World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Man with the X-ray Eyes”

The Man with the X-ray Eyes“, Frois Froisland, translated by Nils Flaten, 1930.

“The Man with the X-ray Eyes” is at once typical of the stories in Froisland’s The Man with the X-ray Eyes & Other Stories from the Front, a mixture of World War One history, travelogue, and fiction, and untypical.

Like nearly all the rest of the stories, framed by Froisland’s non-fiction descriptive pieces which open on the trench war and close with the triumphal march of Allied forces through Paris, it is an account of an individual’s psychological disintegration, a mystery never clearly explained because of the limited journalist perspective of narrator Froisland. But it is also the only story to be obviously fantastical and freighted with events that seem portentously symbolic. As the most unusual story in plot, theme, and title, it’s obvious why Froisland chose it for the name of his book. It is also the only story to dwell at length on physical injury, discomfort, and mutilation and to feature an American soldier.

Its weird fiction pedigree is signaled by the Poe-like beginning, so different from other story openings in the book:

Who has said that we must absolutely understand everything that happens in the world? We have perhaps, after all, not gotten beyond realizing that there are still things between heaven and earth which we simply must believe. Just believe — give up trying to reach bottom with our understanding. One may or may not believe the story about MacMurray, the corporal from Cincinnati — the man with the X-ray eyes.

The story begins, appropriately, at the Battle of the Saint-Mihiel Salient in France, the first independent action by American forces in the war. Coming under artillery fire outside the village of Hattonchatel, MacMurray’s squad hurriedly entrench. In the dark, a “huge German shell” strikes the ground behind the trench.

Explicitly inspired by the famous tranchee des baionnettes  at Verdun, Froisland buries the squad completely and fatally except for MacMurray and two others.

But, while they are not completely buried, they are not free. MacMurray is

“covered with earth, so that only the head and the left shoulder are free, the rest of the body forced into a twisted, unnatural, awful posture, with two meters of earth on top of him, legs forced apart and sprawling, the back in an awkward angle with the hips, the right arm broken and out of joint.

The night passes, the cries of all three heard only by themselves. The next day, Friday, September 13th, 1918, one of the men dies. The other man, Kentucky Jim, and MacMurray are mad with thirst and hunger.

Jim has freed his upper body, but it avails the two not. They are trapped. Rain pours down on them. They are unnoticed by gravediggers and corpsman passing them by.

Then, at some point after hours of unconsciousness and hallucination, MacMurray can see exactly what is in a knapsack within Jim’s arm’s reach. It has water, bread, wine, and a trench shovel. He yells at Jim to grab the bag. This goes on for a long time before Jim tells MacMurray to shut up, that he can’t possibly know what is in the knapsack.

Jim never does grab the bag, but, before the two are rescued, MacMurray knows of his new powers.

MacMurray is taken to the hospital. Gangrene has set in his two legs, and they are amputated. His eyes, his “double vision”, becomes the talk of the hospital. Tests are done. MacMurray can see through tissue dead and living, safes, and walls. The doctors laugh at first, but, three days later, he is an accepted and confirmed curiosity for patients and staff.

MacMurray can’t explain his power. It requires no great effort, no concentration, regular vision slips into x-ray vision by a thought. The resulting images are clear, sharp, not reversed like a mirror, and tinted in “wonderfully beautiful” colors. And they leave quickly. As MacMurray says, “Intuition I guess some people call the process; I should rather call it emulsion.”

The attention starts to tire MacMurray and so does the shifting between the two modes of vision.  He helps the hospital’s doctors diagnosis patients.

Scientists, “spiritualists, theosophists, and occultist” attempt to explain MacMurray’s power.

It’s here that Froisland seems to deviate from his usual historical detail with the mention of the Italian engineer Ulvi who used F-rays to destroy floating mines ten kilometers away in a test outside of the French port of Brest. In another test, he is said to have blown up the “dismantled British cruiser Terpischore” 20 kilometers away.

In fact, there was an engineer Ulvi, who eloped with an Italian admiral’s daughter, and did demonstrate such an alleged weapon for the Italian navy. However, British naval engineers from Portsmouth were, evidently, unconvinced. William J. Fanning’s Jr’s Death Rays and the Popular Media 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film provides additional details.

