A Fallen Master of the Macabre:
Vincent O'Sullivan, the Friend of Oscar Wilde
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
As the Nazis approached Paris, the American Colony broke camp & abandoned the city like rats from a sinking ship. Behind them they left a frail, elderly, impoverished, homeless Irish-American who, as a young man, had been an heir to wealth, a close friend to Beardsley & Wilde, & the only important American in the 1890s Aesthetic movement of England & France. He was Vincent O'Sullivan, one of the world's great authors of horror fiction, whose pauper's grave, inhabited during the Nazi occupation, was afterward vacated to make room for newer paupers. His body, like his heavy trunk of manuscripts & memorabilia of incalculable literary & historical value, was neither claimed nor heard of again.
How prophetic that Vincent should once have written, "The Romantic point of view was that the poet is vowed to disaster."
Much of what I have come to understand about Vincent whose reticence about sharing his life has left us with no real autobiographical report even in his personal correspondence stems from his opinionated writings of others, scattered in sundry magazines & his nonfiction books. It seems that when he passed judgments on others, both positive & negative, he was often, if inadvertently, describing himself. When he said of George Gissing, "It is not easy to account for his persistent bad luck. The nature of his work had, no doubt, something to do with it," I am sure Vincent was thinking of his own situation as well. So too, when he sorrowfully notes, "Poe's face is haunted, it is the face of a man who lives in fear," I am not so convinced Poe was especially frightened, but I do wonder what it was that Vincent feared.
Whenever he became morosely sensitive toward the plight of suffering artists, he simultaneously conveyed a degree of pity for himself, or bitterness that genius such as theirs (by inference, his) should ever have been shunted aside in favor of mediocrity. He said, "There are, & have been, writers who have earned a lot of money Galsworthy, Bennett, Maughm, some writers of police novels. But the master of the police novel, Edgar Allan Poe, could not get enough to clothe himself decently. Baudelaire never earned enough to buy himself a good meal. Gerard de Nerval, Verlaine, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Barbey d'Aurevilly, were never paid a decimal of what since their death their work has earned for publishers."
More of this kind of sentiment will be found throughout the articles collected as Opinions as well as in his Savoy article "On the Kind of Fiction Called Morbid." So, too, there was often a very clear parallel between Vincent's nonfiction & fiction, for he frequently modeled protagonists after himself. "The Next Room" & "They" could not be more obviously tales with Vincent in them, describing his emotional life in the context of supernatural horror. Anthologist & fantastic literature historian Richard Dalby noted, "'The Next Room' is one of Vincent O'Sullivan's best stories, written in the same vivid, intense, diary-format style as those two 19th-century masterpieces, Dracula & The Woman in White."
In the diary-like tales of anguished souls, & in essays viewing his fellow authors & artists, I cannot help but see the artist's self-portraits. That he saw himself in those great martyrs of horror Poe & de l'Isle Adam is evident from the frequency with which he alludes to them in his essays. But just as patently, my understanding of Vincent is filtered through my sense of myself. His morbidness becomes mine; his impoverishment is certainly mine; his nearly evil wit, stubborn independence, moments of tenderness toward the same world he so often rebuked, his profound introspection all mine; & if I imagine some few likenesses in his withdrawn character & my own, who is to say this is really anything but vanity at work, a desire to think of one's own fiction as comparable to that which must be considered great.
There is at least something in his approach to horror, & his views of the world generally, with which I am inestimably sympathetic. If I make any qualifications in naming him one of my favorite writers, it is only to expand the point that he is my absolute favorite among many whose tales have passed undeservedly from public attention.
Vincent was born in New York City on November 28, 1868, although he often claimed a later date, having as he did some small measure of the Dandy's fixation on youth. His father Eugene was an Irish immigrant who made a fortune as a coffee broker during the Civil War & went on to found two schools of medicine in New York. Eugene died in 1892, leaving a million dollar estate, which was shared between Vincent, his mother, & four other brothers wealth that in time would be lost partly to ill-advised investments of a younger brother, Percy, & greatly to the crooked machinations of his older brother, Eugene.
