“Life from the Standpoint of the Tomb”: Vincent O’Sullivan
Robert Aickman, editor of eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, wrote that the ghost story is ‘allied to poetry’. This may be because ghost stories, part of English literature’s Romantic inheritance, appeal to our emotions before they appeal to our intellect. The same can be said of horror generally. H.P. Lovecraft begins Supernatural Horror in Literature with a consideration of the history of human feeling, asserting that fear may be the oldest emotion of them all. Lovecraft also expressed his own reasons for writing weird fiction in highly romantic terms:
My own reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights […], ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories […] to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.
For Lovecraft and for Aickman, who believed that the ghost story ‘makes contact with the submerged nine-tenths’ of the human condition, the writing of the strange story is a promethean act against reality (and who is a hero more emblematic of the Romantic than Prometheus?). The artist takes an image, beautiful, strange, disturbing, and places it where we can see it to its best advantage and ruminate on it, like the puritan considering the skull in the foreground of a portrait. When we look at the portrait ourselves it is the skull that we remember. That was the artist’s aim. Similarly the fan of the ghost story recalls images before plot – faces of crumpled linen, green monkeys, overgrown gardens and red rooms. This is the point that I am leading up to – ghost stories, like poems, can be carried and even made great by striking, original images and a well-made structure. The plot can be thin, it can even be predictable, but if the pictures produced in our minds are sufficiently strange and are arranged skilfully then we can forgive and forget the unoriginality of the story.
Vincent O’Sullivan was born into wealth in New York in 1868 and died in poverty in German-occupied Paris in 1940. He was a friend of Oscar Wilde, who said that O’Sullivan was ‘really very pleasant, for one who treats life from the standpoint of the tomb.’ O’Sullivan stood by Wilde in the final dark years after his imprisonment and move to Paris. This, along with the failure of his family’s coffee business, led to his reduced circumstances. He is now best remembered for the often anthologised stories ‘When I was Dead’ and ‘The Burned House’. I was first drawn to ‘The Burned House’ by its title, perhaps one of the best in the canon. It is both simple and evocative – marks of true inspiration. As in a poem, O’Sullivan gives the reader a mental picture rich in potential meaning, exciting, intriguing, mysterious, frightening and forlorn, in the shortest possible number of words. This is another affinity between the most effective and affective poems and ghost stories. Both should distil atmosphere, mix it with meaning, and serve it neat.
That gothic standby, the narrative frame, is also used to great effect, delivering yet another enduring image:
One night at the end of dinner, the last time I crossed the Atlantic, somebody in our group remarked that we were just passing over the spot where the Lusitania had gone down. Whether this were the case or not, the thought of it was enough to make us rather grave, and we dropped into some more or less serious discussion about the emotions of men and women who see all hope gone, and realise that they are going to sink with the vessel.
‘The Burned House’ is not a sea-set ghost story. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the sea, besides its frame. But it would be half the tale it is without these two opening sentences. Not only do they create one of the most memorable conceits in the history of the English ghost story, as melancholy and haunting as Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, in which we float in our thoughts through the freezing waters of the North Atlantic into the sunken ballroom of the Titanic. Simultaneously O’Sullivan lays the foundations for his story’s solid structure. A chance remark amongst strangers sanctions deeper conversation. Questions are raised, each gives their opinion. As in the works of Somerset Maugham travel creates encounters which create conversation which creates narrative.
It would be wrong to say that the quality of this story rests solely on its images and structure. ‘The Burned House’ is about hope and fate, and whether one can overcome the other. This is clear from the beginning. O’Sullivan created an intriguing protagonist in the ‘little, tight-faced man, bleak and iron-grey’ who narrates the main tale. This character knows the value of hope:
‘Some years ago I had to be for several months in the North of England. I was before the courts; it does not signify now what for, and it is all forgotten by this time. But it was a long and worrying case, and it aged me by twenty years. Well, sir, all through the trial, in that grimy Manchester court-room, I kept thinking and thinking of a fresh little place I knew in the Lake District, and it helped to get through the hours by thinking that if things went well with me I’d go there at once […]’.
The plot of ‘The Burned House’ is not the most compelling. There are other tales of travellers meeting aghast sheeted phantoms of the past (to paraphrase Poe) or telling of it after the fact. Nevertheless O’Sullivan, perhaps because of his experience as a poet, perhaps because he too lived a life in which he watched hope and fate vie for dominance, created a story which, through its imagery and structure, remains one of the most memorable in the Haunted Library.
Aickman, Robert. ‘Introduction’, in The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1978 , pp. 7-10.
Hardy, Thomas. ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, in Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 70-72.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’. First published 1937. Available at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.aspx
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1973 .
O’Sullivan, Vincent. ‘The Burned House’, in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012, pp. 204-208.
Penzler, Otto. ‘The Burned House: Vincent O’Sullivan’, in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012, pp. 203.