Your life must be masked and covered by appearances. It is fatal to appear at all times as you are, since faces relate more than words. — "Wear" from The Green Window
There is a recurring motif of stabbing in the works of Vincent O'Sullivan. Occasionally there will be a strangling or a shooting, but mostly his characters are disposed of via daggers being plunged into their hearts, their backs, their necks. I suspect that O'Sullivan treasured the personal touch involved in such killings. He hardly ever resorts to poison, which is a sort of remote-controlled killing. He likes his characters to be right on top of each other, and close enough to smell the sweat. So, what sort of a person was Vincent O'Sullivan? On the evidence of his writings alone, he would appear to share the sentiment of Waldo Lydecker that he would be extremely sorry to see his neighbor's children eaten by wolves. Of course he probably would put the incident into one of his stories. After all, a writer must live.
O'Sullivan starts out as standard-issue Baudelaire epigone. The poems collected in the volume of verse published by Elkin Matthews in 1896 and titled Poems, are fairly conventional. He makes use of occasional religious imagery without ever producing a religious poem, but he also finds room to write about knights and pirates' wives. A poem like "Brain Fever" or "Papillons du Pave" will work up a "wages of sin" motif, yet the poet seems fully cognizant of the fact that without the sins there would be no verses. What separates him from a poet like Symons or even Theodore Wratislaw is the fact that a certain lightness of touch is absent from his verses. There is a definite heaviness to O'Sullivan's verse. Wratislaw will write about sins and convince you that he's enjoyed committing them, but O'Sullivan, never. Because he sees himself as "a derided wreck" and "a weary broken man," ("Brain Fever," 19, 20) it hard to come away from the poem itself with any real sense of pleasure. He puts one in mind of Brecht's poem about the Mask of Evil--yes, you find yourself thinking, how hard it is to be evil!
The following year he issued a new volume of verse from a new publisher, Leonard Smithers, and the change seems to have done his writing a world of good. If Mathews was O'Sullivan's good angel, attempting to steer him down the road to correct aesthetic verse, Smithers cheerfully played the part of the bad angel encouraging his derided wreck to be as decadent as he wants to be. The result is that Houses of Sin, as the follow-up collection was titled, contains pieces like "Malaria" and "Drug" ("despair--Sweet Drug!") in which the poet indulges himself in lip-smacking flights of diabolerie. Taking up a theme dear to both Symons and Wratislaw (fellow members of the Smithers stable), "A Dancer At the Opera," O'Sullivan crafts a mini-drama in which a heartless femme fatale is brought up short by a vision of her own demise. While in "Children of Wrath," a poem deserving of a wider readership, O'Sullivan puts words into the devil's mouth designed to discomfit the self-satisfied:
"To them I ever murmur: 'You do well;
The Holy Spirit in your soul doth dwell!'
For them I keep alight the fire of Hell."
closes by invoking again his favorite persona the weary, broken man as he prays, "spare the people scorched and seared" ("Children of Wrath" 33). If O'Sullivan had written nothing but these two slender volumes of verse he would be a far less interesting writer than he is. Luckily, he wrote prose as well.
In 1896, the same year that Poems appeared from Elkin Mathews, Leonard Smithers issued a volume of O'Sullivan's short stories, A Book of Bargains. Ostensibly a collection of supernatural tales, its terror is firmly rooted in O'Sullivan's own apparent abhorrence of human nature. "Original Sin," the strongest tale in the collection, concerns a boulevardier obsessed with the notion of strangling his mistress' child. In "A Study of Murder," an erstwhile "good friend" goads his romantic rival into committing suicide--again, the horror is entirely human in origin. These two studies of human perversity are O'Sullivan's "Heart of Darkness." No need for heads impaled on fences here!
The remaining five tales are more traditional supernatural fare with ghosts, walking corpses and even a deal-making devil. What links them to the non-supernatural tales is the shocking suddenness with which the protagonists act. O'Sullivan's men and women act in white-hot passion when murders are committed in a wink. Of course the outcome of these passionate eruptions is always ruination and damnation. Only the coolly conniving "hero" of "A Study of Murder" seems to succeed. Perhaps O' Sullivan is saying that evil born out of passion is bound to boomerang, and only passionless, willed evil succeeds. In the light of some of the sentiments expressed in his later prose collection The Green Window, this is a sobering thought.
