THE DEEP ONES: "The Lost Room" by Fitz-James O'Brien
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"The Lost Room" by Fitz-James O'Brien
Discussion begins October 11, 2017.
First published the September 1858 issue of Harper's Magazine.
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown
The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories
The Supernatural Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien, Volume One: Macabre Tales
I bought a book for this one. Fitz-James O'Brien: Gothic Short Stories.
>2 housefulofpaper: Was the book readily available or did you come across it in some mysterious old bookshop with dust and cobwebs strewn everywhere?
Sadly no mysterious old bookshop was involved. It was a kind of modern miracle, though - a POD paperback from Amazon (or rather, from a publisher in Texas using Amazon, the book printed somewhere in the UK and delivered as fresh as a loaf of bread!)
>4 housefulofpaper: I have recently had an inclination to read some of Fitz-James O'Brien's work and I notice your miracle of POD appears to have a comprehensive collection of his stories. I may invest. Thank you for bringing that edition to my notice.
This one turned out to be rewarding and interesting.
So many enigmas.
The figure in the garden. What is the nature of his revenge? Has he taken it? Why does the suggestion of his appearance not match the people the narrator encounters in his room?
Are the ghouls actually a separate species? Or is ghoul a metaphor for a sort of cannibalism practiced by regular humans? Is cannibalism even going on?
Does the house border some alternate dimension as suggested by the altered painting? Does it exist in another dimension?
It almost seemed like the story was operating at a symbolic level and about the decay of memory and social isolation. it starts with sort of a memory inventory evoked by contemplating objects in the narrator's room. When his visitors arrive, the objects are replaced by similar but not identical objects which have no emotional significance because they are not associated with people the narrator knew.
The narrator doesn't even think about the queerness of the other residents of the house until the stranger in the garden mentions it. Did it happen or has the idea been planted by the "ghoul" in the garden? For that matter, is the real object behind the metaphor of the ghoul a devouring of memory?
The story ends with a literal lost room, but the narrator has also lost something of his past.
In terms of the tradition of weird fiction, we seem to have an early example of an urban society of ghouls, horror in an urban setting and a house abutting other dimensions.
I'll begin with the trivial observation that where "The Diamond Lens" and "What Was It?" are, in terms of modern generic boundaries, science fiction, this is definitely not it.
I took "ghoul" to be a reference to corpse-eating habits, not species. But I did not therefore take the orgiasts to be regular humans, but rather a kind of Fair Folk, faeries, or what have you; dangerous denizens of an otherworld where different rules apply. Note that they attempt to convince the narrator to join them - people being lured into Faerie is an age-old trope.
Depending on how literally we're to take the narrators descriptions, the house may have dimensional abnormalities; not too unexpected if it's next door to Faerie. The entire place, with it's odd inhabitants, may be a sort of liminal zone between the otherworld and the world we know.
I was reminded of Aickman's "The Hospice," made stranger somehow by the fact that the protagonist wasn't even away from home when the weirdness went down.
>7 AndreasJ: I like the Faerie idea better than mine. And it fits in with O'Brien being Irish and likely having an acquaintance with that lore though I suspect knowledge of faerie lore was more widespread in the 19th century than now.
This was a wonderfully Weird and unsettling story. The enigmas propagate without solution, though I rather like the suggestion in >6 RandyStafford: there could be memory loss behind it. The idea fairly reverberates in the last lines. That said, it doesn't feel as though the story were merely a psychological dreamscape (and it would be fairly early for that sort of Freudian psychoplay).
I'll add here the observation that one passage seemed to recall the narrator's story of his ancestor's isle of Inniskeiran, the sea spray echoed in the description of the ghoul-Blokeeta playing at the organ: "Dark and sombre, and all through full of quivering and intense agony, it appeared to recall a dark and dismal night, on a cold reef, around which an unseen but terribly audible ocean broke with eternal fury."
Here's the Thomas Hood poem, "The Haunted House" which Fitz-James O'Brien name-drops. (The audio at the top of the page is amusing but unaccountably doesn't actually read the poem.)
I thought the ghouls might be vampires, bearing in mind how much of the Irish sídhe J. Sheridan Le Fanu incorporated into his vampires - or perhaps the supernatural world manifests itself with aspects of both folkloric vampirism and Faery.
