The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.
Quite some time ago I remember hearing about H. G. Well's The Invisible Man (1897) and being reminded of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) only because of its title. I wondered then if it was along the same sort of lines as Ellison, but this of course was before I had read any of H. G. Wells' novels. Now, with The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The War of the Worlds (1898) under my belt it's absolutely obvious and was even before I read it: the invisible man is actually invisible.
The novel begins,
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 black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand. He was wrapped up from head to foot, and the brim of his soft felt hat hid every inch of his face but the shiny tip of his nose; the snow had piled itself against his shoulders and chest, and added a white crest to the burden he carried. He staggered into the "Coach and Horses" more dead than alive, and flung his portmanteau down. "A fire," he cried, "in the name of human charity! A room and a fire!" He stamped and shook the snow from off himself in the bar, and followed Mrs. Hall into her guest parlour to strike his bargain. And with that much introduction, that and a couple of sovereigns flung upon the table, he took up his quarters in the inn.
The stranger of this almost Gothic opening is the invisible man, whose true identity is revealed later in the novella. The setting is a small village in West Sussex - Iping - and in any small village, the sudden appearance of a stranger is cause for curiosity and gossip, but this stranger, so covered up, reclusive, irritable, and short tempered, is a source of great speculation. The whole village is talking, full of suspicion. The secret is revealed very quickly -
"You don't understand," he said, "who I am or what I am. I'll show you. By Heaven! I'll show you." Then he put his open palm over his face and withdrew it. The centre of his face became a black cavity. "Here," he said. He stepped forward and handed Mrs. Hall something which she, staring at his metamorphosed face, accepted automatically. Then, when she saw what it was, she screamed loudly, dropped it, and staggered back. The nose - it was the stranger's nose! pink and shining - rolled on the floor.
Then he removed his spectacles, and everyone in the bar gasped. He took off his hat, and with a violent gesture tore at his whiskers and bandages. For a moment they resisted him. A flash of horrible anticipation passed through the bar. "Oh, my Gard!" said some one. Then off they came.
It was worse than anything. Mrs. Hall, standing open-mouthed and horror-struck, shrieked at what she saw, and made for the door of the house. Everyone began to move. They were prepared for scars, disfigurements, tangible horrors, but nothing! The bandages and false hair flew across the passage into the bar, making a hobbledehoy jump to avoid them. Everyone tumbled on everyone else down the steps. For the man who stood there shouting some incoherent explanation, was a solid gesticulating figure up to the coat-collar of him, and then - nothingness, no visible thing at all!
The invisible man, Griffin, is the 19th Century's worst fear: a mad scientist. He has managed a way to make himself completely invisible, which only contributes to his sense of isolation, which is contrasted a multitude of times in the novel. Each character is part of a web; there are marriages, friends, family, community, and professional relationships and our man Griffin is on the outside of each and every one of them. His need for power is heightened and intensified with his lack of ties to any one or any thing, and ultimately he wreaks havoc.
I'm really beginning to love H. G. Wells. Not a single one of the plots appeal to me, yet when I come to read them I'm drawn in. They're full of drama and excitement, like my new favourite genre - the Victorian sensational novels. Over a hundred years on they're all the more interesting because there is still a fear of science and an uncomfortable sense that sometimes scientists do things because it can be done, not because it is right to do so (I'm not saying that is necessarily the case, but it is not a rare suspicion). And Wells rather exploits this fear and turns it into a tense horror to unsettle the minds of his readers. All the same, a most enjoyable read! And a popular one, too - there have been a great many adaptations on film, television, and the stage. I've not yet seen any, but I would like to see the 1933 adaptation starring Claude Rains: