Fitz-James O'Brien

The Celtic Poet

James Lecky

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Fitz-James O'Brien (1828 – 1861) is something of a forgotten master of the weird tale, but nonetheless a writer whose work was important not only in the development of speculative fiction, but also the development of the modern short story.

Born Michael O'Brien in County Cork and raised primarily in Limerick, O'Brien was of Anglo-Irish stock (as were so many Irish fantasists of the 19th century). Little is known of his early life – he is believed to have served in the British army for a time and to have edited a literary magazine entitled The Parlour Magazine of the Literature of All Nations. Although inheriting some £8000 pounds on his 21st birthday O'Brien emigrated to America almost penniless in 1852. He landed first in Washington D.C and at some point became a naturalised U.S citizen. He then went to New York, then America's literary capital, and quickly joined the ranks of the writers and artists who frequented Pfaff's Cellar on Broadway. It was in New York that his literary career proper and his entry into Bohemian life began.

A frequent contributor of articles and poetry to such magazines Whig Review and Harper's Magazine, he also wrote for the stage with his play 'A Gentleman From Ireland' enjoying ongoing success. But it is as a writer of fantastic tales, and as a forerunner of modern science fiction that he is probably best remembered.

Of his speculative tales, The Diamond Lens (1858) and The Wondersmith (1859) rank among the finest proto-sf and pre-dated a number of themes that were to become common currency in later science fiction, particularly during the pulp era of the 1920s and 1930s.

The Diamond Lens is one of the first examples of a 'microscopic world' in which the narrator – himself an early example of the driven (or Mad) scientist – becomes obsessed with delving deeper and deeper into the atomic and sub-atomic, eventually discovering a whole world contained within a drop of water:

“. . . the lens approached the object a scene of indescribable beauty was unfolded to my view.

I seemed to gaze upon a vast space, the limits of which extended far beyond my vision. An atmosphere of magical luminousness permeated the entire field of view. I was amazed to see no trace of animalculous life. Not a living thing, apparently, inhabited that dazzling expanse. I comprehended instantly that, by the wondrous power of my lens, I had penetrated beyond the grosser particles of aqueous matter, beyond the realms of infusoria and protozoa, down to the original gaseous globule, into whose luminous interior I was gazing as into an almost boundless dome filled with a supernatural radiance. . .

On every side I beheld beautiful inorganic forms, of unknown texture, and colored with the most enchanting hues. These forms presented the appearance of what might be called, for want of a more specific definition, foliated clouds of the highest rarity―that is, they undulated and broke into vegetable formations, and were tinged with splendors compared with which the gilding of our autumn woodlands is as dross compared with gold. Far away into the illimitable distance stretched long avenues of these gaseous forests, dimly transparent, and painted with prismatic hues of unimaginable brilliancy. The pendent branches waved along the fluid glades. . ."

However O'Brien was never content simply to astound the reader and his stories rarely resonated on a single note. The Diamond Lens is not simply the tale of a man discovering a microscopic world but also brings in spiritualism and murder as the narrator strives to obtain more and more powerful lenses. In some regards it is an extension of the Frankenstein motif and, certainly, in its crushing denouement neatly fulfils Brian Aldiss' definition of science fiction as 'hubris clobbered by nemesis'. 

Not only does the narrator find a hidden world but also:

“. . .     It was a female human shape. When I say human, I mean it possessed the outlines of humanity; but there the analogy ends. Its adorable beauty lifted it illimitable heights beyond the loveliest daughter of Adam.”

