The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

* * * * *

HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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28 thoughts on “The Invisible Man by HG Wells

  1. This does sound like a cracking read, as I said before, it’s one I keep meaning to get around to. Dammit – your reviews always leave my TBR bursting at the seams! Isn’t it about time for some of your famed one-star reviews? 😉

    • Haha – I fear the 1-stars always seem to be either contemporary crime or American classics, and I’ve kinda given up on them… 😉 The great thing about these Wells stories is that they’re short – novellas really. You could fit them all in easily…

      • I’m going to squeeze them in 🙂
        I think I might have to write a very bad crime fiction novel under an assumed name to inspire a one star review… (or maybe just write another Poirot parody for the blog… I’ve got a real urge to do a bit of GAD…)

        • Hurrah! 😀

          Woohoo – that would be fun! Though I still think you should create your own GA-style duo so you could publish them without any hassle… just make sure the sidekick could still be played by our lovely friend Hugh… 😉

          • Funny you should say that… I am working on my own version of our favourite sleuths 😉 The Poirots are good practice for when I am ready to unleash them on the world 🙂 You can take credit for these, actually, as it was you that first suggested I create my own Poirot & Hastings 😀

  2. I’ve seen the film a few times but never read the book. I’ll look out for the OWC edition, as you say, they’re really informative. I feel like he’s gone out of fashion a bit but you show how relevant Wells still is – you’re a great advocate for him!

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film, but I’d like to now just to see the special effects. Haha – I feel as if I’ve become a kind of sales rep for the OWC, but I’ve really been loving reading them recently – they even make me sound quite knowledgeable in my reviews… 😉

  3. It’s nice to see the five covers together. They are quite lovely.
    I had a feeling you’d like this one. Yes, it gives me a Jekyll and Hyde vibe too.

    • They’re great, aren’t they? I love having a matching set too – a thing I rarely ever seem to achieve! I hadn’t read this one before, so it was a real treat to end on, and even though it had that same kind of vibe, it still felt original…

  4. I’m really glad you enjoyed this as much as you did, FIctionFan. It’s easy to forget, especially i our modern age, what a talented and innovative storyteller Wells was. He had such a great imagination, and although we see science quite differently know, it’s interesting to go back and look at the way he saw it. Interesting juxtaposition in this story, too, of science and crime fiction…

  5. Great review – so much so that I think a reread is in order. I haven’ read this pone for- ahem! – quite a few years, so it will be interesting to see if time changes perspective of a book I didn’t much like.

    • I didn’t think it was as deep as his others, and that change of tone halfway through was a bit jarring, but I still enjoyed it a lot – hope you do too! My tastes have definitely changed – I’m sure I enjoyed even the ones I’d read before far more this time round…

  6. I haven’t read this one, but you piqued my interest so much that I had to read ALL of your excellent review! This one sounds like a dandy. I, too, question the wisdom of such an abrupt switch from comedy to horror, but if anybody can get away with that, it’s Wells.

    • I usually try to make my reviews spoiler-free but somehow it was hard to say what I felt about this one without giving quite a lot away! Yes, the switch felt odd – it took my brain several pages to stop trying to see the jokes. But it’s still a great read – what an imagination the man had!

  7. If you had to compare Wells’s language throughout his books, to whom would you compare him? I’d like to read a Wells novel aloud to my husband, but I don’t want it to backfire. As I mentioned before, right now I’m reading Northanger Abbey, and it’s going….well, it’s sort of awful unless Henry is speaking. All the words are out of order from what I’m used to (“did not you say as much said she!” okay, I made that up, but I’m not far off!), so I feel like a dithering idiot reader. Henry’s lines are always playful, poking fun, and written clearly.

    • Haha! I listened to an audio dramatisation of Northanger Abbey recently and some of the younger actors sounded as if they were struggling a bit with the sentence structure too. They handled it well, but didn’t quite make it sound as if it came naturally to them. 😀 Happily, Wells writes in a much more modern style – not significantly different from today’s English, though with some scientific and occasionally archaic words in there. I’d probably compare him to Conan Doyle or John Wyndham if you’ve read either of them. I think they’d be great for reading aloud…

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