More than once in recent months I’ve had to chide some person of ostensibly good literary credentials for never having read Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – for ‘knowing’ the work, in other words, only through its umpteen film/TV adaptations, not one of which bears anything but a superficial resemblance to the imperishable source text. Good for me, you might say, and yet when I think of all the books I haven’t yet got round to I do turn silent awhile… H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man isn’t a work I ever placed in the upper echelons of my list of the Great Unread, still I’m rather surprised by myself in admitting that I only tackled it late last year. Here, too, is a work rather obscured by the cinema screen, but probably more faithfully served by same. Moreover, first published in 1897, Wells’ novel is of the same vintage as Stoker’s Dracula, and very nearly as iconic.
There are two aspects of the tale that chime with some of my deepest delights in the gothic. The first is the slow build of the narrative, the gathering of mystery around the Invisible Man and his ‘presence’ in an English village, until such time as this villain – Griffin, a young scientist – seeks the company of his old university associate Dr Kemp and confesses the tale of his depravity. The second is that Griffin’s account of his dastardly experiments finds him placed at great disadvantage on account of his own villainy – he’s a malefactor on his uppers – and we get a very physical impression of how hard it would be to live as an invisible sort of a fellow. (Stevenson’s Jekyll is, of course, similarly superb on the subject on all the practical difficulties his double life as Hyde forces upon him. And – though he is an essentially sympathetic figure- the creature in Frankenstein grips us all the more on account of how plaintively he describes his shunned and isolated life in the wild.)
Finally, one more attribute of The Invisible Man that is purely pleasurable – this, an extract from the ‘strange missive, written in pencil on a greasy sheet of paper’ that Griffin sends to Dr Kemp after he has realised that the doctor means to thwart his evil intentions:
“You have been amazingly energetic and clever,” this letter ran, “though what you stand to gain by it I cannot imagine. You are against me. For a whole day you have chased me; you have tried to rob me of a night’s rest. But I have had food in spite of you, I have slept in spite of you, and the game is only beginning. The game is only beginning. There is nothing for it, but to start the Terror. This announces the first day of the 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. I am Invisible Man the First…”
Of course, in James Whale’s celebrated 1933 film of Wells the great Claude Rains did an absolutely first-rate job of evoking that hooting, vainglorious lunacy.