His obsession with the woman he names Animula grows and grows but tragedy awaits (or perhaps it is simply a kind of cosmic retribution for his crimes):

“Some secret grief seemed to cloud the lovely features of her I gazed upon. Her face had grown thin and haggard; her limbs trailed heavily; the wondrous lustre of her golden hair had faded. She was ill―ill, and I could not assist her! I believe at that moment I would have forfeited all claims to my human birthright if I could only have been dwarfed to the size of an animalcule, and permitted to console her from whom fate had forever divided me. . . The slide was still there―but, great heavens, the water drop had vanished! The awful truth burst upon me; it had evaporated, until it had become so minute as to be invisible to the naked eye; I had been gazing on its last atom, the one that contained Animula―and she was dying . . .  The rainbow-hued forests had all melted away, and Animula lay struggling feebly in what seemed to be a spot of dim light. Ah! the sight was horrible: the limbs once so round and lovely shriveling up into nothings; the eyes―those eyes that shone like heaven―being quenched into black dust; the lustrous golden hair now lank and discolored.”

Tragedy and retribution are common motifs in O'Brien's work. In The Wondersmith – itself one of the earliest appearances of evil automatons in science fiction – a plan to unleash a horde of murderous toys goes horribly awry leading to the destruction of the toymaker, Herr Hippe, and his confederates:

“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. . . 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.”

This is not to say, of course, that O'Brien was without his more whimsical side. In The Comet and I (1857), New York is about to be struck by a comet and the narrator meets its earthly embodiment:

“. . .  I felt a tip on my shoulder, and, turning round, saw a queer, rubicund-looking little old man standing beside me. He was dressed in an odd flame-colored suit, a red cap, and I declare most solemnly that I beheld, protruding from underneath his RagIan, a long, fan-shaped tail.”

Taking advantage of this meeting the narrator persuades the comet to destroy only certain areas of the city, in particular those parts he feels deserve it:

"This is the celebrated Wall Street. . . the paradise of adventurers. Sweep it, my dear Comet, from top to bottom. Don't leave a trace of it. A single fragment of it, if left floating around, will, like the polypus, become an independent settlement, and grow to its original size. It is here that speculation fattens as a bubble grows, swelling and swelling, until suddenly, the thing bursts, and all that remains is a little dirty water. . . There is a fraternity of brigandage among these brokers that forbids them devouring each other; but woe to him who, belonging not to their band, ventures with full pockets into their domain. Here many lofty hopes have died. Here many honorable shields have been stained forever. Here is what may be considered the great centre of the floating capital of New York. Yet there is not a prison in the city that has not had its ranks of malefactors recruited from the Board of Brokers."

In The King of Nodland and His Dwarf (1852) – an early example of what would come to be known as Secondary World Fantasy – the perennially sleepy but warlike people of Nod are stirred to rebellion against King Slumberous and his sinister Prime Minister Incubus when it is announced that sleep itself is to be taxed. One of O'Brien's more overtly jocular tales it is nonetheless a barbed narrative that criticises politics, slavery, war and the 'professional revolutionaries' and anarchists who were so common in the Victorian era.

But is in his darker tales that O'Brien finds his most striking voice. The Child That Loved A Grave (1861) is a dark fable whereby a small boy, starved of affection at home, comes to identify with the grave of another, anonymous, child, only to have even that small crumb of comfort snatched away from him:

“'Tush, child, you are a fool!' answered the stern-faced man 'This is a sacred duty that I have to perform. He who is buried here was a child like you; but he was of royal blood, and his ancestors dwelt in palaces. It is not meet that bones like his should rest in common soil. Across the sea a grand mausoleum awaits them, and I have come to take them with me and lay them in vaults of porphyry and marble. Take him away, men, and to your work.'. So the men dragged the child from the grave by main force, and laid him nearby in the grass, sobbing as if his heart would break; and then they dug up the grave. Through his tears he saw the small white bones gathered up and put in the ebony coffin, and heard the lid shut down, and saw the men shovel back the earth into the empty grave, and he felt as if they were robbers. Then they took up the coffin and retraced their steps. The gate shrieked once more on its hinges, and the child was alone.

He returned home silent, and tearless, and white as any ghost. When he went to his little bed he called his father, and told him he was going to die, and asked him to have him buried in the little grave that had a grey head-stone with a sun rising out of the sea carved upon it The father laughed, and told him to go to sleep; but when morning came the child was dead!”

