Rooum by Oliver Onions (what a name!) from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949.
Rooum is the name of a mysterious construction worker who is the best at everything but refuses to actually join a construction company. He’s odd, but generally well-liked, including by the unnamed narrator, who he is always asking about molecules.
He and the narrator have a series of increasingly strange interactions until, one night, the two decide to stay at a hotel together since their job is so far out of town. Rooum sleeptalks, saying, “What the devil is it prevents me from seeing him, then?” When he wakes, the narrator asks him what the heck that was about, and he tells him.
Basically, every so often this invisible man that only Rooum can hear runs up from behind him and phases through him. At the beginning, it was painless, but now it seems to take more effort and more pain for the being to pass through. They talk a lot about how it’s analogous to different types of osmosis.
After this conversation, Rooum disappears for several months. When the narrator finally works with him again, it seems he goes crazy. They’re all high up in the air when Rooum takes one of the cranes and starts driving off with it. Only the narrator can guess what’s actually happening – he’s running away from the being, and he can’t escape this time. The narrator and his coworkers try to stop him, and succeed in stopping the crane itself, but Rooum jumps (or falls?) from the beam and tumbles to his death.
Holy racist language, Batman! The very first sentence is about how Rooum’s name “put [the narrator] in mind of Negroes,” and it’s decidedly not a compliment. This ruined the story for me immediately, and for no reason. None of this is ever referred to again. There’s no big reveal about the root or meaning of the name, no connection to Africa, nothing. None of that would have made the first paragraph justifiable, obviously, but it at least would have made sense. Instead, it’s racist and baffling.
If that were not enough, the story also has serious pacing problems. The buildup is meandering, and could have worked to build atmosphere if any of it had been mentioned in the story’s climax, which occurs over the last half page and goes by so fast that I had to reread it several times before I realized that Rooum was even dead. The characters themselves don’t do much to help the situation. The narrator is barely characterized, and Rooum comes off as a stock “mysterious hyper-competent guy.” It’s not great.
Which is really too bad because this story has the coolest premise of any of the stories I’ve read so far. I mean, there’s an invisible man who runs through a mysterious construction worker, and has a harder and harder time of it because of the laws of osmosis. That’s completely original. I’ve never read anything like it, and I doubt I will again. I really like how it halfway explains its concept with science, but in a way that isn’t trying to be hard SF or anything. It’s fantasy that’s analogous to science. Nifty! Plus, it’s a creepy short story focused on working class laborers instead of more bored aristocrats, which is always nice to see. I just wish it was tied together better, and, yaknow, not racist.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
What a waste of a cool idea.