Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Weird Tales from Ireland and Scotland

J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Born August 28, 1814, Dublin, Ireland
Died February 7, 1873, Dublin, Ireland

For Weird Tales
"Green Tea" (July 1933)

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin to a family descended from French Huguenots. He educated himself in part from his father's large library and studied law at Trinity College, only to abandon that field in his mid-twenties for a career in journalism. In 1838, he began contributing stories to Dublin University Magazine. His first ghost story, "The Ghost and the Bone-Setter," dates from that same year.

Although Le Fanu wrote stories and novels in many different genres, he is most well known today for his horror stories and mysteries. His novella Carmilla proved a great influence on fellow Irishman Bram Stoker (1847-1912) and on Stoker's Dracula from a quarter century later. Carmilla was published first in the journal The Dark Blue, then in Le Fanu's hardbound collection In a Glass Darkly in 1872. The book includes five stories taken posthumously from the papers of Dr. Martin Hesselius, considered the first occult detective in fiction. "Green Tea," concerning a demonic monkey, also comes from that collection and was reprinted in Weird Tales in July 1933. According to Wikipedia, writer and moviemaker Val Lewton (also a contributor to Weird Tales) was influenced by Le Fanu's indirect manner in dealing with horror and the supernatural. I assume that William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918), creator of the occult detective Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, was also an admirer of Sheridan Le Fanu.

Fitz-James O'Brien
NĂ© Michael O'Brien, aka Fitz James O'Brien
Born ca. 1828, County Cork (or County Kerry?), Ireland
Died April 6, 1862, Cumberland, Maryland

For Weird Tales
"What Was It?" (Dec. 1925)
"The Dragon Fang" (July 1927)
"The Diamond Lens" (Apr. 1929)
"The Lost Room" (Oct. 1929)
"The Pot of Tulips" (May 1933)
"The Wondersmith" (July 1935)

"Profligate, prodigal, dashing, versifying" Fitz-James O'Brien was a seminal figure in science fiction. In his brief career, he wrote about invisibility, microscopic worlds, miniature automata, and anti-gravity. Burning his candle at both ends, O'Brien lived a Bohemian life filled with travel, adventure, romance, and literary success--all ending in a Civil War hospital. Magazines in Ireland, Scotland, and England printed his youthful poems and stories. Indifferent to money (he squandered an ₤8,000 inheritance in less than three years) and to convention (he attempted to elope with the wife of a British military officer), O'Brien left (or fled) the British Isles and arrived in the United States in 1851 or 1852. Here he effectively assumed the mantle dropped by Edgar Allan Poe upon his death in 1849. Over the next ten years, O'Brien sold stories, articles, and poems to Lantern, Home Journal, New York Times, American Whig Review, Harper's Magazine, New York Saturday Press, Putnam's Magazine, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic Monthly, and enjoyed commercial success and a life among the literary crowd in New York City. O'Brien also wrote plays and song lyrics.

Weird Tales reprinted several of Fitz-James O'Brien's most well known and influential stories:
  • "What Was It? A Mystery" (1859) is a story of an invisible monster, presaging Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla" (1887), Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" (1893), H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" (1927), and the Invisible Monster from Jonny Quest (1965).
  • "The Dragon Fang" was originally published as "The Dragon-Fang Possessed by the Conjuror Piou-Lu" in 1856.
  • "The Diamond Lens" (1858) is probably O'Brien's most famous tale. In it, the narrator murders (as a Poe narrator would have) to procure a diamond which he uses to peer into a microscopic world. Ray Cummings in The Girl in the Golden Atom (1919) and Dr. Seuss in Horton Hears a Who (1954) are among the many authors to take up the same theme.
  • "The Lost Room" (1858) is the story of a man who returns to his home, only to find it occupied by "carousing couples whom he cannot evict."
  • "The Pot of Tulips" (1855) is "a ghost story featuring a return from the grave."
  • "The Wondersmith" (1859) is an early incarnation of the science fiction/horror theme of the small, murderous toy or doll. The 1975 film Trilogy of Terror, written by Richard Matheson, directed by Dan Curtis, and starring Karen Black, features a variation on the theme.
When Civil War came to his adopted country, Fitz-James O'Brien joined the 90th Infantry in New York, initially commissioned as a captain. He would eventually see action as a lieutenant on the staff of Brigadier General Frederick West Lander (1821-1862), who was--coincidentally or not--also a poet. On February 26, 1862, Lieut. O'Brien was wounded by Confederate forces in a confused encounter on the battlefield. He lingered until April 6 and died in Cumberland, Maryland, at age thirty-three. (Gen. Lander had preceded him in death by a few weeks.) O'Brien's body was returned to New York City for burial at Greenwood Cemetery.

