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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Fitz-James O'Brien's What Was It?: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Most famous in O’Brien’s oeuvre is the following episode: “What Was It?” In the original publication (which we have included), references to opium and a stark ending brooding with uncertainty enhanced the Gothic aesthetic. While those were redacted in the secondary, more widely published, Victorian version of the tale (compare to the incorrigible censorship of Poe’s gruesome “Berenice”), all versions maintain a vigorous element of melancholy, otherworldliness, and mystery. As in “The Lost Room,” we are denied explanations and refused clarification. Unlike the tales thematic descendents – particularly H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man – there are no science fictional expositions to unwrap the grisly puzzle. The story invites comparisons to Machen’s The Great God Pan, Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” Blackwood’s “The Willows,” and especially de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” and Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” (two direct descendents) – stories that wonder at the possibility that other worlds exist alongside ours, worlds terrifying, malignant, and awesome. Like Bierce’s compendium, “Strange Disappearances,” it reads like a newspaper clipping concerning a little-noticed, little-understood oddity which science has yet to explain. The weirdness of this writing style leaves the reader feeling insecure, confused, and vulnerable; we are used to clean-cut explanations, and while O’Brien’s withholding plot lost him the affection of critics in his own day, we may look back at his style as artistically brave and philosophically chilling.


The story is told to us by Harry, a mysterious, nervous narrator of the Poe variety: an intellectual bohemian with a penchant for opium use and heady conversations in the wee hours of the morning. Interestingly, he appears to be a fictional version of O’Brien himself (claiming to be the writer of “The Pot of Tulips,” an early O’Brien ghost story). He lives in a shabby, old boarding house in New York City, which has a bad reputation and is considered to be haunted by some – a gateway to another dimension, perhaps – although it is large and has a lush garden. It was built twenty years earlier by the enigmatic Mr. A-- , a merchant who died of a broken spirit after being caught in a scandalous bank fraud. His death started the rumors of the house being cursed by inexplicable noises and sights made by invisible beings. The protagonist, however, hasn’t been bothered, and enjoys smoking cigars and opium in its dusky garden.

He and the other bohemian boarders begin discussing ghosts (one of them has Mrs. Crowe’s Victorian collection of veridical ghost stories, “Night Side of Nature”), and some of them have experienced poltergeist activity, although the protagonist suspect drunkenness. On the 10th of July he heads off into the garden with his intellectual friend Dr. Hammond and the two begin smoking heavy Turkish tobacco and discussing metaphysics. Packed in with the tobacco is a nut of opium ("We both smoked opium. We knew each other's secret, and respected it.") which simmers in the bowl and steams their minds with narcotics. As the drug takes greater effect over their imaginations, Hammond asks him what he considers the “greatest element of terror.” Harry recalls watching a woman drown, finding a corpse in the dark, and other horrors that have plagued his memory. Hammond calls to mind several grotesque novels that had haunted his own memory, and the protagonist admits that he is becoming too nervous – nervous enough to “write a story like Hoffmann tonight” – to continue the conversation.

They repair to their bedrooms and the narrator retires with a French book filled with surreal illustrations of demons, reading by the small, blue jet of his dim gaslight. Determined to reject these frightening thoughts, he lays in his bed “still as a corpse” and tries to sleep when “A Something dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plump upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling my throat.”

The suddenness of the attack horrifies him, and in the darkness he struggles to fend off the assault. Unable to see, he can only feel that the Thing is naked, wiry, and muscular with a mouth defined by long, sharp teeth. Strong himself (O’Brien was a bodybuilder), the narrator pins the attacker down and screams for help after trussing it to the bed. As footsteps thunder down the hall, he rushes to the gas and raises the light to see… nothing. His hands are still wrapped around and invisible throat which he can feel, but nothing is to be seen! The Enigma, as he comes to call it, has smooth, humanlike skin and hot breath, and is shivering in pain on the bed, even though he can’t see its form.

Hammond bursts in to see what has caused the commotion, and although he at firsts laughs at the suggestion that an invisible creature is bound to the bed (he suspects that it is a narcotic hallucination from the opium), he is terrified after resting a hand over the empty bed and feeling hot, sinewy flesh. A crowd comes in to see the curiosity and regard it with casual interest. Hammond is stunned, but eventually Harry tries to rationalize the event with science: it is a marvel, but a chemical marvel caused by some undiscovered scientific principles. He goes on to compare the Enigma to the poltergeist activity experienced by mediums, and considers It to be a denizen of the supernatural world who has accidentally fallen into the hands of mortals.

