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The Celtic Poe

27 Nov 2013

{ Excerpted from the up-coming volume, The Bizarre Weird Fiction of Fitz-James O'Brien and Guy de Maupassant }

 

ON February 26, 1862 Lieutenant Fitz-James O’Brien of the Seventh Regiment of New York Volunteers was reconnoitering a battlefield in Hampshire County, West Virginia. A tangled skirmish had occurred in the vicinity a fortnight previous, and splotches of marauders and scouts stilled crisscrossed the territory, eager to make their names and reputations. Leading a group of cavalry through a pass, the young Irishman ran into a group of strangely-dressed horseman who eyed his party suspiciously. The apparent officer of the strange company called over to them across the wastes – “Whose troops are you?” The response came back loudly in a defiant Irish drawl: “Union!” Almost immediately gunfire crackled on either side as their enmity became apparent, and both officers were struck. The Confederate officer died, and Lieutenant O’Brien was horribly wounded in the arm. After a seemingly innocuous surgery to reset the splintered shoulder blade, the wound became infected, and lockjaw set in. A month later he was dead, buried with his sidearm and the sword of the dead rebel officer whose pistol had abbreviated his life.
   O’Brien’s literary career was also comparably brief, even in terms of his stunted 33 years. It began after he emigrated from Ireland at the age of twenty-four. Upon arriving in New York, Michael O’Brien – late of County Cork, a student of the University of Dublin, and formerly a soldier in Her Majesty’s Army – changed his name to Fitz-James and settled in with the Bohemian culture in Manhattan. Having blown an ₤8,000 inheritance in the space of four years (roughly $145,000 in 2014 currency), young Michael O’Brien had cause to shed his identity and seek the company of the intellectual ne’er-do-wells in the United States’ greatest metropolis. The society he joined was a collection of countercultural radicals and reactionaries – the 19th century equivalent of the Lost Generation (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein) or the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs) – who met consistently at Pfaff’s Beer Cellar in Greenwich Village. Pfaff’s was a literary hub frequented by Walt Whitman, John Brougham, and Henry Clapp Jr., whose countercultural literary zine, The Saturday Press, was described as “a mix of poetry, stories, radical politics, and an enthusiastic spirit of personal freedom and sexual openness.” It was one of his drinking buddies, the literary don William Winter, who saved his body of work from oblivion by publishing The Poems and Stories of Fitz James O’Brien in 1881.
   O’Brien’s legacy began to mount following the posthumous publication of his collected works, and today he remains an influential and notable – though little known – figure in the rise of speculative fiction. His writing prefigured many of the foundational works of science fiction, weird fiction, fantasy, and the macabre. His plotlines could easily be confused with the pulp rags, comic books, and weird magazines of that proliferated between 1921 and 1962. “The Diamond Lens” tells of a man who – through a Poe-esque murder – builds a microscope powerful enough to identify a sea monkey-like female living an Edenic existence in a drop of water. “What Was It?” is one of the first cases of invisibility appearing in fiction, and it is widely recognized as being influential to de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” and H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. “The Wondersmith” – a Hoffmanesque grotesquerie – tells of an international conspiracy of super villains bent on selling possessed Christmas toys armed with poisoned needles to millions of children at Yuletide. “The Lost Room,” which prefigures Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” is a strange and disturbing fantasy wherein a man discovers that he lives in a house tenanted by bacchanalian cannibals, and that the fibers of reality, memory, and idealism are entirely compromised. “The Pot of Tulips,” “The Child Who Loved a Grave,” “The Golden Ingot,” and the poem “The Demon of the Gibbet” are all bizarre, Gothic narratives that stew in a gloomy atmosphere of the supernatural, the macabre, and the fantastic.
   His greatest influences were the science fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, the novels of Charles Dickens, the caustic stories of Hawthorne, and the surrealism of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Poe’s fantasies, scientific hoaxes, dreamlike poetry, murder stories, and tales of ratiocination (e.g. “Descent into the Maelstrom,” “Pit and the Pendulum,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue”) deeply impacted his imagery, language, and plotlines (particularly in “The Diamond Lens”), as did the urban setting and lower classed characters of Dickens’ novels (especially Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and Hard Times), the moralistic cynicism of Nathaniel Hawthorne (especially “Rappacini’s Daughter,” “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” “The Birth Mark,” and “Young Goodman Brown”), and the nightmarish weirdness of Hoffmann (especially “The Sandman,” The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, “The Golden Pot,” and “Automatons”). His writing reflected the legacies of these earlier weird story-tellers, comingling their unique characteristics with his own original flair for imagination, wonder, and social philosophy. His writing consistently lambasted greed and avarice, critiqued capitalism and industrial society, and casted money as a source of decadence, selfishness, and perversity. His philosophy of human society was remarkably jaded and bitter (best demonstrated in “The Child Who Loved a Grave”), portraying mankind as self-involved, insensitive, classist, and neglectful. It exuded Melville and Hawthorne’s pessimism while prefiguring the caustic works of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Guy de Maupassant.
   O’Brien was vulnerable to racism, religious chauvinism, excessive sentimentalism, and loose plot endings (much like Lovecraft). His story “My Wife’s Tempter” – a tantalizing tale brimming with potential that rapidly descends into a violently dramatic demonization of Mormonism – is perhaps the worst story I have read in five years. “The Wondersmith” is one of O’Brien’s most inspired fantasies, and yet its plot is centered around a painfully racist conspiracy on the part of Hebraic gypsies to poison the “Christian children” of the Western world. Although it is necessary to remind ourselves that even great authors of that century were prone to revolting chauvinism (Dickens, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Twain, Thoreau) it is difficult to avoid becoming distracted by the fanciful, racist paranoia.  
   In spite of his shortcomings, the Irish immigrant impressed an indelible mark on weird literature, science fiction, and fantasy in the United States. Like his duplex partner, Guy de Maupassant, O’Brien’s life was abbreviated by violence, his creative potential was tragically amputated – robbing literature of a mind the dimensions of Verne, Wells, Lovecraft, and Bierce – and his influence has largely gone underappreciated by all but a small collection of literary critics and fans of speculative fiction. Today he is most remembered for “What Was It?” and “The Diamond Lens” (largely by aficionados of classic sci-fi and weird fiction) while “The Demon of the Gibbet,” “The Child Who Loved a Grave,” and “The Wondersmith” continue to attract a small degree of attention. In spite of his small degree of critical consideration, the “Celtic Poe” merits a personal renaissance for his contributions to the genre of speculative fiction, his influence on writers in the later nineteenth century, and his sheer imaginative genius. 

 

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