A man sits in a lavish room, shrinking back into his chair in fear. Before him floats an array of jewellery and other small objects, seemingly suspended in the air. A the top of this weird selection is a pair of spectacles, which look down upon the man as though being worn by a transparent figure.
It was the beginning of 1927, a year with no shortage of cutting-edge entertainment. At the cinema, Al Jolson would be signalling the end of the silent era in The Jazz Singer, an unhinged inventor would be unleashing a robotic woman in Metropolis, and Lon Chaney would be bearing vampire fangs in London After Midnight. In the newsstands, meanwhile, Hugo Gernsback was carrying his pioneering SF magazine Amazing Stories into its second year. Away from the sights of the big screen, the cover of the January 1927 issue instead teased its readers with the promise of invisible wonders…
In this month’s editorial, Gernsback returns once more to a favourite theme of his: that truth can be stranger than fiction. “We are living in stirring times”, he says. “To the individual with imagination it is easy to believe that we are really not living through the wonders we see, but rather, that we are living in a story book, and that the achievements about us are nothing but imaginations.”
After this comes a grab-bag of weird and wonderful claims, starting with the Swiss scientists Dr. Kolster and Dr. Deesalis and their alleged discovery that “a certain group of stars sends out extraordinary rays of light, whose radio-active force is far stronger than that of X-rays” (whoever Kolster and Deesalis were, their research appears to have been lost to history) and ending with the mystery of Kaspar Hauser. “I have given these examples of incredible facts”, concludes Gernsback, “simply to show that we should not be too ready to denounce the ideas that seem most impossible, for they have a trick of materializing even while we are talking about them.”
“The Red Dust” by Murray Leinster
In his earlier story “The Mad Planet”, Murray Leinster took us to a post-apocalyptic Earth covered with giant fungus and populated with colossal arthropods. Here, mankind has regressed to a pre-stone age state, lacking even wood with which to make tools. But one man, Burl, discovered that he can construct weapons and even clothes from the bodies of dead insects, and so became the mightiest hunter of his tribe.
Now, Amazing reprints the sequel, which was originally published in a 1921 issue of Argosy. Burl remains the tribe’s breadwinner, and the other men have yet to catch up: the story begins with Burl leading a band of hunters into battle against a giant spider, only for the others to desert, leaving him to slay the beast himself.
The tribe later realises that it is in danger from a species of giant red mushroom, which propels clouds of toxic spores over their home. Burl has no choice but to lead his people on a search for pastures new.
Along the way, the tribe tangles not only with giant insects and spiders, but also with oversized slugs and even colossal frogs. Burl learns the danger of overconfidence after a particularly close encounter, and almost loses his lover Saya, but still he succeeds in making his tribesmen “more like followers of a mighty chief and less like spineless worshipers of a demigod whose fears they were too timid to emulate.” Eventually, after sailing on mushroom-rafts through a swamp, they find a new home, complete with underground food store.
With convincing portrayals of Brobdingnagian fauna and imaginative adventures of Lilliputian hunter-gatherers, the Burl stories stand up fairly well. Alas, although Leinster wrote a third outing for the character in 1953, this cousin to Tarzan and Conan was ultimately forgotten.
“The Man Who Could Vanish” by A. Hyatt Verrill
One August noon, a twenty-storey building vanishes in full view of those in the vicinity, only to reappear shortly afterwards. The papers posit theories – a mind trick performed by a hypnotist or fakir, perhaps – but the truth of the matter is known only to two men. One of them is the story’s anonymous narrator, who sets out to put the record straight.
The story begins with the narrator meeting a friend of his, a physics professor named Dr. Lemuel Unsinn. The professor believes himself to have stumbled upon a potential method for making objects invisible. His friend is sceptical, but Unsinn stands firm: “Railways, steamships, the telegraph and telephone, radio, airplanes, — all have been laughed at and declared impossibilities until they became actualities.” He points out that audible soundwaves can be converted into inaudible radio waves, and back; he also argues that while heat is typically invisible, it achieves visibility when an object becomes red hot. The narrator continues to poke fun (“Why not begin with the ladies? Their clothes are pretty much nearly transparent now”) but the professor nonetheless wins his interest.
The protagonist returns from a trip to South America and finds that, while he was away, the professor had successfully built his invisibility device. The next time they meet, the narrator is confronted with the ghostly sight of Unsinn manipulating objects in the room while invisible. The process is not yet perfect, however, as it effects only organic matter; Unsinn’s next goal is to render inorganic objects invisible as well. And so, he embarks on the ultimate test: causing an entire office block to vanish.