Notes: The quotes are from Alternate Worlds by James Gunn (1975). The opening quote is from Bruce Franklin, quoted in Mr. Gunn's book. There is some question as to Fitz-James O'Brien's birth year. Various sources give it as 1828. However, when he enlisted in the infantry on August 16, 1861, he gave his age as thirty-two, while his coffin bore the inscription: "Lieut. Fitz James O'Brien, U.S. Volunteers, Died April 6, 1862, aged 33." If both figures are correct, then O'Brien turned thirty-three sometime between August 16, 1861, and April 6, 1862, establishing the date of his birth as in late 1828 or early 1829. Weird Tales researcher Randal Everts informs me that the coffin actually reads "Aet. 33," meaning by his interpretation that O'Brien was at the time of his death in his thirty-third year, hence aged thirty-two. If that's the case, then O'Brien was born in either 1829 or 1830. I have found records of three boys named Michael O'Brien born between 1828 and 1830 in Ireland. (You might ask: "Only three Michael O'Briens in three years' time?") The best candidate might be the Michael O'Brien baptized on December 28, 1828, in Killarney, County Kerry. Why? The child's father was named James, hence the name "Fitz-James," or "son of James." On the other hand, the baptism was in a Catholic Church, while O'Brien's funeral service was Episcopal. In any case, the date of baptism would also place his birthdate close to that cited by Wikipedia, which may come from research by science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz. Fitz-James O'Brien is far too interesting a character to cover adequately in a blog posting. Unfortunately, I don't have access to biographies written by William Winter or Francis Wolle. Finally, thanks to Randal Everts for pointing out the issue of O'Brien's birthdate.

Bram Stoker
Born November 8, 1847, Dublin, Ireland
Died April 20, 1912, London

For Weird Tales
"Dracula's Guest" (Dec. 1927)
"The Burial of the Rats" (Sept. 1928)
"The Secret of the Growing Gold" (Dec. 1933)
"The Coming of Abel Behenna" (Sept. 1934)
"The Judge's House" (Mar. 1935)
"A Gipsy Prophecy" (Feb. 1937)

Bram Stoker's name still lives in reference to his most famous character, the undead Count Dracula. Published in 1897, Stoker's novel, Dracula, has spawned countless adaptations, spinoffs, and imitations in every genre and medium, from Count Chocula to Blacula to Bunnicula to Count Duckula. Stoker wrote other horror fiction as well, including the novels The Lady of the Shroud (1909) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911).

Dublin-born Abraham "Bram" Stoker was connected to two other Irish writers on this list: he went to school at Trinity College with Oscar Wilde, and, early in his career, Stoker worked as a theater critic on the Dublin Evening Mail, co-owned by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Stoker also married Wilde's old girlfriend, Florence Balcombe (1858-1937). Florence was her husband's fierce champion and literary executor. During the 1920s, she waged a campaign to have copies of Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized film adaptation of Dracula, destroyed. Luckily for subsequent generations of film and horror fans--moreover, for art's sake and for our own cultural heritage--she failed. The struggle must have seemed important to her then. Now, with Dracula in the public domain, it seems shortsighted and meaningless. Bram Stoker died at age sixty-four and--like a vampire exposed to sunlight--was reduced to ashes, in Stoker's case, by cremation.