By way of Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in uranium, Froisland asks if MacMurray’s power might be due to some substance in the human body that can act like a “ray projector”.

That’s the rationalization of weirdness using newspaper stories and science. Froisland’s scaffolding to suspend disbelief also mentions all those occult notions, and I think it is those that give shape some of its mysteries.

It is proposed that MacMurray’s powers rest on a “spiritual, psychological-metaphysical basis”. He is a “supersensitive” to the vibrations of the universe. He has “cryptoscopy”, the ability to see hidden objects. MacMurray, it is said, is also a clairvoyant with vision into past and future.

And that escalation of reputed abilities seems to be verified by the conclusion of the story.

There is little hatred of Germans in Froisland’s book, but it shows ironically here.  MacMurray spends his days talking fondly of the Germans he knew in Cincinnati.

So he was pro-German. Well, he had certainly been nicely treated by his friends! If he lost his right arm, too — which seemed very probable — his friends would have <<reduced>> him to a trunk without limbs, a square-shaped monstrosity, with one arm for a handle, the wreck of a man, horrible to look upon and pitiful to think about.

But MacMurray also speaks of Jim five beds down. Jim seems to be on his way to full recovery. But MacMurray tells a surgeon Jim will die tomorrow. And so he does of an embolism.

MacMurray’s tranquility is replaced by a “perfect terror, of something that was about to happen to him”. He is only certain it is to be feared, not what it is. His x-ray vision is no longer limited to the range of the hospital. It goes much further. His mind turns to spiritual matters. He questions just how much forgiveness the Bible asks of Christians.

It is here the narrator directly inserts himself and speaks of his first meeting (he has gathered the rest of the story from others) with MacMurray on October 14, 1918.

MacMurray can now read minds. And he can now prophecy. When asked, at about 11:05 AM that day, when the war will end, MacMurray merely responds “ask me exactly four weeks from this very moment”. Four weeks is, in fact, Armistice Day: November 11, 1918.

At the end of October an unknown Red Cross sister shows up at the hospital and goes straight to his bed. With “a whimpering sound, as from a dying animal — a block of stone, as it were, rocking a little after an earthquake — and fluttering blue cloak covered them both” she collapses on his bed.

That scene is directly followed by an odd interlude about the “three wise apes” of see, hear, and speak no evil fame and how every cause of effect is preceded by thoughts, desires, and acts.

We then hear how the nurse, the Sister in Blue, has been wondering from hospital to hospital in the American sector after she arrived eight months ago from America. She may serve the other patients wells, but MacMurray doesn’t smile for her or anyone.

In the dark, she holds his remaining hand as he seems tortured by visions even the Sister in Blue knows nothing of. MacMurray’s body has suffered but “Thoughts may torture one worse than the most excruciating physical pain.” (Something of a theme for the fiction in this book.)

On the night before November 8th, 1918, MacMurray shouts “Now he comes!” He then gives a brief description of the Armistice negotiations that did start on November 8th.

The next day a soldier mutilated with a crushed pelvis and “vital organs torn” is put in the bed Jim died in. The soldier is his “old friend, Floyd Hill from Cincinnati” who he last saw 19 months ago. When the Sister in Blue sees Hill, and collapses in distress.

That night MacMurray dies but not before he has his bed pushed near Floyd’s and touches Floyd’s blanket to smooth it. Then:

He lay there white and still, just stared. His eyes did not dim, did not close. He lay as if he were looking into something.

No one knew when he died.

What was MacMurray’s final vision that terrified him? The wounding and likely death of his old friend because MacMurray’s own death does not frighten him? Something more general and apocalyptic like another war? 1930 seems early for that sentiment though French Marshall Ferdinand Foch famously remarked, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

And was the Sister in Blue not there for MacMurray but somehow anticipating Hill’s arrival? Did she know both Hill and MacMurray before the war? And was she somehow an acolyte or avatar for MacMurray?

Successful weird fiction often relies on unsolved questions, and this story succeeds on that ground and the poignancy of MacMurray’s fate.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: No.

 

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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2 thoughts on “World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Man with the X-ray Eyes”

  1. Pingback: Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939 | MarzAat

  2. Pingback: Pirate Utopia | MarzAat

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