“The Man Who Could Vanish” makes for an interesting contrast with its better-known counterpart The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells, which was published in 1897. Early in his experiments Professor Unsinn appears to show a megalomaniacal streak, rather like Wells’ Dr. Griffin, pointing out that an invisible man “will control the world… He could amass millions, billions if he wished. He could control the destinies of nations!” However, it turns out that Unsinn is more naive than domineering – he is swept up in the worldwide changes that his invention will bring about, and simply has not considered whether those changes will be positive or negative.
Also worth mentioning is how the story ties invisibility to a favourite topic of Gernsback’s publications: radio. As the professor explains, “our eyes, our nerves, our ears, and in all probability out noses as well, are much like radio receiving sets.”
The story achieves an atmosphere of oppression as the narrator grows increasingly disturbed by his friend’s single-mindedness, but this gives away to knockabout humour. The climax has the narrator and the unseen Unsinn out and about town, with the former passing himself off as a ventriloquist when he realises that their conversation has been overheard. Various hijinks ensue (“You can’t expect a delicate device to withstand two hundred and fifty pounds of feminine flesh and bone, can you?”) but the in medias res opening has already indicated that all will come out well in the end.
The editorial introduction to the story informs us that “Dr. Jules Stean, of Alsace-Lorraine, has produced partial invisibility by injecting certain liquids into animal tissue, which make the animal practically transparent when it is viewed in a certain light”. As with the two Swiss scientists mentioned by Gernsback at the start of the magazine, Dr. Stean and his alleged discovery appear to have become submerged in the fogs of time.
“The Man with the Strange Head” by Dr. Miles J. Breuer
A doctor receives a letter from one Josiah Anstruther offering payment in exchange for an undisclosed form of medical help. He sets off to meet Anstruther at the latter’s hotel room; along the way he meets another hotel guest, Jerry Stoner, who expresses annoyance at hearing Anstruther pacing about his room in a strangely mechanical fashion day after day.
The doctor receives no answer after knocking on Anstruther’s door, and learns that the man has actually paid to have his door fortified with steel as a security measure. Rigging up a periscope, the doctor peers inside the room and sees Anstruther pacing around in circles, his head dangling over his chest due to some sort of deformity.
The men continue to observe Anstruther, and notice that he has started to slow down, but other than this his movements continue to show a “machine-like exactitude”. Eventually he falls over sidewise, carries on moving for a period, and then falls still.
Realising that it is time for action, the hotel manager sends a window-cleaner to slip into Anstruther’s room through a ventilation shaft and open the door from inside. They find the man’s body, which they pass on to the undertaker.
During the post-mortem, the entire truth comes out. Josiah Anstruther, physically frail but wealthy from radium investments, struck a deal with a French inventor who had previously built a mechanical chess-player and animated show-window models. The inventor designed a mechanical exoskeleton – implicitly powered by radium – to serve as a new body for the emaciated Anstruther. With the superhuman strength provided by this frame, Anstruther was able to fend off an armed robber, but not before sustaining bullet wounds from the attacker – the eventual cause of his new body’s malfunction and his old body’s death.
The editorial introduction to “The Man with the Strange Head” hails the story as “one of the most fantastic bits of scientifiction we have ever read” and notes that the reader is “not permitted to know until at the very end what it is really all about”. In fact, much of the story will be predictable to a modern reader; but to the readership of Amazing Stories in 1927, robotics would have been a fresh topic largely untapped by fiction.
The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss (part 3 of 4)
The exploits of Cosmo Versál – a latter-day Noah navigating a flooded Earth – continue to unfold in episodic form, making the story well-suited to serialisation. First, the Ark is beset by an attempted mutiny; Cosmo shows a ruthless streak as he quashes this rebellion by having the leader walk the plank.
After this, Cosmo and his crew begin to encounter survivors outside the Ark. Some have managed to escape the flood simply by climbing to the tops of mountains: the Ark manages to rescue a number during a trip past the Pyrenees. The vessel also encounters the French submarine introduced in the previous instalment, which turns out to have rescued the British monarch Richard IV. The captain gives an eerie account of visiting the ruins of the submerged Paris, now populated only by drowned corpses and weird sea creatures.
The instalment ends with the Ark running aground atop a mountain. Cosmo had expected the sea level to begin dropping as the water drained through cracks in the Earth, but the process appears to have started earlier than he predicted. Meanwhile, the submarine explores a sunken Egypt, only for the Sphinx to fall to pieces on top of it. The crew escape the destruction of their vehicle and make it back to the Ark, but not before catching a bizarre sight: inside the ruined Sphinx is a statue predicting the flood, complete with a depiction of the watery nebula that caused it.