Ian Maclaren
Pseudonym of Reverend John Watson
Born November 3, 1850, Manningtree, Essex, England
Died May 6, 1907, Mount Pleasant, Iowa

For Weird Tales
"The Clash of Dishes" (Fall 1973, originally The Windsor Magazine, May 1903)

John Watson, son of John Watson, neither related to Sherlock Holmes' sidekick, was a well-educated minister in the Free Church of Scotland who wrote collections of sermons under his own name and works of fiction under the name Ian Maclaren. His books using the Maclaren name include Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (1894), The Days of Auld Lang Syne (1895), Kate Carnegie and Those Ministers (1896), and Afterwards and Other Stories (1898). John Watson spent his career speaking from the pulpit or in front of synods. Ironically he died from complications from a case of tonsillitis, far from home in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. His story, “The Clash of Dishes,” first appeared in The Windsor Magazine in May 1903 as part of a series of unsolved (fictional) mysteries. Sam Moskowitz wrote an introduction to the story and reprinted it in his Weird Tales revival issue of Fall 1973.

Arthur Conan Doyle
Born May 22, 1859, Edinburgh, Scotland
Died July 7, 1930, Crowborough, East Sussex, England

For Weird Tales
"The Ring of Thoth" (July 1936)
"The Great Keinplatz Experiment" (Oct. 1936)

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, was born in Scotland of Irish Catholic parents. Curiously, two of Sherlock Holmes' worst enemies bear Irish surnames: James Moriarty and Sebastian Moran. A Freudian interpretation of that fact might lead to a discussion of Doyle's alcoholic father and even to his adoption of his godfather's surname, Conan. In any case, the biography of Arthur Conan Doyle is readily available in more than one book and on more than one website. Suffice it to say that Weird Tales reprinted two of his stories posthumously, "The Ring of Thoth" and "The Great Keinplatz Experiment," both in 1936. Charles R. Rutledge discusses the former story on his blog, Singular Points, and makes mention of the influence of "The Ring of Thoth" on Universal Pictures' 1932 horror classic, The Mummy, and on the pulp fiction of Robert E. Howard.  

Oscar Wilde
Born October 16, 1854, Dublin, Ireland
Died November 30, 1900, Paris, France

For Weird Tales
"The Young King" (Nov. 1925)

Born in Dublin and eventually an exile in Paris, Oscar Wilde wrote short stories, essays, plays, and a lone novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). His other fantastic fiction includes a number of fairy stories in two collections. (1) "The Young King" is from the second, House of Pomegranates, from 1891. Wilde’s life and works have received plenty of attention from critics, biographers, and historians. I’ll just add that his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is very funny and well worth watching on stage or film.

(1) It would be both obvious and pointless to make any pun here.

An illustration for Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, drawn by Michael Fitzgerald.
And another showing a similar scene. The sexual overtones in these two illustrations are not accidental. Note the man with the recurved (and subtly phallic) sword, ready to intervene between Carmilla and her sleeping object of desire. This illustration is by David Henry Friston (1820-1906). Friston also created the first illustrations of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.   
Creepier still, here's an illustration of Madame de la Rougierre from Le Fanu's novel Uncle Silas (1864).
. . . and one from The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (1847).
Two illustrations from the work of Fitz-James O'Brien (1828-1862), first, from Amazing Stories, December 1926. I believe Frank R. Paul was the artist. 
Second, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1860. This illustration for "The Sewing Bird" is by Ohio native John McLenan (1827-1865), a near contemporary of the author.
Count von Count, otherwise known as the Count, and Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street.  The Count, who loves to count, is one of countless offshoots from Bram Stroker's Dracula (1897).
The cover of Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian McClaren, aka John Watson (1850-1907).
You should never pass up the chance to display the work of artist James Steranko. Here's an illustration for Sherlock Holmes, the immortal brainchild of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).
Doyle wrote more than just mystery stories and weird fiction. Here's an illustration from his historical novel, Sir Nigel, published in book form 106 years ago this month. The illustration is by an unequalled penman, Joseph Clement Coll (1881-1921). From Associated Sunday Magazine, 1906.
Doyle of course wrote about a highly rational man in his stories of Sherlock Holmes, yet the author was gulled by a couple of English girls and their photographs of paper cutouts of the so-called Cottingley Fairies. The only answer can be that we believe what we wish to believe.
A series of stamps issued in honor of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) by his native country.

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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