientist to murderous maniac is abrupt, and unexplained, and opaque, so far as moral might be concerned. Is it science that has driven him mad, or hubris, or mere invisibility? If the latter, then, frankly, so what?
The expanded canvas of The War of the Worlds shows up strongly next to this. It is a book that, emboldened by its terrific premise, takes bold risks with scope and structure, and carries them off. The Invisible Man is often thrilling, and deserves its perennial status, but in narrative terms, and like Griffin himself, trapped in the genteel wilds of the English Home Counties, it doesn’t really have anywhere to go.