Vincent went to Columbia Grammar School in New York, graduated from Oscott Roman Catholic College in England, then went to Oxford. From this education he claimed no literary grounding. He maintained, "Few more than myself could have been remoter from the literary world," though in fact he was befriended as a boy in New York by William Dean Howells & must have known other men of letters from an early age. For a single term he attended Exeter College, then lived in London for several years. In 1894 he contributed essays, poems & stories to The Senate. Elkin Matthews reprinted several of the poems in 1894. About the same time he met Leonard Smithers through the introduction of Arthur Symons, resulting in publication of A Book of Bargains (1896), a milestone of Decadence & horror.
Vincent joined the group of writers & artists who frequented Smithers' printshop, becoming thereby one of the centermost figures of the Yellow Nineties Decadence. Historian & critic Holbrook Jackson in The Eighteen Nineties (1913) categorized Vincent as one of the key authors of the period, "a modern of the moderns." Ernest Dowson & Aubrey Beardsley were his closest friends, & he was often the companion of Arthur Symons & John Davidson. Beardsley designed the cover for his second book of poems The Houses of Sin (1897) as well as providing the frontispiece to A Book of Bargains. These London years must have been wonderful for introspective Vincent, surrounded by like minds, with little presentiment that he would too soon outlive them all. As yet he retained an independent income so that it hardly mattered he was not paid well for the writing. It was sufficient that fellow Bohemians & artistic misfits were enthralled by his efforts.
In those days Vincent travelled frequently, his fondness for France increasing. Dowson called him "an American without a trace of Americanism," & said "I look on him as a man of great nobility." From later in his life, his friend Natalie Barney repeated the sentiment that there was something of the aristocrat about Vincent, & "noble" also slipped from the pen of John Cowper Powys in writing of Vincent. Even when he had fallen to such poverty that he frequently had nothing for a day's meal but a cup of weak tea & a leaf of lettuce, there was a careful neatness about his threadbare clothing that bespoke a highborn nature exactly comparable to the dandified Poe who would sit alone with black ink & quill darkening the white seams of worn jackets & trousers he could ill afford to replace.
He lived generally in hotels, fine ones at first, which he loved for their "fever & restlessness." Hotels run through many of his tales & essays almost as auxiliary characters. He wrote in 1916 in the mannered tale "Olivia Mist", regarding those years, "There was only one excuse for living in luxurious quarters, & that was to be in debt," a typically Bohemian quip.
Vincent knew Oscar Wilde as early as 1893. Oscar commented to Smithers about Vincent's poetry: "In what a midnight his soul seems to walk! and what maladies he draws from the moon!" In 1900 he wrote to Robert Ross, saying Vincent was "really very pleasant, for one who treats life from the standpoint of the tomb." By Oscar's observation, we may indeed surmise that Vincent the man is reflected in his horrific musings. In a 1937 correspondence to A. J. A. Symons, he said of himself, "I sometimes wonder how I have endured the terrible & relentless misfortunes of all kinds physical and moral which have been crushing and stupefying me for some years now." What moral lapses Vincent imagined of himself he never specifies, but the outright cads of The Book of Bargains would seem to be exaggerations of Vincent's worst moral traits (removed from the context of his finer traits). By contrast, the melancholy souls of many of his later stories reveal the good heart of the poet.
Oscar had been abandoned by his fair weather companions by the time he was released from jail in May 1897, but the friendship with Vincent blossomed. I suppose it ought to be said that Vincent was not likely to have been as close to Oscar as were Robert Ross & Ada Leverson. I personally believe their friendship was founded on Oscar's least public boulevard life. Nothing definite is really known of Vincent's romantic life, which for all anyone knows may have amounted to none at all; but very likely he & Oscar shared a certain point of view in such matters & so became friends from London days. Oscar was sufficiently sure of Vincent's eye for boys that he felt no qualms sending him out to Regent Street to admire "a wonderful black panther" of a lad; though when Vincent set forth to see the wondrous panther, he found instead "a rather disquieting specimen of London vegetation."
