Fitz James O’Brien: Forgotten Gothic

I became aware of Fitz James O’Brien rather recently, while doing research for my new play about Adah Isaacs Menken. He and she both were part of the literary scene around Walt Whitman at Pfaff’s tavern on the eve of the Civil War. O’Brien wrote tales of horror and proto-sci-fi in the vein of Poe, but with a less flowery style that presages Ambrose Bierce and others. A lot of these stories are set in New York and give a really nice flavor of what life was like there in the ante-bellum years. Unfortunately O’Brien was killed in 1862 in one of the earliest skirmishes of the Civil War, so we’ll never know what sort of writer he might have blossomed into. I have had a chance to peruse some of his tales, though, and what he did produce is highly enjoyable. Here are some capsule impressions.

* In The Wondersmith, a quartet of evil gypsies hatches a plot to commit mass murder by placing diabolical manikins (i.e., “miniature men”) under everyone’s Christmas tree disguised as children’s toys. Through some magical process they have inspirited the little dolls with “souls”, but these souls only seem to have one thought: kill, kill, kill. Their modus operandi is to stab with tiny poisoned swords. (This reminds me of Todd Browning’s film The Devil Doll. Ever seen it? Lionel Barrymore goes underground in drag dressed as an old French woman to get his revenge on the bankers who framed him). At any rate the gypsies’ plan goes awry when they get drunk and fall asleep, and the manikins break free and murder them. Thus proving the old adage that not only does crime not pay, it actually costs.

* In The Child Who Loved a Grave we get echoes of Gray’s Elegy, of Wordsworth and of Poe. The morbid fascination with graveyards and the dead or doomed child. A little boy’s parents are always drunk and quarreling, so he seeks peace and solace in the nice, quiet graveyard next door. He is drawn to hang out around one particular marker, which becomes his “friend”. Unfortunately some authorities come and exhume the corpse which turns out to be some little Prince whose remains must be brought back to Europe. The little boy is so despondent, he dies. They bury him in his favorite grave.

* The Golden Ingot. Feels almost like a fairy tale; I’d be surprised if he didn’t cop this from some place. A doctor is called to go see a man who is troubled with exhaustion. The doctor goes and learns that the man is an alchemist (or thinks he is, and is crazy). Every day he works hard, turning an ingot of base metal into gold. He has made hundreds of the things and is convinced that his daughter has stolen them from him, since she cannot produce them. In reality, there is but one true ingot of gold, which the daughter has been slipping into his experiments every day in order to make him believe he is a success. When he learns the truth, the alchemist of course dies.

* What Was It? A Mystery. Some folks live in a rooming house that is supposed to be haunted. One evening our hero is disturbed in his bed when someone jumps on him in the dark and tries to strangle him. He manages to subdue his assailant and when he gets the gaslight on, realizes to his horror that the creature is entirely invisible. He and others manage to tie the beast up. They never quite figure out what to do with it and it starves to death.

* The Diamond Lens: a young man is so obsessed with microscopy that he wants to build the perfect microscope, one that will allow him to see farther into the mini-verse (I just made that word up) than anyone has ever seen before. He consults a fortune teller who brokers a conversation with a medieval scientist, who tells him he must make a lens out of a 140 karat diamond. Coincidentally, his house mate later drunkenly informs him that he possesses a 140 karat diamond himself. Nothing to do of course but bump him off with an overdose of laudanum. The anti-hero gets his diamond, makes his lens, constructs his microscope, and when he looks at a drop of water under his lens he sees…a tiny forest full of flowering trees, inhabited by a single tiny girl, the most beautiful girl in the world. He of course falls in love with the girl and is driven mad by the fact that she and he exist on different planes and can never be together. In the end she dies, and there is nothing left but for him to go to an insane asylum to deal with his grief.

Want some more? You know you do! Go here. Most of the links seem to be bad, but it makes a nice jumping off point…a lot of the stories are available elsewhere on the net, and most others are available to order from your favorite book store.

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