I take it that we are to assume the intruders cheated when the narrator rolled the dice. There's a moment when the result is unclear "my sight was so confused that I could not distinguish the amount of the cast". And what was Bokheeta's role in this? Why, in the instant when the room, before it was lost forever, seemed to return to normal, was he present playing the organ? Are we to presume that he's one of the ghouls (and that there is a connection between Romantic keyboard music and a dangerous supernatural otherworld?).
One of my students directed me to this website, he is writing his paper on 'The Lost Room' and was looking for as much info as he could find and I thought I would chime in here.
A couple of things:
First, I am the editor of said collection of FJOB Gothic Short Stories. I am glad those that have looked at it have found it useful. I am currently a Doctorate student in Dallas Texas and my Dissertation is on O'Brien. I pitched the idea to a number of publishers and none of them were interested in the book idea, so I decided to do it myself. I have just updated a new edition, 3/e, which contains an introduction by me, illustrations of the stories from previous editions of O'Brien's works, and notes on the stories from Francis Wolle's biography on O'Brien. I have also updated the selections, corrected some minor errors, etc. The new edition contains the complete 'Fragments from an Unpublished Magazine' which contains one of O'Brien's most interesting stories, 'One Event.'
I am in the process of putting together a five-volume Collected Writings of O'Brien. Vol. I and II are finished, Vol I is available on amazon. Vol. II will be available in a few weeks. These will contain all his known short stories. Vol. III will be his major poetry, the novella 'The Phantom Light' and his popular play 'A Gentleman from Ireland.' Vol. IV will contain his journalism, including the complete 'Man About Town' series. Then Vol. V will be biographical material and letters.
Second, to the importance of the post, 'The Lost Room.' It is easily one of my favorite FJOB stories, it clearly explores one of the major themes with O'Brien, the notion of the 'Other.' I ask my student to compare it to Lovecraft's 'The Music of Erich Zann.' I think Lovecraft definitely had this story in mind when writing his story. It is well documented that Lovecraft was a fan of O'Brien, how much he may have read of him, we don't know. Winter's collection was published in 1881, so it's likely Lovecraft would have had access to this volume. 'The Lost Room' was one of thirteen stories included in that collection.
A number of important themes come from this story, O'Brien was fascinated with dichotomies: familiar v. unfamiliar, the individual v. the other, conscious v. unconscious. Even the idea of space was important for O'Brien, he was publishing early examples of Urban Gothic, and nowhere was this more clear and evident than in this story.
Would love any feedback on the O'Brien collections.
I will keep monitoring this site for other conversations about O'Brien. He deserves a much wider audience!
John P. Irish
Welcome, John! Fun to have a member of the group with deep knowledge of one of the more obscure Weird Tradition authors.
You may not have noticed the Group's home page link to our full discussion list: we've read 2 other O'Brien stories, "The Diamond Lens" (Summer 2017) and "What Was It?" (Summer 2015). I've linked to the dedicated thread for each story, we welcome new posts on old discussions as well as current readings.
Thanks for sending those links, I will check them out this weekend. Obviously two classics in the O'Brien canon, along with "The Wondersmith." "The Lost Room" is one of his more obscure stories, so I was fascinated that you all were, first, reading, then second, making some interesting insights.
We discussed "What Was It?" in class today and it struck me, with the conversation in this thread, that O'Brien might have been building an interesting thread with several of his stories: "What Was It?," "The Lost Room," "The Pot of Tulips," "The Diamond Lens," and possibly "The Golden Ingot" (maybe others as well) - did they all take place in the same building? I would need to go back and check because he often includes addresses with many of his Urban Gothic stories, but that might be interesting to investigate. :-) "The Golden Ingot" is probably a stretch, since, if I remember, it is described as a somewhat dilapidated building, which would be inconsistent with the other buildings.
John P. Irish
Any thoughts as to the idea that in "The Lost Room" the main character might have died and is stuck in Purgatory?
Also, if you want to read probably my favorite FJOB story, another one that is off the radar, check out "Seeing the World."
>16 jpi: "The Lost Room" is one of his more obscure stories
IIRC, I nominated it based on the mention in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
The revellers seem more Pagan than Christian, and the experience more abusive than correctional, so that he's in Purgatory doesn't strike me as likely. And then he's back in what's apparently the normal world minus his room.
>17 jpi: The revellers seem more Pagan more Christian ...
