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 still 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 strangers wore faded cloaks which were neither conclusively blue nor grey, and something about their demeanor stirred distrust in the ambitious trooper.
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 was revealed, and both officers were struck. The Confederate officer died, and Lieutenant O’Brien was horribly wounded in the arm. He was taken to the hospital, partly thrilled at the gallantry would be attached to his name and partly concerned about the throbbing ache of the bullet and the wads of cloth that had become lodged in his injury. After a seemingly innocuous surgery to reset the splintered shoulder blade, the wound became infected, and lockjaw set in. The death would be a miserable one. 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. He was a consummate bohemian – a term that he proudly wore, one which was integrated into his most reliable biography (subtitled “A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties”).
His personality was brash and egocentric; he was a narcissist and a braggart, obsessed with bodybuilding (a friend once called him a devotee of the “Church of St. Biceps”), and fixated with establishing his reputation for bravery. He was known to pick fights just as an excuse to take off his shirt and to get drunk with his opponent afterwards, but was withal a cavalier and a gallant. An early biography notes that he was always ready to dress up for a night out, and that he was very generous with liquor when he was visited by friends. This more than anything was what made O’Brien a bohemian: he was poor but quick to spend his few dollars on fine gloves or fine wine; he was defined by a spirit of wonder and adventure that could most accurately be called quixotic, and his ghastly death on a Civil War battlefield was more than a little poignant: Don Quixote dismounted by a windmill, never to stand up again. Cut down in his prime, he stood almost no chance of being remembered. His romances, ghost stories, fantasies, fairy tales, science fiction, weird fiction, and horror stories were going to be easy to forget. But Fitz-James O’Brien – in spite of all his waggish, vainglorious egotism – had left a dearly missed seat in the bars and parlors that had once been his in New York City, and his friends ensured that he would be known to posterity.
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 Bohemian” is a dismal story of treasure hunters and hypnotism gone awry that pits the innocence of bohemianism against the desperate misery of greed. “Jubal the Ringer” is a gloomy Poe pastiche – a disturbing tragedy of jealous love and mass murder. “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 nightmarish poems “The Demon of the Gibbet” and “The Ghosts” are all bizarre, Gothic narratives that stew in a gloomy atmosphere of the supernatural, the macabre, and the fantastic. “The Dragon Fang” is one departure from this norm: a Chinese folktale with a romantic subplot, it is nonetheless a capable example of American fantasy during a time when Arabic, French, and German sources were the only sizable producers of fantasy or speculative fiction.
“What Was It?” is unquestionably his most famous work, and between this tale and “The Diamond Lens,” a great understanding of the author can be grasped. Both stories feature bohemian characters who are astounded by the world that is unseen; they yearn to see it and take measures to achieve this tansposition from the visible to the invisible. The protagonist of the first tale attempts this by reveling in opium and brooding over veridical ghost stories. The second narrator – a Poesque murderer cut from “The Tell-Tale Heart” – becomes maniacally obsessed with microscopes in a quest to see the invisible civilizations which he imagines in his dreams.
Both men are rewarded for their inquiring minds, and both are punished: the first is shocked when he is attacked by an invisible monster, and is left stunned and disoriented by its miserable death by starvation; the second is thrilled when – after slaying his roommate in his quest for the perfect microscope – he finds and falls in love with a microscopic woman… only to let her, too, starve to death. The similarity in the two narratives must be acknowledged and explored, for it says something about O’Brien’s artistic vision, introducing themes which run rampant in his other tales: innocent love, pure quests for happiness, the corrupting influence of money and prestige, the hopelessness of the Romantic worldview, and the evil of materialistic society (urban, industrial society in particular).
The basic grain of O’Brien’s best stories seems to be thus: we begin life fresh and filled with wonder; wonder is good, but too much curiosity can transform love into possessiveness; possessiveness destroys both the emotion and the object of love; this destruction results in disillusionment, loneliness, and fear; the world is haunted by terrors that emanate from this perverse instinct to colonize and control our childhood passions, and only by allowing wonder to remain unmanifested – to run free and be untamed – can we avoid crippling loss and misery.
Too many of O’Brien’s protagonists lose something dear to them by attempting something which they imagined was “for its own good” – the microscopist contains his beloved in a water drop, and she evaporates; the wonderer ties his invisible monster to his bed and it withers; the self-conscious lover attempts to earn a living to support his bride only to lose her in a money scheme; the homebody inquires into the nature of his beloved apartment and it is wrenched into another dimension; the alchemist’s daughter pursues her father’s apparent solution for the transformation of lead into gold only to expose his fraudulence, and so on.
O’Brien, like Poe, who constantly depicted men whose adoration of their beloved’s spirits leading to the neglect of their physical bodies – the muse who starves to death while her husband wistfully paints her portrait being the best example – was fascinated with the relationship between the physical and the spiritual – the material and the mental, the limitations of the mortal flesh and the illimitability of the human imagination. In his estimation, it was best to allow love and imagination to remain untamed – to forgo burdening it with theory, ownership, or restrictions. Dreams untampered with remain dreams; dreams dragged out into the waking world become nightmares or worse.
O’Brien’s 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.
For all of his misanthropy, however, O’Brien was at heart a child of wonder, filled with awe by nature, deeply moved by love, and fascinated by the deep if sometimes latent tenderness of mankind – a prototypal hippie. His stories almost always began or ended with an element of romance and magic. There are the tragedies which end sourly with death, disillusion, and loss – “The Bohemian,” “The Lost Room,” “The Diamond Lens,” “Jubal the Ringer” – the romances which end in consummated love matches, newfound hope, and moral victory – “The Dragon Fang,” “The Pot of Tulips,” “The Wondersmith” – and a few where the clutches of death are sweet and submission to destruction are an end to suffering – “The Ghosts,” “The Golden Ingot,” “The Child Who Loved a Grave.”
Even in the fever pitch of tragedy, O’Brien chose to identify with the tender pangs of loss, the sheer humanity of broken hearts, and the loneliness of mortality. He was an inspiration to Lovecraft, but emotionally Fitz-James O’Brien was fundamentally different from his literary descendent. Both reveled in the staggering awe of the unknown world (especially in “What Was It?” and “The Lost Room”) that could make a man lose his mind, abandon his faith, or fall into hopeless disorientation, but at the heart of Lovecraft is bitterness at his abandonment – the sulking of a neglected child – while O’Brien’s ethos feels the loss with tears and nostalgic melancholy. He does not brood so much as pine, nor resent so much as long after his lost innocence.
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.
You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of O'Brien's best horror and fantasy HERE!