Basil Davenport’s Invisible Men; a review by Jeff Baker
Part One: London, Collier, Pratt, Wells and de Camp
I stumbled across Basil Davenport’s 1960 paperback anthology “Invisible Men” around 1975, at a used bookstore in Albuquerque, NM. I’ve liked stories and comic books involving invisibility since I first saw “My Favorite Martian” and later read H.G. Wells’ novel “The Invisible Man,” and so I picked this one off the shelf and when I found it had a story by H.G. Wells in it, I bought it. Nearly a dozen stories on variant themes of invisibility, marketed for young adults with a preface for students and teachers which did not talk down and was spoiler-free (a term that did not exist in that era of bell bottoms and Bicentennials.) The gist of it all was the book introduced me to authors and themes which would affect the course of my writing career, so the least I can do is review the stories here. Not in order, but I will start with the first story in the book:
“The Weissenbroch Spectacles” by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. I am not sure if I had read the paperback of “The Compleat Enchanter” yet, but I’m sure this was my first encounter with de Camp and Pratt’s humorous fantasy series set in Gavagan’s Bar, collected as “Tales From Gavagan’s Bar” which I found when I had just started college around ’78. The story is whimsical, uses invisibility in a different way than I’d expected and also manages to reference Benjamin Franklin. At the time I didn’t dream I’d want to write funny fantasy of this type and actually would years later.
“The New Accelerator” by H.G. Wells. I don’t think I’d read this in the Wells collection in the South High School Library in Wichita, but Wells was one of a few prose writers whose work I actually looked for back then. I would read through an anthology (usually of ghost stories) and not pay any attention to the author’s names. These days, I look for the author’s names first. This story tells of a scientist and his drug which speeds someone up temporarily. The invisibility is the result of super speed; a concept I was familiar with from comic books. (I read far more comic books than short stories back then!) Wells’ story features descriptions of the area the accelerated narrator and scientist travel through and others moving in seeming slow motion. Loads of fun.
Almost a companion piece to the Wells story; “The Shadow and the Flash” by Jack London presents two scientists, life-long rivals who have each devised a method of invisibility. I love London’s stories, even though there is a scene where he posits that a Black man would be nearly invisible in a nearly dark room which might not go over as well today.
Wells and London probably fired up my latent interest in the magazine writers of short popular fiction of the pre-pulp era.
John Collier is a legend of short story writing and “The Invisible Dove Dancer of Strathpheen Island” is a reason why. A fantasy with a downbeat ending and the work of a master at the top of his craft.
I’ll write more about these stories in a future post. And the anthology is readily available online. Seek it out.