Short Story Showcase: What Was It? by Fitz-James O’Brien
|Illustration from Famous Fantastic Mysteries|
I first came across this curious and highly effective little tale in Christopher Frayling’s tome, Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. While one of the earliest examples of the 'Invisible Force' tale, Frayling included O’Brien’s twisted little yarn in his study of vampire literature, as he viewed it as a variation on traditional vampire motifs. What Was It? was first published in Harper’s Magazine, in March 1859, and tells of the residents of a particular lodging house who encounter an invisible, seemingly blood-thirsty creature in one of the rooms. Once they manage to apprehend it, they attempt to study it.
Frayling refers to Irish-born American O’Brien (1828 – 1862) - generally regarded as a forerunner of science fiction - as a ‘domestic’ Edgar Allan Poe. Despite his rational approach to bizarre, seemingly supernatural subject matter, in one of the last letters he wrote before his death, apparently the author exclaimed “Great Jupiter! I believe in spooks.” His style throughout What Was It? is particularly matter of fact, and it lends the story an air of authenticity, grounding it in the rational, and ensuring that when things get weird, the impact is greatly enhanced. Indeed, the reaction of the characters to their uninvited guest is, after that of initial horror, one of scientific curiosity, and they set out to study it. As mentioned, the tale is significant because it was one of the first to feature the concept of an invisible being - and is even more unique - and significant in horror - because the invisible entity is a malevolent supernatural creature which Frayling perceives to be a variation of the traditional vampire. It inspired the likes of The Horla by Guy de Maupassant and perhaps even HG Wells’ The Invisible Man. Interestingly, according to Frayling, it also represents a literary version of Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare.
|Fuseli's The Nightmare|
One of the most striking aspects of the story is the amount of sympathy O’Brien generates for the pitiful creature. Initially menacing and highly creepy, all ‘sharp teeth’ and ‘bony, sinewy, agile hands’ the creature is soon overpowered and tied up ‘shivering with agony’; at one stage O’Brien even compares it to a small child. When it comes to describing the physical appearance of the little beast, O’Brien is quite restrained, only really saying that it resembles a face in French illustrator Tony Johannot’s Un Voyage ou il vous plaira (1843) which ‘somewhat approaches’ the ‘hideous’ countenance of this creature which ‘looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.’
|Sketches from Un Voyage ou il vous plaira|
|Another sketch from Un Voyage ou il vous plaira|