Invisible Ink: No 105 - George Langelaan

Although he was born in Paris in 1908, George Langelaan was British, and lived a life far stranger than almost any of his fictions. By my reckoning, he didn't get published until he was approaching 50 – so what was he doing in the intervening years?

Well, he began as a newspaper writer until the start of the Second World War, then found himself working for British Army Intelligence. Rescued from Dunkirk after being stranded behind enemy lines, he then worked for the Special Operations Executive, a secret unit involved in sabotage and spying. To aid the French resistance movement, he agreed to be parachuted back there in order to meet a key contact, but was worried about being recognised. His ears stuck out, so along with a new identity he was given some plastic surgery to make himself less recognisable.

After being dropped he was caught by the Nazis and condemned to death, but managed to escape from the Mauzac camp in 1942. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and wrote a memoir, The Masks Of War, in 1959. But two years before this he penned another work about the power of transformation. "The Fly" was a short story that appeared in Playboy magazine. The tale of a scientist whose attempts to teleport himself end in disaster when his cells are mixed with those of a common housefly accidentally trapped in the machine was an instant hit with readers, and was filmed with Vincent Price. The script was adapted by James Clavell, who wrote The Great Escape. It spawned two sequels, a remake, another sequel and an opera composed by Howard Shore, who had scored the soundtrack for the successful David Cronenberg version.

Langelaan also wrote war stories, tales in French and supernatural suspensers. Alfred Hitchcock (who pops up frequently in this column) recognised his way with a good plot and adapted him for television. But despite penning two volumes of richly detailed biography, Langelaan never again achieved the level of fame he'd received with "The Fly".

A tale of deception and disguise, it must have been a subject close to the writer's heart, and was perhaps more of a subconscious roman-á-clef than his memoirs. But a puzzle remains; surely, if Langelaan wrote the gruesome story before suggesting his own physical alteration, it hints at something much stranger in the writer's mind – or was it merely coincidence?

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