When the fallen Oscar travelled to Naples, it was with Vincent's financing. After Alfred Douglas departed there, O'Sullivan stayed with Wilde in Naples, where they shared deeply personal conversations. The expanded friendship may have been in part because Oscar needed the assistance of anyone who could offer a degree of financial support, & Vincent, not yet on hard times, was generous to friends. But in greater part it was because Vincent, with all his criticisms of the world, felt a tenderness for anyone who suffered injustice & indignity.
Vincent's income evaporated in 1909, at which time he went to Wells, Norfolk, living with extreme frugality until he was able to draw together funds to return to New York, where he lived in Brooklyn from 1915-1917. At this time he lived with one of his brothers, cemented a professional relationship with anthologist Edward J. O'Brien, & consulted attorneys in an effort to salvage something of his lost fortune, which proved impossible. He returned to his beloved Paris after the close of the Great War as a member of a commission to inspect hospitals caring for war-wounded, becoming thereby practically the first of the postwar American expatriots.
It was usually the slightly off-trail editors such as Mencken who admired Vincent's prose. He was widely regarded a "writer's writer" unappealing to those faceless masses who could not comprehend how the short story, in its perfection, was the greatest of all literary forms, not excepting poetry. In 1927 Vincent sent a story to the Dublin Magazine, edited by a poet, & this association continued until his death. The few discerning editors in the magazine field tended not to work for the most commercially bent publishers, hence could not pay as well as those editors whose selections were intended to sell soap & fashion. Hence the Dublin Magazine rarely paid Vincent anything. He was merely pleased to have a publisher who would print his work exactly as written.
In 1931 he moved to Bayonne, for Paris between the wars was less & less to his liking. He complained, "To Americans who knew Paris before the war it seems today rather like New York." The move to Bayonne increased Vincent's reclusive tendencies. A year later, in 1932, he stepped off a moving tram & broke his leg in two places. He was too impoverished to afford good medical attention. Seamas O'Sullivan of the Dublin Magazine helped him as much as possible during this time by sending what funds he could, but due to lack of good medical attention, the leg healed badly & gave Vincent grief thereafter. In keeping with my sense that he viewed himself through his perceptions of other authors, he wrote to his Irish editor noting the similarity of his injury to one that ended in amputation & suicide for Thomas Lovell Beddoes!
The French nursing home & surgeon considerably indebted him. From 1934 on, he frequently found he could afford no more than a meal of vegetables each day & sometimes nothing at all. He wrote A. J. Symons in 1937, "I should not have believed that a human being could exist on the amount I have had to eat of late." Unable to pay his hotel, with neither sou nor shilling for tea, he nevertheless finished three books a novel (since lost, after Padraic Colum brought it to America), a collection of tales (some of these lost as well, including a ghostly one which Alan Anderson saw decades ago in manuscript) & Aspects of Wilde, one of the most sensitive documents left by the many people who knew Oscar personally. He had every expectation that one or another of these efforts would bring his head above water at any moment, but his largest receipt for any of it was Ł50, the advance for his recollections of Wilde.
In 1936, after years of near-evictions, his only recourse was the American Colony at Bierritz, whose American Aid Society consisted of busy-body society matrons with very good opinions of themselves. While speaking of George Gissing, he reveals sentiments about patronage or, as it were, charity: "Too many patrons imagined that their bounty gave them a right over body and soul of the object of it. Not only did they dictate what he was to write and how he was to write it, but they followed him into private life."
