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...
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