The Diamond Lens, with Other Stories, 1885
What Was It?, and Other Stories, 1889
Collected Stories by Fitz-James O’Brien, 1925
The Fantastic Tales of Fitz-James O’Brien, 1977
The Supernatural Tales of Fitz-James O’Brien, 1988 (2 volumes)
My Christmas Dinner, pr. 1852
A Gentleman from Ireland, pr. 1854, pb. 1858
The Sisters, pr. 1856
Duke Humphrey’s Dinner, pr. 1856
The Tycoon: Or, Young America in Japan, pr. 1860 (with Charles G. Rosenberg)
Sir Basil’s Falcon, 1853
The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O’Brien, 1881, 1969
Fitz-James O’Brien is remembered today solely for a handful of striking science-fiction and fantasy stories. Uncertainties regarding his birth–some believe he was born as early as 1826 or as late as 1830–reflect a general lack of information about his upbringing in Ireland, although it is known that his family was fairly well-to-do. After receiving a sizable inheritance, he moved to London in 1850 and squandered his fortune in two years. While in Ireland and England, he published numerous poems and one story, “An Arabian Nightmare” (1851), that first displayed his talent for supernatural fiction.
In 1852 he immigrated to New York–because, he claimed, of a scandal involving an officer’s wife–and soon established himself as a leader of that city’s literary bohemians. He led a glamorous, irresponsible life of late-night parties, unpaid bills, frequent evictions, and (according to modern researchers) homosexual relationships. Working fitfully but energetically, he somehow managed to produce a respectable number of poems, plays, stories, essays, and reviews, which were published in a variety of magazines and newspapers.
Though O’Brien’s poems were popular in their day, especially “Kane” (1857), a tribute to an Arctic explorer, they have not aged well–one critic has called them “appalling”–because they reflect a conventional side to his character: a nostalgic fondness for Irish landscapes, the lore of the sea, and contrived morality tales. Only rarely, as in his eerie sonnet “The Ghosts” (1859), does O’Brien’s poetry convey the chilling alienation that characterized his best fiction.
For the stage, O’Brien flaunted his wit, writing short comedies about sophisticated ne’er-do-wells not unlike himself. His only published play, A Gentleman from Ireland, begins with some macabre humor: A father expecting a visit from the son of a friend is warned that the man enjoys assuming false identities. When a traveling companion arrives with the news that the man suddenly died during his trip, the father’s family assumes that their visitor is the son in disguise and reacts to each announcement of his genuine death with laughter and sarcasm. Later complications involve the companion and the father’s son fleeing from a bailiff because of unpaid debts, a situation perhaps familiar to O’Brien. He also turned his 1856 story “Duke Humphrey’s Dinner,” about a couple elegantly descending into poverty who are rescued by a chance encounter with an old friend, into a produced play.
O’Brien’s early stories include exotic fantasies such as “The King of Nodland and His Dwarf” (1852), which might be read as a satirical attack on indolent Americans who placidly accept corrupt government and the evil institution of slavery. “The Dragon-Fang Possessed by the Conjuror Piou-Lu” (1856) is a tale of Chinese magic, and “Seeing the World” (1857) describes a poet magically granted the power to see everything as it really is, with tragic consequences.
O’Brien’s breakthrough story was “The Diamond Lens,” which caused a sensation when published in 1858. Particularly of interest to those who see him as a pioneering science-fiction writer, the story is a study of an obsessed scientist, so fascinated by the beautiful little woman he observes through his remarkable microscope that he fails to notice that the water drop where she lives has evaporated, dooming her to death. However, the story also describes the plight of the artist, with imaginative access to an ideal alternative reality, though the vision is fragile and ultimately serves only to isolate the artist from the real world’s more mundane pleasures.
Other admirable, if less accomplished, fantastic stories followed. “From Hand to Mouth” (1858) is a surrealistic fantasy about a writer imprisoned in a hotel controlled by disembodied hands, eyes, ears, and mouths, possibly commenting on the ways that working writers are stunted and reduced to being servants, observers, and mouthpieces. In “The Lost Room” convivial ghosts seize control of a man’s room and make it vanish. “What Was It? A Mystery” (1859) journalistically describes the capture of a mysterious invisible being revealed by a plaster mold to be grotesque but humanlike. In “The Wondersmith” (1859) a vengeful gypsy magically animates an army of toys to kill thousands of children, but they destroy him instead. “The Child That Loved a Grave” (1861) is a vignette about a boy obsessed with a child’s grave who chooses to die and to be buried there when the original occupant is disinterred. While distinguished by brilliant ideas and evocatively detailed settings, O’Brien’s stories are sometimes marred by awkward structure and inadequate development, reflecting their hasty composition.
In 1861 O’Brien enthusiastically volunteered to serve as a soldier in the Civil War, first in the Seventh Regiment, later as an aide to General Frederick W. Lander. In 1862, a mistreated battle wound led to his early death. Possibly because of his scandalous lifestyle, it took a friend two decades to get his works published in book form. Since then, his reputation as an imaginative writer who continued the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and anticipated modern science fiction has steadily grown.