It's no surprise that he should confess to Symons, "I shudder with horror at the idea of being forced to apply to the tender mercies of these people." The Americans collected a fund aimed at pensioning him with one-thousand francs a month, meanwhile imposing on him to return to Paris to receive their support. But, as Vincent once said, "Some cannot be grateful. It sticks in their gullet. The wise don't expect gratitude. Aubrey Beardsley, who, it is shameful to think, had often to ask his friends for aid, & was in fact in receipt of a pension which seemed regularly paid, went so far as to say to me that it was impossible to be grateful in such cases, & that if gratitude were expressed, it could not be sincere."
Not unexpectedly, relations with his Bierritz benefactors were soon strained. They dumped him in a mere three months. By December 1937 he had no recourse but the Salvation Army home in Villeparisis. In Spring the following year, he fell & reinjured the leg, was returned to Paris after release from a hospital, thence to another Salvation Army home. Each move required volunteer assistance to transfer his great trunk of papers, books & manuscripts, containing the only possessions he kept hold of throughout, now & then selling a Wilde letter or an autographed book out of it.
Natalie Barney, in a letter to Alan Anderson, said a little of Vincent at this stage of his life: "As for his appearance, he was tall, slight, his eyes were light, he wore a little mustache over a thin-lipped mouth that rarely smiled, although he had a very good sense of humor & was a good critic. Although he had an American passport, he, in every way, appeared to me as an English gentleman, & I never saw him anything but sober, although I have been told that many of his accidents & falls occurred during his lonely celebrations of Christmas, etc. He once told me that because he & his brother were ruined by their solicitor, his brother killed himself, whereas Vincent O'Sullivan, who was very much interested in literature, managed somehow to live on. He was difficult to help: AndrȘ Gide, having asked me for someone to help him with his translation of Blake's 'Heaven and Earth,' I proposed my friend V. O'S, who, on meeting Gide, proved recalcitrant. I succeeded no better elsewhereî I found him often unsociable and, as far as I know, not inclined to make friends."
He returned to the Nouvel Hotel in June 1938 & remained there until the German Occupation on June 14, 1940. The American Aid Society had been trying to arrange his evacuation from Paris in case of bombardment, but on July 11, 1940, he was taken again to the hospital & died on July 18. On the 26th, at hospital expense, he was placed in the fosse commune of the Parisian cemetery of Thiais. Five years later, no one having claimed his remains, his bones were taken to the ossuary, their disposition thereafter unrecorded.
He should have been remembered as one of the best horror writers of the 1890s & the twentieth century, as well known as, say, Arthur Machen, who likewise never generated much in the way of cash for his brilliant tales but held, at least, a deserved fame. Vincent's association with Wilde may have been in part responsible for Vincent becoming persona non grata at the better paying magazines. He retained a few staunch supporters such as the noted anthologist Edward J. O'Brien, founder of the still-extant annual Year's Best Short Stories.
The mannered Decadence of Vincent's 1890s stories became, in the 'teens & 'twenties, as "realistic" in style as Theodore Dreiser, though with the same bleak perspective of his "florid" youth. From the early period are a number of gems of horror that greatly chill & delight. The short-shorts, with few equals then or now, include "The Business of Madame Jahn" & "When I Was Dead," plus a novelette of major importance, "The Bargain of Rupert Orange." These are relatively well known among horror aficionados because Montague Summers included them in the Supernatural Omnibus (1931).
Additional Decadent tales are "Will" from The Green WIndow (1899) & his rarest story, "The Monkey & Basil Holderness." The latter appeared in only in the Yellow Nineties journal The Senate which Vincent regarded as superior to the Savoy & the Yellow Book. It was published by two brothers of Manchester who forever after retained Vincent's affection, for he wrote of them: "The two Bynges who, unlike most of the Yellow-Bookites, had a strong sense of humour, regarded the whole thing as a huge joke, & one day they defied me, who was the shocker of the affair, to write a story which would explode all their subscribers. I accepted; & the story, called 'The Monkey & Basil Holderness,' had certainly had the desired effect."
