Basil Davenport’s “Invisible Men.” (Part Four.)
Sturgeon and O’Brien.
By Jeff Baker
A Topical Note: While I highly recommend this anthology, I would ask that you forgo buying it on Amazon, as their employees are currently (as of March 31, 2020) on strike, protesting health risks in the current pandemic their employers refuse to address.
To conclude this set of reviews of the stories in Basil Davenport’s fine anthology “Invisible Men,” from 1960 we close with two tales of horror; my first encounter with two American masters of the genre, way back in the late 70s when I bought the book in a used store in Albuquerque.
“What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien deals with an old house, young bold adventurers, a rumor of ghosts and the deadly presence of a thing that is never explained. The feeling in the story moves from one of mounting terror to one of pity for the creature. The horror is perfectly conveyed for O’Brien was (as I have said) a master of the tale of fear. The story was first published in 1859 and has not aged a day, as befits a classic. It has been reprinted every decade of the 20th Century and into the 21st. O’Brien, however, did not live to enjoy his literary successes for long; he enlisted in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War and was killed in 1862, not by bullets or battle but by disease. His stories have been collected and remain in print. Early science fiction as well as masterful tales of dread, marking O’Brien as worthy of comparisons to the other great American master Edgar Allan Poe.
“Shottle Bop” by Theodore Sturgeon, blends a bunch of clichés into one story: Invisibility, an unseen world, ghosts, the mysterious little shop and a magic potion. In this case, the potion is sold to our narrator by the proprietor of The Shottle Bop (“We Sell Bottles With Things In Them” reads the shop sign.) The shop and its owner are a blend of the humorous and the sinister. (I imagined the owner being played by Billy Barty, right down to the Peter Lorre voice.)
The potion gives the narrator the ability to see the ghosts that inhabit our world, while the dead cannot see him. The descriptions of the ghostly are evocative and wondrous, proving Theodore Sturgeon as a writer who earned comparisons to Bradbury for his themes and his prose. The story speeds along with encounters with ghosts both funny and tragic until he ignores a warning…
Sturgeon’s skill as a fantasist needs little recapping here. Suffice to say his work, including “Shottle Bop” is readily available, including in a multi-volume Complete Stories. Paperback editions of his story collections are easier to find and all are worth it.
It has been over forty years since the summer when I spent a couple of evenings reading “Invisible Men,” and I am now a published writer of fantasy and horror, sowing the seeds planted all those years ago by these imaginative tales.
—-jeff baker, March 31, 2020
ADDENDA: Interested readers might want to seek out Davenport’s companion anthology to this: “Deals With The Devil,” featuring stories by Henry Kuttner, John Collier, DeCamp and Pratt, and of course Stephen Vincent Benet.