The month of scary-book reviews continues! I’ve made it part of the tradition to always include at least one piece of classic horror literature in my October review schedule: Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. Last year I reviewed The War of the Worlds, so it wasn’t a big leap to review the 1897 story by H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man.
The story starts with a surprising amount of humor as a mysterious bandaged man rents a room in the town of Iping, proceeds to set up his laboratory, and demands that everyone leave him alone. The townsfolk spend a lot of time investigating their new tenant (and by “investigating” I mean “glaring at him, gossiping, trying to find excuses to get inside his room, and occasionally pretending they know more about the whole situation than their neighbors do.”), and Griffin’s nasty temper and his habit of promising money he doesn’t have just makes everyone bother him more. He isn’t as careful with his secret as you’d think either, so it’s only a matter of time before people put together the impossible things they’ve seen and figure out something very strange is going on.
But for a second it seemed to her that the man she looked at had an enormous mouth wide open, – a vast and incredible mouth that swallowed the whole of the lower portion of his face.
The good simple people of Iping have to deal with more and more incidents, going all the way up to burglary and chairs jumping up and throwing themselves at people. (“Mr. Hall’s compliments and the furniture upstairs was behaving most extraordinary. Would Mr. Wadgers come round?”) until Griffin completely loses all patience, strips off his clothes in front of everyone, and disappears.
And this is where the “scary” part of the book kicks in, because now the countryside has to deal with a very angry man who has no problem with robbing homes and beating people senseless, and they’re not even safe they lock the doors because they have no way of knowing if he’s already inside the house.
Wells paints a beautiful picture of the whole surreal situation, with ridiculous moments like a hapless tramp marching through a village that can’t see the invisible hand clamped on his shoulder, and then much more frightening moments like someone being alone late at night and finding spots of blood appearing on the doorknob of their room. And while a coldly intelligent Griffin can do a lot of damage, an Invisible Man who’s gone crazy makes for some cinematic imagery, such as a couple of workmen outside in a field at sunset hearing the sound of wailing and laughing coming from absolutely nowhere.
It’s no wonder that Griffin slowly loses what’s left of his sanity, since Wells spends a large portion of the book going over all the reasons why being invisible is a terrible idea. Having to be naked in all weather, being at the mercy of ice and gravel roads, risking being seen if you get hit with snow, or rain, or even a layer of grime from the air quality in the late 1800’s. Anybody with fairly good hearing can tell someone is nearby, dogs will instinctively attack the person they can smell but not see. For crying out loud, Griffin has to run in terror at one point from children who start chasing after his muddy footprints. And with all of those drawbacks, being invisible doesn’t even help that much with stealing things, since you can only carry something away if no one’s watching, which sort of defeats the purpose of being invisible in the first place. You could almost laugh at Griffin if he hadn’t suddenly decided, “I know what invisibility is good for! Murder!”
Knowing absolutely nothing about the book or the character of Dr. Griffin (other than his appearances in other works), I went into this expecting the story was going to be told from Griffin’s point of view. I thought maybe he’d start with a long soliloquy about how desperately lonely he is now that he’s cut off from humanity, and then being invisible would drive him insane, turning him from a scientist into a monster.
I was pretty much wrong about all of that. Griffin makes it clear when he tells his story that he was already well on his way to being insane before discovered the process to make himself invisible. He’s an awful, awful person, a woefully average human with an above-average intelligence and a complete and total lack of empathy. After reading so many stories where the villain has a tragic backstory, I’m intrigued that the villain Wells has created here is a monster simply because he’s honestly baffled when people expect him to be anything else.