Indeed, Vincent's tale made such a stir that the journal was censored, matrons no longer submitted their rhymes, while Vincent was declared "morbid & unhealthy" & castigated as "no English gentleman," the day's supreme vituperation. The magazine ultimately folded on account of the reaction. The story of Basil & his monkey has lost none of its shocking nature in the century since, & is probably the grimmest & most perverse of all "beauty & beast" variants ever penned.
Vincent personally considered these early tales to be "Burlesques," unless he was looking back in time with harsh irony at his youth's compositions. They are at any rate among the finest terror tales of the Yellow Nineties.
Had Vincent's style retained its edge of Bohemian purple, it might have been understandable that he struggled so much for publishers' attention. Such intensity of atmosphere & stylization had never really achieved wide commercial preference to begin with, despite its decade of fame; & as the fin de siecle closed, so too was its darkly Romantic revival increasingly passe. With the advent (in America) of Theodore Dreiser & Sherwood Anderson, tastes shifted utterly away from the wildly atmospheric in favor of psychological sensitivity.
But as point of fact Vincent did change with the times & was no relic of 1890s literary rebellion. His tales of the new century had the very psychological depth promulgated by the new era's recognized giants of the short form. Edward O'Brien wrote in 1918, "It is odd to reflect that a literary artist of Mr. O'Sullivan's distinction is not represented in American magazines during 1917 at all, & that it has been left to a daily newspaper to publish his work." That story was the thrice-anthologized "The Interval," originally in the Boston Evening Transcript. It is one of scores of war legends that flourished in the wake of Machen's 1914 vignette "The Angels of Mons." As a "writer's writer," it is clear how something of Vincent's would appeal to Transcript literary editor Burton Kline, whose 1917 tale "The Caller in the Night" is a chilling masterpiece likewise salvaged from neglect by O'Brien.
The remaining psychological tales among his supernatural output are "The Next Room," "The Abigail Sherriff Memorial," "They" & "Master of Fallen Years." The latter two were Vincent's own favorites from among all his tales, as he wrote to Symons, "As for my stories, I like best: 'They', 'Master of Fallen Years', & 'The Dance-hall at Unigenitus'. The others were composed under the restrictions which a magazine public imposes. I hope & pray you may be able to do something with them."
A transitional tale was "The Burned House" serving as a kind of "bridge" between the Decadent horror to the psychological ghost stories. Two remaining tales do not so closely fit one or the other of the two categories. One, "The Matchmaker's Curse," is a veritable fairy tale very different from the rest of Vincent's fiction. The other, "Verschoyle's House," a weird novella of personality disorder & a vampiric tree, is set in Cromwellian days. It reminds me of Vernon Lee's historical horror stories, & shares with Lee's "Amor Dure" one of the most unexpected ghastly conclusions in ghostly literature.
In all, at least five of his horror tales ("Rupert Orange," "Basil Holderness," "They," "Master of Fallen Years" & "Verschoyle's House") are genuine masterpieces of horror. If the rest weigh in as second best, they are still so far above the average encountered elsewhere as to be recognizable as works of a master. That the majority of these stories should be little-known is a damnable injustice.
Critics' generally less than eager reception of Vincent's irony, pathos, horror & moral ambiguities is most overtly observed through their comments on his much-reviewed novel The Good Girl (1912). To the Independent it was "sordid & repulsive" as well as "revolting." To the Atheneum it was "unpleasant." The Bookman called it "distinctly repellent & morally unclean," while the New York Times in two reviews said it was "all that we least admire in fiction" & "ugly & depressing." Yet authors thought differently. Edward Garnett called it one of the twenty best American novels; Mencken declared it "a capital novel"; & John Cowper Powys said it was "a work of genius in every sense of the word." As a complex, amoral love story, it is not quite so alarming today, but still rather odd, regarding a man who "captures" another man using his wife as bait.
