Cinematic and farsighted – a perfect subject for the pulpy comic books of ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘80s, with their over-the-top villains with iconoclastic schemes of world domination – “The Wondersmith” concerns a Christmastime plot to poison the children of the United States through no less than their Christmas toys: child’s dolls, soldiers, and manikins brought to life with the captivated, evil souls, and armed with envenomed needles. Set in the slums of antebellum New York, O’Brien’s tale once again addresses his social concerns: what degree of horror can thrive in a society that permits such conditions to exist, and how long can it be before the poison brewing amongst the urban poor spreads unnoticed to the oblivious consumer classes? While the gross racism of the story is at times difficult to bear – gypsies, Italians, Jews, and Germans are defamed at various times – the imagination necessary to generate it is astounding for a person who wrote before the time of Fu Manchu, Lex Luthor, Professor Moriarty, and the Joker. This supervillain has assembled an international team of henchmen whose plan to foil Christmas has far grimmer implications than that of the Grinch.
The story is set in Golosh Street – a dark and exotic part of a dark and exotic neighborhood in New York’s bohemian quarter. The street is known for its eccentric shops – owned mostly by colorful European immigrants, from a fortune teller and a glass eye shop to a seller of rare birds and an esoteric used book store. The most notable of these shop-owners, however, is Herr Hippe – the Wondersmith. He is a tall, skeletal man with a villainous mustache and a snake-like face. He watches over Golosh Street with an eager, menacing air. His store is a toyshop, and his creations are known for their wonderful, lifelike qualities, and he is preparing for the Christmas shopping season – and more.
On this particular day, Madame Filomel, the fortune teller and an implied abortionist, visits him with a bottle filled with demonic spirts. The two discuss a diabolical plot to take revenge on the mainstream, affluent New York families whom they resent and despise. Their plan is to release the ravenous souls onto the city’s children by possessing Hippe’s hoard of dolls with them, and arming the toys with poisoned daggers – to be used against the children on Christmas morning. The two begin to unleash the demons into a crowd of toy soldiers, dolls, and animals, and when two gypsies enter the room, they test their viciousness by throwing a gold coin amongst them, which results in a violent struggle amongst the toys. Hippe recalls the spirits back into his bottle, the toys fall back into unconsciousness, and the gypsies take them in a box to the bird store to test them out on the birds. The result is a massacre, and the as the gypsies watch the “manikins” slash their way through the cages, they relish the thought that they will make “famous assassins.”
This is when we meet our hero, Solon, the hunchbacked used book seller and aspiring poet. Solon is in love with Zonela, Hippe’s pretty, young ward, and is presumably being groomed to become his lover. Zonela is now an organ-grinder, whose pet monkey dances as she sings. On this night they steal a moment together and the young hunchback finds the courage to confess his love. Touched, she and her monkey perform a dance for him, but at that moment, Hippe bursts into the room in a rage. He brutally kicks the money, upbraids Solon for his insolence, and explains why he hates his pretty young ward. Years ago, Hippe’s son became an alcoholic after drinking brandy with a Hungarian nobleman – Zonela’s real father – and died a raving drunk. In revenge, Hippe kidnapped his daughter and now delights in watching her suffer in poverty and humiliation. The greatest revenge however, may just be killing Solon, now that he knows that Zonela has found love in life. He wraps Solon up in a great web and shuts Zonela up in her room.
It is now New Year’s Eve (the Christmas season at that time was twelve days long, with gift giving taking place on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day), and the children of New York all go to bed with great dreams of “the generous Santa Claus” who will bring them presents that night. Hippe, Madame Filomel, and the two gypsies spend the holiday dipping small swords into poison. They plan to use the swords on Solon in order to test the venom’s potency.
In the meantime, the Wondersmith – wild with the mania of his revenge against the entire human race – crows about what he foresees on the following morning: “I see the faces of millions of young corpses," babbled Herr Hippe, gazing, with swimming eyes, into the silver bowl that contained the … poison,--"all young, all Christians,--and the little fellows dancing, dancing, and stabbing, stabbing…”
Filomel assures the conspirators that she has the bottle of souls, but when she puts it back in her pocket, it is left awkwardly perched on the edge. Despite Hippe’s misgivings of alcohol, they decide to drink port (while fantasizing that it is the blood of the city’s children), and soon become drunk and sleepy.