In Jubal the Ringer (1858), one of O'Brien's more overtly Gothic tales, a spurned bell-ringer takes a terrible vengeance on a young woman on the day of her wedding:

“Still the terrible peals went on. The tortured bells swung now this way, now that, yelled forth a frightful diapason of sound that shook the very earth. Faster and faster Jubal tolled their iron tongues. Louder and louder grew the brazen clamor. The huge beams that supported the chimes cracked and groaned. The air, beaten with these violent sounds, swelled into waves that became billows, that in turn became mountains, and surged with irresistible force against the walls of the turret. . . The stones in the walls trembled, and from between their crevices vomited forth dust and mortar. The whole turret shook from base to apex.

Suddenly the people below beheld a vast cloud of bats issue from between the stones of the belfry and fly toward the west. . . The turret rocked twice, then toppled. Down through the vaulted arch, crushing it in as if it had been glass; down through the incensed air that filled the aisle, on priest and bride and bridegroom and parents and friends, came a white blinding mass of stone and mortar, and the next instant there was nothing but a cloud of dust slowly rising, a splash of blood here and there, that the dry stones soaked in, and one battered human head with long hair, half-visible through the mass of ruin. It was Jubal dead, but also Jubal avenged.”

It is in these and other stories – in particular Mother of Pearl (1860), What Was It? (1859) and An Arabian Nightmare (1851) – that the heart of O'Brien's fiction can be found. They are dark and often surreal stories – Mother of Pearl involves drug addiction, somnambulism and infanticide, What Was It? centres around a mysterious, invisible and murderous creature, the exact nature of which is never revealed, and An Arabian Nightmare mixes demonology and devil worship into its dreamlike narrative.

But perhaps more importantly, O'Brien places the fantastic squarely at the heart of his stories, rarely resorting to 'rational' explanations or to that staple of Victorian literature the dream narrative (although when he does, as in An Arabian Nightmare, the result is fragmented and disturbing).

In this regard, it is probably true to say that Fitz-James O'Brien was a conscious heir to the literary legacy of Edgar Allan Poe and, indeed, O'Brien was known in some quarters as 'the Celtic Poe'.  The same themes – nightmares, obsession, addiction and doomed love – that exist so strongly in Poe's work occur time and time again in O'Brien's, although their literary styles differ in many important respects. Like Poe, O'Brien often struggled financially as a writer, and, like Poe, helped to bring to the popular short story a sense of narrative and of character. Time and again in his fiction, O'Brien sets the scene in which the impossible or improbable is about to happen so that the internal reality of the events are never called into question. In other words, there is a sense of believability in his work, even at its most fantastical.

The opening passages of The Wondersmith, for example, paint a vivid picture of New York in the middle of the 19th century:

A small lane, the name of which I have forgotten, or do not choose to remember, slants suddenly off from Chatham Street, (before that headlong thoroughfare reaches into the Park,) and retreats suddenly down towards the East River, as if it were disgusted with the smell of old clothes, and had determined to wash itself clean. . . All the oddities of trade seem to have found their way thither and made an eccentric mercantile settlement. There is a bird-shop at one corner, wainscoted with little cages containing linnets, waxwings, canaries, blackbirds, Mino-birds, with a hundred other varieties, known only to naturalists. Immediately opposite is an establishment where they sell nothing but ornaments made out of the tinted leaves of autumn, varnished and gummed into various forms. Farther down is a second-hand book-stall, which looks like a sentry-box mangled out flat, and which is remarkable for not containing a complete set of any work. There is a small chink between two ordinary-sized houses, in which a little Frenchman makes and sells artificial eyes. . .”

In 1861, when it became apparent that civil war was inevitable between the North and South, O'Brien joined the Union Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant in early 1862. In spring of that year he was badly wounded in a skirmish and died seven weeks later at the age of 33. His early death, of course, left his literary potential unfulfilled; he left behind a small body of work that helped point the short story in a new direction. His best work was dark, often bleak, and often remarkable.