What was it? Tha't a good question, and it's the question the narrator asks in this week's short story from Fifty Great American Short Stories. And lest this post turn into a "who's on first" mixup, it is also the title of Fitz-James O'Brien's story. You know I love a good ghost story, and if you do, too, you can tuck this one away for later consumption when the need for one arises. Fitz-James O'Brien was an Irish born American writer whose work verged on what is now considered science fiction. I thought I had read him before, but I can't seem to find any references to him in older posts.
"What Was It?" is reminiscent of a favorite story (novella really), Guy de Maupassant's The Horla. O'Brien's story (1859) predates Maupassant's (1887) by nearly 30 years so I wonder if Maupassant came across it at some point and was influenced by it. Reading the story also brought to mind Fuseli's nightmarish painting and you'll soon see why.
The story is set in a New York City boarding house whose original owner, a merchant, absconded with funds he obtained fraudulently. No good deed goes unnoticed (or unpunished) since he died in Europe shortly thereafter. His grand home, of noble and spacious size, appeared suddenly to be haunted. Unnatural noises were heard by the caretakers--steps on the stairway and the swish of silk dresses, doors closing where no one was. However, the house being of a greater size and situation was attractive enough to rent and so the occupants of a Bleecker Street boarding house moved to Twenty-Sixth Street residence. All in good spirits (no pun intended) they eagerly awaited those ghostly appearances.
Maybe those illicit substances that two of the boarders happened to be taking (opium my friends) helped their desires along just a touch. And then dinner conversation often took a turn to the reading matter of the day, which happened to be a popular book with a supernatural slant called Night Side of Nature. All the rage by the residents. The narrator himself had written a ghost story. As much as everyone wanted a ghostly appearance, they never seem to come when called.
"Those hours of opium happiness which the Doctor and I spent together in secret were regulated with a scientific accuracy. We did not blindly smoke the drug of paradise, and leave our dreams to chance. While smoking, we carefully steered our conversation through the brightest and calmest channels of thought."
Well, that makes me feel much better. So, was it real, what happened or only a figment of the imagination? The conversation does, however, turn to something more sinister. "What do you consider to be the greatest element of terror?" the Doctor asks. For myself, often something isn't all that scary but when you leave the mind to its own devices and let your imagination run away just a bit, you can often scare yourself unnecessarily. I have, in any case.
That night the narrator was reflecting on the day's events when . . .
"A Something dropped,as it seemed, from the ceiling, plumb upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling my throat, endeavoring to choke me."
(Fuseli, anyone?). So, once again, is it real, or simply an opium-too-much-mischievous-talk induced state? You'll have to read the story to find out. I thought the story quite effective, though the ending a little anticlimactic perhaps. It has the feel (and maybe it's just the style of the time) of last week's setting down the narrative for posterity's sake feel to it.
Next week, "Luck", by Mark Twain. Including the Twain, four stories stand between me and a story by a woman writer. I may have to do a little extracurricular reading (Jane Gardam!) to get a dose of feminine storytelling.
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If my everyday reading has been light on international fiction this year (of late I have started several books written by foreign authors . . . ), I can at least thank the New Yorker for introducing me to some interesting, new-to-me writers whose work I am reading in translation. There was just recently the Ulitskaya story, then earlier in the year Karl Ove Knausgaard's wonderful story (I have the first of his autobiographical novels which I keep picking up but haven't yet started reading) and now "Camilo" by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra. Three of his books have been translated into English, and I might give Bonsai, a novella published by Melville House a go.
"Camilo" is a beautifully rendered character study with details that give a sense of place and time so seamlessly you don't even realize you are somewhere else so very far away. The story is narrated over the course of many years by a (initially) young boy whose father's godson becomes an important figure in the narrator's life. I'm quite impressed by the eloquence of the storytelling, not least as the ending is so very perfect. Even Zambra (check out the Q&A with the author) is a fan of the character, Camilo. You can get a taste of the story here, but you'll have to pick up the magazine to read it in full. (Well worth searching this one out).