The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (part 2 of 3)
Victorian space travellers Bedford and Cavor continue their exploration of the Moon, only to find that they have lost sight of their capsule. They fear starving to death, and in desperation begin eating a lunar fungus; the mood of desperation then gives way to comedy, as the growth turns out to have an intoxicating effect on the two men.
After this they are taken captive by the Selenites, a race of insectoid bipeds, and taken to a system of caves (civilisation on the Moon’s surface had, of course, long been ruled out be telescopes, and so Wells places his lunar people underground). The men notice impressive machines in the caves and conclude that the beings are intelligent, despite the seemingly unintelligent hostility shown so far; demonstrating a rather classist train of thought, Cavor theorises that these Selenites “may be only the equivalent of cowboys and engine-tenders… the lack of imagination they show in expecting us to be able to do just what they can do, their indisputable brutality… seem to point to something of that sort” and that more civilised minds must reside further down below.
Bedford, the more practical of the two explorers, realises that he can make short work of these aliens: his movements are boosted by the low gravity, while the Selenites’ bodies are frail and easily smashed. He declares that, once they have returned to Earth, they can lead an armed expedition to plunder the Moon for its mineral wealth. Cavor, an idealist, is appalled by this suggestion and argues that they should keep their discovery a secret precisely to prevent a human invasion of the Moon.
The issue marks the debut of “Discussions”, Amazing’s regular letters column. First off is a letter from an “irate correspondent” going on at such length that the magazine ran only a summary of his argument, which was an attack on the scientific plausibility of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The magazine responds by pointing to the phenomenon of feral children, although this is not quite what H. G. Wells was writing about.
Next is a letter to Cosmo Versál, protagonist of The Second Deluge, from someone who apparently did not realise that Mr. Versál is a fictional character. “I am interested in your Ark and wish you would send me a set of plans for a small Ark which I would like to build to take care of my wife and small children”, requested the correspondent. This is followed by a letter hailing Jules Verne as “a very promising writer”, despite him having been dead for over twenty years; Amazing describes these two missals as being “safely ensconced in the domain of classic hilarity.”
Prof. Jack E. Edwards writes in with a critical overview of the magazine. He declares that Jules Verne “can no longer amaze us”, derides the more recent authors as being “very amateurish in the use of words”, and singles out the naval battle in the climax to G. McLeod Winsor’s Station X for implausibility. Ralph H. Campbell also objects to reprints of Verne, as well as Wells and Serviss, on the grounds that these authors are readily available from public libraries. “Remember that Jules Verne was a sort of Shakespeare in science fiction and we would feel derelict if we did not give his stories in our columns”, replies Hugo Gernsback.
One Harry V. Spurling joins in criticising the magazine’s reliance on Verne reprints, and also dismisses Edgar Allan Poe, Clement Fezandie’s Hackensaw stories, Jacque Morgan’s tales of Fosdick, and “The Moon Hoax”. His overall opinion is positive, however, and he compares Amazing favourably to “the western tales, and silly twaddle, as typified by the ‘sex’ magazines”.
G. Raymond Nelson forwards a clipping from an unspecified source that credits German chemist Heinrich Jakob Bechhold with “a method of plating gold on the surface of disease germs”; Nelson’s letter compares this account to the events of “Blasphemer’s Plateau” by Alexander Snyder.
One letter requests that Amazing move to a twice-monthly schedule, with issues alternating between complete novels and selections of short stories. Another reader, meanwhile, asks for the magazine to come out three times a month, before going on to question the plausibility of Wells’ “The Crystal Egg”. Amazing never became a bi-monthly or tri-monthly title, although the introduction of the sister title Amazing Stories Quarterly in 1928 did give a boost of sorts to its schedule.
A. Van Rooy becomes the first correspondent, but not the last, to criticise some of Amazing’s stories for being macabre – the targets this time being Macrae’s death in Station X and George Allan England’s “The Thing from—Outside”. “Entirely too morbid—horrible and extremely unpleasant, this story is one reason why I wouldn’t like to have my boy read the magazine” writes Rooy of the England story.
Finally, Meredith Gardner praises the magazine, particularly Station X, but criticises it for publishing the third book in Verne’s Baltimore Gun Club series before running either of the first two. “You gave The Purchase of the North Pole before the Moon Story. I am glad you are going to publish some of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, but please publish them in sequel order.”
All in all, a lively start to 1927.