Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Fantastic Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien




Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862) was an Irishman who, after dissipating his inheritance, moved to the United States, where he became an author of fantasies of science and the supernatural. From the 1850’s to his death in the American Civil War, he wrote numerous pieces which garnered him a reputation as the “Celtic Poe”. The introduction to The Fantastic Tales of Fitz-James O’Brien makes it clear that, due to the need for ready cash to finance the style of living to which he had become accustomed, his output was largely confined to magazine work - stories churned out to meet deadlines and thus considered in some way “inferior”.

While he perhaps did not attain the stylistic reputation of a Hawthorne or a Poe, O’Brien was clearly a pioneer of fantastic literature, following in the footsteps of these personages and their antecedent, Charles Brockden Brown. It is difficult to assess, in retrospect, the inventiveness of a talent such as his, for his heirs build upon his groundwork, and thus almost make his writings seem pedestrian. Still, he wrote, in “What Was It?” the story of a malevolent, invisible being long before Bierce and Wells, and, to my mind, “The Diamond Lens” (in which a “microscopist” uses cutting edge technology to discover a lovely, almost sub-atomic, nymph in a drop of water) prefigures the scientific fantasy of Wells. “The Wondersmith” fuses gypsy magic with prefabricated homunculi to bring forth an army of tiny assassins, programmed to bring about the extinction of American Christianity by murdering its children, as they sleep and dream of Christmas joys.

The purely supernatural has its place in O’Brien’s stories as well. “The Pot of Tulips” effectively retells a story, as old as antiquity, of a miser who in death reveals through signs and symbols the location of his hidden fortune. “The Lost Room” is reminiscent of an inferior Hawthorne – a young man steps out for a cigar, and returns to find his room weirdly transformed and occupied by a orgiastic party of Venetian revelers who, after a wager, turn him out of his habitation to wander forever in madness and despair.

“Seeing The World” is almost something out of the imagination of Borges. There is a mysterious stranger, returned from the East, who can heal the sick and confer poetic genius, but the price is outrageous, for the gift of seeing – of seeing everything in the world, in depth and simultaneously – the gift that Jupiter bestowed on Semele, is yet another doorway to madness. Finally, the collection is rounded out by the Oriental tale of “The Dragon Fang Possessed by the Conjurer Piou-Lu”, another tale of power and magic.

O’Brien writes most of the stories in the persona, apparently well know to him, of the comfortable bachelor, ensconced in his cozy lodgings, be it a haunted boarding house or a decaying Dutch mansion in upper Manhattan. Late evenings with cigar or opium, discussing supernatural possibilities with companions set a cozy tone, which will be upended by a shift of reality as objects of speculation become all too real. It would be wrong to judge O’Brien’s themes as hoary simply because we have encountered them in more well known authors who followed him down these speculative paths. Taken as exemplars of early nineteenth-century speculative fiction, these stories are still worth a read on a chill winter’s night.

(The illustration is a contemporary caricature of O'Brien as a Union Army recruiter.)

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