Meanwhile, Solon – locked in a closet – overhears their plans (both for him and for the children of the city) and wishes that he could free himself. Suddenly something soft falls to the floor beside him: Zolena’s pet monkey has recovered, and she has sent him to climb through the ceiling with a knife. Solon cuts his bonds and breaks out of the closet. Herr Hippe and his three conspirators are dead drunk. Solon makes good his escape and reunites with Zonela, but their movements startle Filomel, who lurches forward in her rocking chair, sending the bottle to the ground where it shatters.
Released – and knowingly freed forever from their prison – the demonic spirits go into the wooden soldiers and dolls, who – armed with their poisonous daggers – turn on the conspirators, plunging their blades into the faces and bodies of the terrified group.
“Then took place an astonishing spectacle. The myriads of armed dolls, that lay in piles about the room, became suddenly imbued with motion. They stood up straight, their tiny limbs moved, their black eyes flashed with wicked purposes, their thread-like swords gleamed as they waved them to and fro. The villanous souls imprisoned in the bottle began to work within them. Like the Liliputians, when they found the giant Gulliver asleep, they scaled in swarms the burly sides of the four sleeping gypsies. At every step they took, they drove their thin swords and quivering daggers into the flesh of the drunken authors of their being. To stab and kill was their mission, and they stabbed and killed with incredible fury. They clustered on the Wondersmith's sallow cheeks and sinewy throat, piercing every portion with their diminutive poisoned blades. Filomel's fat carcass was alive with them. They blackened the spare body of Monsieur Kerplonne. They covered Oaksmith's huge form like a cluster of insects.”
Enraged and dying, the Wondersmith begins flinging his creations into the fireplace, but they rush back out towards him, now all aflame, and they set the room and the adjoining shop on fire. Like the ending of Poe’s Hop Frog, a hunchback and kidnapped princess escape the scene of their tormentors’ fiery deaths. They disappear into the night, and in the morning: “when the young Year was just unclosing its eyes, and the happy children all over the great city were peeping from their beds into the myriads of stockings hanging near by, the blue skies of heaven shone through a black network of stone and charred rafters. These were all that remained of the habitation of Herr Hippe, the Wondersmith.”
In spite of its sentimental subplot, flat villains, and cringe-worthy racism, “The Wondersmith” is an underrated representative of early science fiction, whose imaginative scope and literary influence are tremendous. Shades of Herr Hippe and his automata are detectable in Ambrose Bierce’s “Maxon’s Master,” H. P. Lovecraft’s “Two Black Bottles” and “The Terrible Old Man,” M. R. James’ “The Haunted Doll’s House,” and Gaston Leroux’s “The Murdering Machine.” Its influence, though doubtless unrealized, can be seen in the horror franchises of Chuckie and the Puppetmaster, and less terrifyingly in Toy Story, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Babes in Toyland. Even Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is reminiscent of O’Brien as children unpack their Yuletide trinkets, only to be terrorized by macabre horrors. For sources, O’Brien almost certainly utilized the storytelling of E.T.A. Hoffman (“The Sandman,” “The Nutcracker”) and Hans Christian Andersen (“The Steadfast Toy Soldier”), and the Jewish legend of the Golem. Combined with an infanticidal plot to manipulate the consumerism of the Christmas season, O’Brien’s fantasia of gruesome irony delivers a succession of chills as we realize that millions of children stand to be murdered in their sleep by the very baubles they cherish, as the automata gleefully slay every last bird in the aviary, and as the villains tussle with their rebellious creations – turning fat and black as the poison turns their blood into sludge. The greatest irony – that which O’Brien certainly hoped to convey – is that industrial society would not merely turn a blind eye to its doom, but that it would foster and purchase it as well. No stranger to the vast chasm between urban poverty and urban affluence, O’Brien meant the tale as a warning as well as an entertainment: caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.