Vincent the curmudgeon can be detected when he calls Henry Harland "a lemonade Henry James." Gertrude Atherton, who he generally liked, is not spared a poke for having "no inner life at all." Most of his pointed observations were accurate if unkind, but he did occasionally delight in mere gossip such as should have been beneath his dignity to repeat. Frank Harris deserved jabs more than most, yet Vincent does not restrict his criticism to Harris's general boorishness & malignancy when he wrote on Wilde; no, Vincent plunges so deep as to repeat the rumor that Harris may have been a German agent. So too Vincent's comments on the intimate life of his one-time friend George Moore are entirely too catty; given how Vincent remained allusive about his own liaisons, he ought to have been less careless describing others.
Immediately after Pierre Loti's death when a general public grief might have carried some weight in the matter, Vincent could not restrain an honest opinion timed in poor taste. "Personally, I have taken Loti's books one after the other & have always stuck around about the fiftieth page." These kinds of comments are representative of a large body of opinionated critiques comparable to those of Mencken or Bierce in general orneriness. Carey McWilliams in South Atlantic Quarterly (October 1931) described Vincent's attitudes thus: "He doesn't give a damn for critical attention & realizes all the while that his contemporaries are consummate asses."
Yet I hasten to add that underneath Vincent's critical exterior there was a good soul, giving those who knew him to think of him as noble. He wrote of many unrewarded geniuses of "the martyrology of literature" with real compassion & an arresting sense of kinship. He praised that which was original, as when he called the Surrealists "about the only artistic group with enough vigour to fight for their opinions." He often stood up for such friends as Leonard Smithers whom others called a pornographer; & he bludgeoned a public that dared think of Beardsley as "Oddly Weirdsly" (from a Punch satire), & blamed critics for driving the artist sooner to his grave. It was only the mediocre & those who were blithe of their good fortune who were apt to receive his barbs. In the weird tale "They" we perceive his sensitivity toward suffering souls, very tragic & sympathetic in tone.
Contrary to Carey McWilliams' belief that Vincent cared nothing for critical attention, this lack of attention in fact pained him. Certainly it was easier to accept the lack of commercial success by gazing upon what dreadful works won mass admiration; & he did believe "there is something vulgar in all success. It is the coarsest manifestation of civilization, that blatant success is most esteemed." Yet in Aspects of Wilde & elsewhere he laments how Leonard Smithers' publications, including titles of Vincent's, were damned or overlooked by the press. All the poverty Vincent endured might have seemed worthwhile to him, if only the work itself had been lauded, for he well knew it deserved laudation.
It was even the case that Vincent preferred venom over what finally transpired utter neglect. He took a certain pride, it seems to me, noting that the Yorkshire Post called The Book of Bargains "offal" demanding Smithers' & O'Sullivan's prosecution under law. In Vincent's book of colorfully understated sketches A Dissertation Upon Second Fiddles (1902) about individuals doomed eternally to play second-fiddle & not always to those greater than themselves I am tempted to detect numerous ironical reflections upon a self-effacing, retiring nature inherent to Vincent's unrewarded greatness, "an obscure citizen, pursuing my daily round far from contact of artists of any kind."
Vincent has been too often relegated to the position of satellite of Wilde, referred to, when at all, for the useful information he reported in Aspects of Wilde. I do dare hope the limited edition of his supernatural works which I have edited for London's The Ghost Story Press has helped to change Vincent's position, providing him his overdue recognition from now on, at least among the few hundred blessed souls who possess this handsomely printed edition.
copyright © 1995, 1998 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, all rights reserved
"A Fallen Master of the Macabre" is excerpted from a lengthy monograph, "Maladies of the Moon: A Fallen Master of the Macabre", which served as introduction to Master of Fallen Years: The Complete Supernatural Stories of Vincent O'Sullivan (London: The Ghost Story Press, 1995). Extensively annotated bibliographic citations have been excluded from the present archival version. Sad to say, Fallen Years was out of print prior to publication & today a very pricy collectible.
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