Short Story Showcase: What Was It? by Fitz-James O’Brien

Illustration from Famous Fantastic Mysteries
They could feel and hear the Nameless Horror, but they could not see it… They could have no doubt that it was present among them, but… what was it?

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
O’Brien wastes no time in setting the scene (a roomy, comfortable, though reputedly haunted boarding house, situated in New York City), establishing the characters (intellectual bohemians who enjoy smoking opium and analysing everything) and getting to the nitty-gritty - a horrid encounter with an invisible, bloodthirsty creature (“While I was lying, still as a corpse… a ‘something’ dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plump upon my chest…”) in the middle of the night. After the initial panic the creature causes, the story soon focuses on the attempts of the characters to discover just what exactly their intruder is. They strap it to a bed and take a plaster mold of it to try and get an idea of what it looks like, before it eventually starves to death.

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
The implication that this is not the only creature of its kind is chilling to the core. If you’re not familiar with this tale, you can read it here. It is recommended that you do.


Cullan Hudson said…
Fantastic! Love this! Another similar story would be Maupassant's Le Horla, which given that it was written in the 1880s might have been informed by this story.
psynno said…
Hi James, just read this and really enjoyed it. O'Brien is new to me, will have to check out this author's work... Hope you are well.

Popular posts from this blog

The Haunting of Black Wood

Beware the Autumn People...

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010)