Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, October 22, 2020


 The Diamond Lens and Other Stories by Fitz-James O'Brien (1858)

So first a little background.

It was fairly late one night last week when there was a knock on my door.  When I opened the door, there was a superannuated old man, all bent over, his face and hands were covered with liver spots and what hair he had left was dirty and scraggly.  His appearance was almost skeletal and I gathered he had not had a decent meal in quite some time.  I did not recognize him and feared he might some type of lunatic.  His first words lent credence to my supposition.  "Hello me," he said.

I stared and tried to stammer a reply.

He chuckled in that wheezy old man way and said, "Yes, Jerry, it's me...I mean you."

I continued to stare as he explained that he was me from 40 years in the future and that he travelled back in time to ask me a question.  "I'll prove you're me, or that I'm you, whatever.  What if I tell me -- I mean you -- something that no one else knows,"  He leaned close and whispered in my ear about something that had happened in 1965.  I blushed.

"Okay," I said, "you're me from the future.  But you must be 114 years old!"

"113.  It's only June when I came from."

"But you're so old.  And decrepit.  That's not how I pictured my future self," I protested.

"Hell, I'm one of the lucky ones.  Things really went downhill in...What year is this anyway?


"Oh shit!  I'm am so sorry."

"That's when everything hit the fan, starting with Trump's election."

I stopped him right there. "No, no, no.  Trump is going to lose this one.  There's no way he can win."

He -- me -- chuckled, and the sound was horrific.  "That's what everybody thought and then those gangs of Proud Boys raided every polling place in the Blues states and put flamethrowers to the write-in ballots.  Still, he lost the popular vote by 136 million, but, you know,"  he shrugged.  "Electoral college."

My lips started making little gulping noises like a fish out of water.

"Anyway, what with Covid-19 and Covid-21 and Covid-22...Well you add the climate crisis and the fires and the riots and the food shortages, the population got pretty well decimated.  The middle class was basically killed of in the 1% Revolt of the Elite in 2025.  Then things got pretty much worse."

I said, "But even is Trump was reelected he could serve for another four years.  Surely we could have begun to right things then"

I/he looked at me/him with sad, sad eyes.  "You poor naive child.  Trump went on to serve another 13 years.  He'd still be president if Don, Jr. hadn't shot the jar that held his brain with an elephant gun.  Cant' really blame Don Jr. though, he was going through one of his syphillic bouts."

"Ga, ga, ga," I replied.

I/me/him continued.  "So that left Eric as acting president until they could locate vice president Ivanka, who was at an undisclosed location having her ninth breast implant.  By the time they found Ivana, well, who knew that silicone in those amounts would reach a toxic and fatal level?  So then we had president DeVos, whose one accomplishment was eliminating public education on her first day in office.  The rest of her term was spent funneling federal dollars to her brother's soldier-for-hire business.But none of that really mattered because by then Vladimir Putin had had so many parts replaced by various mechanical thingies that cyborg Putin changed his name to Skynet.  And...brrr."

I held up my hands.  "No more. No more. You said you can to ask me a question.  What was it?"

"Yes.  What was it?"

"I don't know.  You're asking the question.  What was it?"

"That's what I said!  What was it?"

After a half hour of this jolly interchange, I discovered that his question concerned Fitz-James O'Brien's short story "What Was It?"  It turns out that my future self had a lot of holes in his memory, what with his bouts with Covid-25, Ebola, and general malnutrition due to the collapse of the food supply.  He remembered liking the story but, for the life of him, he could not remember the plot.  So he came to me because, he said, "You -- me, my younger me -- was known as a repository of totally useless facts about various books and stories no one had ever heard of."

Then I was able to explain to him that the story, which some consider O'Brien's best, was about an invisible being which dropped on the narrator while he was sleeping and placed its hands upon his throat.  (It should be noted that this first happened after the narrator partook of opium.)  The thing is naked, strong, and had long sharp teeth.  The narrator manage to overcome his attacker and bound him with his sheets.  On turning the light, he discovers that his attacker is completely invisible.  The thing, human in form, has been definitely weakened and can barely move.  The invisible being, still tied to the bed, becomes a creature of interest.  A plaster cast reveals that the being has a human-like form, "distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man."  For two weeks the thing got weaker and weaker, refusing any food.  Finally, it dies and is buried in the garden.  We never know what it was, or where it came from, or what its motivation was.

"That's it!  That's it!  Thank you, me!  Now, where can I find a copy of the story?"

"Well, its in an old collection of stories by Fitz-James O'Brien.  The title is The Diamond Lens and Other Stories."

"It sound interesting," I told me.  "Are the other stories as good?"

"I think it's a pretty neat collection.  The title story is almost as well known as "What Was It?"  It's about a man's discovery of a microscopic world within a drop of water.  He falls in love with the beautiful Animula, a woman of this tiny world, but can never meet her.  Another story, "The Wondersmith." is about a mad toymaker who creates demonic simulacrons to kill those he perceives to be his enemies.  "The Golden Ingot" is a tale of love and good intentions gone wrong.  "The Pot of Tulips" is an earlier adventure of a character in "What Was It?"  It mixes science fiction, fantasy and horror in a tale of lost treasure and a message from beyond the grave.  There's another eight stories in the book, all interesting but perhaps not as powerful.  Perhaps the best of these others is "The Dragon Fang," a Dunsanian dark fantasy set in China."

With that, my visitor left, vowing to find a copy of the book.  I then went to bed and in the morning, feeling a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge, decided the night visit was merely a dream, perhaps a bit of undigested beef.

I don't know what brought Fitz-James O'Brien to mind.  He was born in Ireland and educated at the University of Dublin.  Within four years after graduation he had gone through his entire inheritance of 8.000 pounds.  Changing his name to Fitz-James (he was born Michael O'Brien in 1826) and emigrated to America, where he began selling articles, stories and poems.  In 1861, he joined the New York National Guard and was wounded in battle the following year.  Technically, the wound didn't get him, but the tetanus did.  He died four months later in Cumberland, Maryland.


  1. He really was on par with Poe and Hawthorne for midcentury (That One) fantastica. Pity he and Poe (and, later, Bierce and Saki) came to such sudden ends, and all but Bierce to early ones. Of course, no lack of that among 19th Century and later giants in the fantastic fiction fields.

  2. Your future dream self having a few stock tips might've helped clinch the deal. But, then, see Wilma Shore's most famous sf story...

    1. Please note that her full name is Wilma HOUSE Shore -- no relation.