In the morning, more people come to watch the Enigma’s strained, painful writhings (heard and seen on the twisting sheets), and they begin to feel its form and get a sense of its dimensions: it is hairless with a small nose, boylike hands, and four feet in height. The creature is sedated with chloroform and a local freak show exhibitioner named Dr. X—takes a plaster cast of the limp body. What it reveals is “distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man,” with uncanny muscularity, a visage that recalled the most surreal artists of the age (Dore, Callot, and Tony Johannot, whose illustration from “Journey Where You Please” included here), and a sense that “it was capable of feeding on human flesh.”

But it will feed no more: over the span two weeks the Enigma slowly and miserably starves to death on the narrator’s bed, the boarders abandon the house which now terrifies them, and Hammond helps Harry bury the body in the garden. Nothing else is learned of its nature, provenance, or intentions, and Dr. X—proudly exhibits the grotesque mold in his freak show museum. As for Harry, he coldly notes that he is “on the eve of a long journey from which [he] may not return,” and has written this story as a last testament. This was one of the last stories O’Brien wrote before he enlisted in the Union Army – a journey, indeed, from which he did not return.


The power in the story lies in its commonplace nature and the lack of follow-up: the Enigma simply appears and dies failing to clarify his nature, his origin, or the proliferation of beings like him. We do not learn whether his existence is related to Mr. A— (convenient that his name sounds like “mystery” in the Irish vernacular), what his reason is for appearing, or what the realm is like whence he comes. The tale is crisp, journalistic, and brooding with uncertainty. The conclusion, hinting at Harry’s long trip, from which he may not return leaves the reader with a sense of dread and doom – especially for those that are aware of O’Brien’s looming wartime fate.

The universe that O’Brien paints is one of intangible mysteries – dark, unyielding, and barren of compromise. Filled with cosmic wonder and existential alarm, his evocative prose hints that mysteries (such as the origins of the Enigma) are not capable of being elucidated, and that they merely hint at a wild cosmos of un-tethered power which has so far avoided congress with humanity through mere chance, but which may at any moment pour into our unwitting lives – falling into our beds at night. Far more unsettling than an unlikely story of terrestrial invasion (e.g., The War of the Worlds), O’Brien’s one-time, individual encounter with this weird being causes the reader to imagine “how many of these things could happen to individual groups of people before the world would notice?”

The affair is brief, attracts only the slightest amount of public attention, and concludes not with a marvelous scientific discovery, but with the Enigma’s miserable starvation – symbolizing the futility of scientific discovery (and perhaps of life). This strange and amazing figure does not die atop the Empire State Building, with a stake being plunged into his bloody heart, or in the wreckage of a burning wind-mill; rather, it dies of starvation, pitilessly tied to a bed while a group of confused, unassertive, bumbling men watch it wither, rather than act in the name of science or humanity. It is a telling plot. The Enigma is essentially the anti-Animula – a humanoid representation of some part of our common humanity which is invisible to the human eye, and yet grotesque, fearsome, and deformed rather than comely and adorable. It represents, perhaps, the grossness of the human soul whereas Animula represented its aspirations. Ironically enough, it best illustrates the repulsive side of humanity not through its existence, but through its treatment by human hands, and as such, it represents a social as well as cosmic parable.

As with so much of O’Brien’s fiction, there is also a strong Marxist, class-focused interpretation present in this parable: the Enigma can be viewed as a metaphor for socio-economic Otherness – the disturbing phantoms of the urban poor: brutal, malnourished, otherworldly, and convenient to forget or destroy. Like the Enigma, the urban poor develop in the vacuum created by the likes of Mr. A— (in particular, and capitalist industrialists in general). The Engima is a shocking and abhuman specter, whose existence is frightening and inexplicable, calling to mind the claw-footed demons – Want and Ignorance – that Charles Dickens employs in A Christmas Carol: two bestial children the sight and existence of which repulses Scrooge who is accordingly ignorant of the want of the London poor. Existential horror, socioeconomic phantom, or intellectual puzzle – regardless of how the Enigma is interpreted, it shouts from the darkness of humanity’s blind spot, appearing in the periphery as a sudden vision of what exists just outside of our perception before disappearing back into the false and comforting illusion of nonexistence.

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