Perhaps none of O’Brien’s tales are stranger than “The Lost Room.” A bizarre, unelucidated nightmare, it combines the conventions of the Gothic and prefigures the inter-dimensional mind-benders of the Weird. A direct and obvious ancestor of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” O’Brien’s story follows the strange experiences of a man who claims to have lost a room – to have had it vanish from existence. It is similar also to Elliott O’Donnell’s “The Room Beyond,” M. R. James’ “Number 13,” Stephen King’s The Shining, and – in some strange ways – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of that novel and his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The story is in some respects a proto-Freudian parable about the hidden denizens of our personality. We imagine ourselves to be the lords of our identity and the masters of our destiny; we alone rule who we are and what we will become. But O’Brien sees forms moving in the darkness, and suggests that there is something deeper to our identities than memories, values, and ambitions – something secretive, dark, and commanding. Forces inside of us, forces which we have no control over and which we rarely see, are the real masters of our lives, and it is this horrifying revelation that leads to despair and hopelessness. O’Brien’s surreal, psychological fable is as unique as it is haunting, and offers up one of his best and most underappreciated works. Perhaps most remarkable is the uncanny merging of the Gothic and the Weird – a feat most perfectly achieved by Poe – which plays to our expectations of the sinister (ancient family tragedies, the sensitive man of noble birth, brooding art, tempestuous music) but delivers the unique, unexpected, and astonishing.
The story follows an Irish immigrant's unexpected discovery of a cannibalistic cult transforming his apartment into a decadent orgy. Bear with me now... On a stifling afternoon, he lounges in his beloved apartment, slowly taking stock of each heirloom, keepsake, painting, and piece of furniture. Each has tremendous value to him and each symbolizes a part of his personality: a piano that stands for his love of music, a romantic painting that captivates his imagination, a dagger handed down through the generations, connected with a wild family legend... He loves his apartment and its contents, but walks outside to smoke a cigar as the heat is too much to bear inside. Standing in the shadow of an alley as the sun sets, he smokes calmly but senses that he is not alone. There in the shadow he meets a small man who seems to know him. The momentary flare of the stranger's cigar reveals a vicious, troglodytic face, and the narrator finds himself uneasy. The stranger questions why the narrator would live in such a place, seeming to know too much about the building's history. The narrator rebuffs him until the stranger cackles "Do you know what they eat!?" -- referring to his fellow tenants. Before suddenly vanishing, he claims that the apartments are crawling with cannibals, ghouls, and enchanters.
Horrified by the encounter, the narrator returns to his apartment, feeling his way in the dark, only to find it transformed into a completely different dimension: the art, heirlooms, and furniture are now decadent parodies of themselves (the piano is now a Gothic organ, the dagger is a Turkish sword, and the romantic painting is now a window revealing the painted scene come to life). The narrator is horrified to find three masked men and three "supple" and "elastic" women enjoying an orgy at a table burdened with food and wine. Outraged, he calls them "cannibals, ghouls, and enchanters" and demands that they leave "his room." "His room!" they all shout hysterically, and in a moment of horror, he agrees to gamble for ownership of the room -- "anything to rid [him] of such company." He looses the dice roll -- amid shouts of "Lost! Lost!" and finds himself thrown out of the door amidst wild organ music (played by a man he believes to be a friend of his named Blokeeta, who used to play beautiful airs on his piano). He struggles to find the door, but it has vanished, along with his apartment and its precious contents. He never sees them again: "Since that awful hour I have never found my room. Every where I look for it, yet never see it. Shall I ever find it?"
Weird, unsettling, and confusing, the narrative of “The Lost Room” reads as much like a dream journal as a piece of crafted literature. Unpacking its psychological content may help to yield its deeper meanings: a man has filled his room with the relics of his past – ancestral heirlooms and souvenirs from recent events – and emblems of his ideals – beautiful art and astounding music. Upon leaving the room he is informed that his neighbors mock the holy and delight in perversions – that all who live in his house do so. Upon returning he finds that his room has been transformed into an anachronistic orgy. After challenging its denizens, he is defeated and evicted from the room – he has “lost” the room. On one level it appears that this is a story of lost innocence – of the realization that the glories of the past and the euphorias of the Ideal are little more than cheap gloss used to mask the decadence, perversity, and corruption of human nature. Lost is his abode of comfort – lost too are its contents: the dear memories of his life and the intrigues of his heart and mind. “The Lost Room” should be examined as a Poe-esque parable (like “Shadow” and “Silence”) rather than a literal transpiring. This allows the reader to step away from the quagmire of understanding the plot (what there is to understand has already been understood once you read it), and to step into the realm of thematic interpretation; it is a proto-symbolist landscape of Jungian proportions, with more to say in regards of the human mind than in the supernatural. It truly does not appear to be important that the tenants are cannibals per se – what is important is that they engage in the ultimate social taboo. They could just as easily have been incestuous or child murderers.
The point that O’Brien is striving to make is that the people who live in the same house that his narrator calls home – the same house that he uses to symbolize his sense of identity, values, and belonging – is actually harboring the lowest sludge in the human experience, and symbolically this is suggestive of what Freud termed the Id, the vile part of our unconscious that lurks beneath our nobler, more clubbable personalities. When the narrator vocally accuses this stranger of cannibalism, he disappears into the ether. In my interpretation of this moment, I view the stranger as a Jungian archetype – a personality that belongs to the narrator which is nonetheless projected into a separate form. By confronting, challenging, and naming this sub-personality, the narrator has acclimated it into himself, not unlike a man leading a double life as an alcoholic who begins the path to recovery by admitting his struggles aloud. However, the narrator is so deluded as to his wicked alter ego that confronting it is not a moment of peace and reconciliation, but one of trauma and horror. He speaks its crimes, ushering it out of the shadows of the unconscious and into the light of waking reality, but when he does this, everything is changed. He suddenly sees his world for what it is: a naïve delusion.
Confronted with the truth of his darker nature, he desperately seeks solace and affirmation in his room – the abode which supplies him with his Romantic identity. This room – his mental locus of identity – which he fancied belonged to him alone, is in fact the living quarters of an entire host of vile impulses. He has symbolically uncovered the unconscious parts of his personality which cohabitate with his clueless, conscious ego. Confronted with his multiplicity personality, and shocked by the demons that live alongside his nobler waking Self, he is forever locked out of his mind. His identity, he realizes, does not belong to himself, but to these dark, unconscious forces. In short, he is not the constructor of his identity, but the servile beneficiary of unconscious forces which rule him from behind the scenes. His innocence, identity, and peace of mind are lost, and his heart is broken. Like Poe’s “House of Usher,” O’Brien’s purloined room is emblematic of a man’s reason, perception, and intellect – his memories, values, and grasp of reality. Robbed of this (after realizing that he has been deeply deceived), he can no longer return to the days before he realized the inborn wretchedness of his race, and the room is lost forever, along with his peace of mind.