A good point, against which I'll simply note the entire narrative seems coloured by the narrator's experience more than reflective of facts, whatever they may be. I'm reminded of the film Jacob's Ladder in which Jacob's death is experienced as Hell until he realises Death is nothing to be feared, and then his passage takes on an entirely different cast.
That said, I was not left with the impression that anything as definite as Purgatory is indicated in the story. The force of it is the inexplicable Weirdness, as when a mortal enters a liminal space such as the border to Faery or another dimension.
The Purgatory idea was suggested to me by one of my fellow teachers, she is an English teacher and is currently having her students read Dante, so she may have been in "Dante mode." She and I team teach a class called American Studies. She really did not offer any substantive evidence, but I thought I would throw that out there to see what you all thought.
He seems to be caught between parallel universes, or some sort of alternative reality. The familiar v. the unfamiliar was an important theme for O'Brien. In a number of his stories, the main character experiences a foreign presence where it should be familiar. In "From Hand to Mouth" the main character experiences an entire weird hotel, one that he has never noticed before. Of course with O'Brien, like with Washington Irving, it's hard to know exactly what is going on. Irving always keeps you guessing as to the exact nature of the stories:
1. did Rip really fall asleep, or did he just run away from his nagging wife?
2. was the Headless Horseman real, or was it just BB messing with IC, for the attention of KvT.
3. in "Adventures of the German Student" did he main character have a nice evening, or was it something radically different?
Irving constantly asks the reader to consider the rational v. the supernatural ending. Whereas O'Brien constantly asks the reader to consider whether the action is actually taking place, or is the main character experiencing an outer body experience - usually sleep or drug induced state of consciousness.
I actually like the "prism" aspect of the Purgatory hypothesis: not sure what to call it, but that feature when multiple aspects of an odd situation all have an analogue in another situation. Not like an allegory, more like Shyamalan's Sixth Sense, a puzzle.
But in this case, not enough fits for it to be convincing.
Lovecraft mentions O'Brien twice in his long survey, "Supernatural Horror in Literature": in praising "The Horla" he assumes Maupassant's indebtedness to "a tale by the American Fitz-James O'Brien for details in describing the actual presence of the unseen monster" and a few pages later he briefly discusses O'Brien in his own right, touching on "What Was It?" again, and summarising "Diamond Lens" in a sentence. His verdict is "O'Brien's early death undoubtedly deprived us of some masterful tales of strangeness and terror, though his genius was not, properly speaking, of the same titan quality which characterised Poe and Hawthorne".
Can I also thank you and congratulate you on your edition of O'Brien's Gothic stories (with, I have to confess, a degree of ruefulness that I've barely made any headway in the book, only to learn that there's a new edition!)
For what it's worth, I haven't been persuaded to change my view of "The Lost Room" as a vampire/faerie story in the mould of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire stories.
The new edition has some things that I wanted to include in the 2nd edition, but simply did not have time to get in. The introduction was basically a paper I wrote for one of my grad classes on Creativity and Dreams, where I used O'Brien's technique to explore some larger issues of the class. I did include all his known weird fiction in the new edition, so "From Hand to Mouth," "The King of Nodland," and "The Adventures of Mr. Papplewick," all found their way in the new edition. Along with the complete, "Fragments from an Unpublished Magazine" which contains some of his really weird fiction, like the story "One Event." Then I included notes from O'Brien's biographer on the different stories, as kind of mini introductions to each story, along with a number of illustrations. Most of these came from suggestions from my students this year. The ONLY story missing from that collection, that I would classify as Fantasy/Weird/SF/Horror is "The Phantom Light." I have been working on getting a copy of the original text for that and have finally found it from the National Library of Ireland. It's rather lengthy, so I am including that in Vol. III of the Collected Writings, which will contain his major poetry, the novella, and his famous play "A Gentleman from Ireland."
I've always thought of "The Lost Room" as a variant of the vampire story. And I agree with Lovecraft, that "What Was It?" probably was a heavy influence on "The Horla." I don't know if there is much textual evidence for this claim, but O'Brien was such a student of French, it's hard to imagine him not having some influence on that literature. Also, as a side, since O'Brien was such a fan of Poe, it's important to remember that Poe really got his first successful audience in France. So I do think there are some important connections working both ways from Europe to America and back.
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