Wednesday, July 15, 2015


In the wild days of 1988, the honorable Jessica Amanda Salmonson edited a two-volume set of the supernatural works of Fitz-James O'Brien, one of the great overlooked American authors of the weird. And she did an amazing job, digging stories that hadn't seen the light of day in nearly a century. Volume 1 is dedicated to "Macabre Tales."

"But...but I know who Fitz-James O'Brien is!" I hear you cry. Sure, he's famous for "The Diamond Lens," a deservedly famous weird tale. Or maybe you know "What Was It?", another notable tale which was also probably the first to deal with invisibility. But really...what beyond that do you know?

Fitz-James O'Brien (1826? - 1862) was born in Ireland to a well-off family, but had a taste for high living that proved ruinous to his inheritance. Little is known of his life before he emigrated to American shores, but it is believed he was well-educated and fairly well-traveled. He came to New York in 1852 nearly broke, and set out to be a writer. He had some success, and was a noted dandy and man-about-town. He was also gay, which many don't talk about, and was a fixture in New York's gay bohemian circles, along with Walt Whitman. He was a scrapper, getting into a number of fights, and was a noted wit. He joined the Union army in the Civil War, was wounded, and died of tetanus in Cumberland, MD, on April 6th, 1862, and is buried in New York.

Now...for the stories!

"The Lost Room" is a great, nightmarish tale of a man who finds his boardinghouse quarters bizarrely altered; Salmonson wonders if it wasn't founded on O'Brien's experiences of moving here and there when he was broke and desperate. "The Child That Loved a Grave" is a short-short about a morbid child that reminds me of Lovecraft in his early poetic attempts.

"The Diamond Lens" is an inarguable classic, and becomes even more interesting in the context of O'Brien's life and his yearning for unattainable perfection. "The Pot of Tulips" is very nicely written, but lacks some of the unique bizzarerie of some of the other tales, in that it's a rather standard ghost story. "The Bohemian" tells a tale of treasure-hunting and mesmerism, still little understood at the time.

"Seeing the World" is a parable of the downsides of the artistic temperament which sees the world a bit TOO clearly. "What Was It?" is a landmark tale of a house haunted by a very tangible, yet invisible presence. "The Wondersmith" is probably the longest story in the collection, a tale in the style of E. T. A. Hoffmann, about a toymaker who plots with a witch to bring his toy soldiers to life with the aid of evil spirits and wreak havoc on New Year's morning. It's got some problematic racial views; the villain is a Gypsy who is motivated by a hatred of Caucasians, blaming whites for the death of his son, who perished of alcoholism.

"A Dead Secret" is reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce, in which a desperately poor young man trades identities with a wealthy man who dies in his presence, only to be pursued by a bizarre conspiracy that will not let him rest. "A Legend of Barlagh Cave" is a sort of faux folktale involving violence and fate in a cave in Ireland. The final tale, "Jubal the Ringer," is a nicely gruesome tale in which a hunchbacked bell-ringer (Victor Hugo, anyone?) takes revenge on a beautiful, heartless woman who spurned him.

This collection is a good read. O'Brien could be a bit of a recycler, borrowing elements from Hoffmann and Hugo, but even then he'll put interesting twists on the material. But when he's original, he's ORIGINAL. And in the best of his tales you get a glimpse of what it was like to be a Bohemian in mid-1800s New York, living in boardinghouses and hanging out in raffish bars and restaurants.

Salmonson's collection is a bit hard to find these days, but it can be bought for fairly reasonable prices. A new collection of 14 tales, published by the University of Delaware Press, is available, with some never-before-published tales, but it costs $95 in hardcover and $65 for the Kindle edition. No thank you. Search out Salmonson's instead. Her commentary on the stories, and her biographical sketch of O'Brien, are excellent.

I'll be reviewing the second volume in the near future, so stay tuned.

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