The Green Window, despite its resemblance to a collection of prose poems in the philosophical manner of Charles Baudelaire is actually termed "a book of monologues" by O'Sullivan himself. This is an interesting description in that it suggests that O'Sullivan meant the pieces to be read aloud, thus making them a type of performance art. In 1899 this would have been a fairly novel idea, and one can only wonder whether O'Sullivan actually declaimed any of these pieces before an audience. As is the case with other extreme Decadents (Theodore Wratislaw, Park Barnitz) the reader is left to wonder just how much of the sentiment expressed is for effect alone.
"In general, to help a man is like reviving an assassin who has designs on your life. For beyond the truth that most men are naturally your enemies, the one who solicits your help shews by the very act that you have something which he has not, and which he cannot like you for having." -- "Help" from The Green Window
This would certainly be the credo of the clever rogue in "A Study of Murder," but in this instance mightn't O'Sullivan be playing the Wildean game of trying to shock us? Well, yes, he might be. And then again he might mean every word that he says. How much of this monologue is attitude and how much is cri du coeur?
The final work by O'Sullivan that I wish to consider is the oddly titled, but glorious volume, A Dissertation Upon Second Fiddles. It appeared in 1902 under the Grant Richards imprint and is a collection of four novellas loosely linked by both a common theme and the re-appearance of certain minor characters from one tale to another. Stylistically, the novellas are a great improvement over the earlier short stories. O'Sullivan has discovered humor, albeit of a midnight-black variety, and perhaps a new literary master as well. The lean, razor-sharp intelligence of Baudelaire that had heretofore served as O'Sullivan's literary Pharos has been supplanted by a more discursive, grandly baroque manner of expression. O'Sullivan now sounds like nothing so much as an English-language Leon Bloy. The first section, "Of Kindred," presents another mysterious stranger offering a deal too good to be true to another desperate protagonist. But whereas in the earlier story, "The Bargain of Rupert Orange," the Mephistopheles figure is a real demon, and Orange, a man within an ace of starving to death in a garret, in this tale an aging titled hypochondriac has a run-in with a mysterious German academic with a novel theory on the prolongation of life. (Briefly it consists of identifying your strongest enemies and gifting them with annuities that expire upon your death, thus turning their hatred into fervent wishes for your continued good health.) The black humor aspect involves one enemy misunderstanding the arrangement and literally killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
"Of Accomplices" is the longest and most conventionally (or should I say unconventionally) humorous of the tales. Here we have yet another lordling--a relative in fact of the hypochondriac of the first tale--this time possessed of an Enoch Soames-like desire to be A Really Dreadful Person. When Fate delivers him into the hands of a true villain, his eagerness to please results in every scheme boomeranging on his hapless master. One could almost picture this being filmed as a Peter Sellers/Terry-Thomas comedy in the 1950s.
"Of Friends" is my personal favorite of the tales in this volume. It is Thomas Hardy filtered through a decadent sensibility. Hardy would have taken this tale of a poor intellectual who is taken up, then dropped by a local politician and explored the passions of its characters. O'Sullivan is content to leave them as ciphers, but makes it abundantly clear that the intellectual is a self-important leech shrewdly manipulated by the politician's appeal to his vanity. The "hero's" comeuppance is therefore far less distressing than it might otherwise be, though it's certainly not comic. Called upon to address an outdoor rally of working men, he is set upon by partisans of a rival politician and badly beaten, while he lies bedridden, one of the politician's worthy friends attempts to seduce the crestfallen intellectual's pretty wife.
"Of Enemies" is set in the literary world and proves, not surprisingly, to be the most acidic of the tales. The sentiments expressed in The Green Window get another workout here as yet another "monster of will," the popular novelist Mrs. Ardour first plagiarizes a little-known writer's plot, then sets out to destroy him. The scenes depicting Mrs. Ardour's machinations with the ignoramus editor of an influential journal are especially venomous.
Vincent O'Sullivan is another example of a minor writer whose exclusion from the literary table has left us all a little bit poorer. O'Sullivan himself would perhaps look at it a bit differently. He would expect a Wilde, or a Hardy to sweep all before him, just as Mrs. Ardour sweeps poor Straw into literary and physical extinction. He is a Second Fiddle, not a Premier Fiddle, of whom O'Sullivan remarks: "They are an irrefragable guild, and till the world grows simple will ever have the last word."
Last modified 10 October 2001