56. H.G. Wells – The Invisible Man (1897)
According to his correspondence, Burroughs read Wells’ The Invisible Man in the cold December of 1953. He was in Rome, with a bad cold, disappointed because the adventurous city promised to him by Vidal’s Judgement of Paris had turned out to be a flop. A week later, he’d head for Tangier.
There isn’t a huge amount to say about Wells’ direct influence on Burroughs. Burroughs considered him “underrated”, and liked the high concept, high action formulas that typify Wells’ best novels. He often referenced The Time Machine as his source for how nausea naturally accompanies “becoming unstuck in time”. The story “The Country of the Blind” also inspired him greatly during his Texas years.
But as for direct lifts, Wells is less influential than the other sci-fi authors I’ve covered on this list for sure.
What is most striking about this novel, however, is Burroughs’ direct identification with the character. Burroughs notes that he has a bad cold. The Invisible Man too has a bad cold, and it’s through the sound of sniffing that we, the readers, can tell he is snooping in on a scene when other characters haven’t noticed him.
There is a long passage at the start (before his invisibility has been revealed) that describes how:
“whatever the thought of him, people in Iping, on the whole, agreed in disliking him. His irritability, though it might have been comprehensible to an urban brain-worker, was an amazing thing to these quiet Sussex villagers. […] Little children would call ‘Bogey Man!’ after him, and make off tremulously elated.”
The image of an urban sophisticate, turned mad and angry by his occult scientific practices, and now snubbed and mocked in the rural community he’s escaped to, was clearly one that Burroughs felt resonated with himself.
There are no end of stories (from Burroughs himself, his fellow-travellers and Beats, academics and biography writers) that talk about how Burroughs was known around Mexico City as El Hombre Invisible. I speculate that this was invented by Burroughs after the fact.
As we’ve seen, Burroughs once “recalled” a “past life” during auditing that turned out to have been the character Scobie from Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. That his traumatic and humiliating experience of life around Mexicans could be sublimated into a Wellsian image, and thus made cool (who wouldn’t want to be known as El Hombre Invisible?) fits with a wider pattern of behaviour, integrating snippets of literature into his own life, incorporating them into his tissue of memory.
This is because, in reality, Burroughs wasn’t El Hombre Invisible. Johnsons’ study of Burroughs in South Texas reveals a far different moniker: “Willy the Puto”. Even today, asking around border towns, Johnson found people who remembered Willy the Puto – his effeminate mannerisms, the fact, when drunk, he’d hit on local youths.
Children, apparently, would taunt him on the street, calling out “puto!” before, presumably, making off tremulously elated.
He was taunted by children in the streets of Mexico City as well, and in Tangiers, where both Ginsberg and Kerouac report him hitting them with a cane while they in response, pelted him with stones.
Burroughs’ strange anger during this period, his random acts of violence, all driven by an original act about which he is guilty, connect him, at least emotionally, to the character of Griffiths “The Invisible Man”. Where Griffiths turned himself invisible, however, Burroughs killed his wife.
So yes, I don’t think there is much to be found in literary influence when it comes to Wells, but if Burroughs did appropriate this character’s name for his own legend, that adds another piece of evidence to our wider case about his amalgamation of fictional characters into his own sense of self and also will, presumably, force some re-analysis of the currently accepted Beat mythography.