The Lost Room by Fitz-James O’Brien

The Lost Room by Fitz-James O’Brien from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949

Summary:

Our unnamed protagonist has taken a room in a spooky old house. He rarely sees the other inhabitants. It is a summer night, unbearably hot, and he is lying on his couch, smoking and narrating at length the histories of all the objects in his room. Eventually, he goes out to the garden to get some air, when he comes across a small person who warns him that the other people in his house are “cannibals, ghouls, and enchanters.” The person says he used to be one of them, but now he fights them.

This puts the protagonist in a blind panic, and he runs back to his room, where he finds three women and three men having what he calls an “orgy,” although all they seem to be doing is eating and drinking together. I guess back in the day an orgy was just a group of people doing something you disapprove of. Anyway, they offer the protagonist food and drink, which he refuses. Good move. He tells them to get out of his room. “His room!” they laugh, and he discovers that they’re right—none of his possessions are in the room. His piano has turned into a terrible organ, his English dagger into a Turkish one, and his painting into a weird pocket dimension. Still, it’s his room, and he demands that they leave. One of the women challenges him to a game of chance. If he wins, they leave, but if she wins, he’s cast out of the room. He accepts. Bad move.

Obviously he loses. He’s pulled out of the door and down the hall, but for reasons that aren’t explained, he isn’t able to leave he house. Instead, he is doomed to wander the halls forevermore, searching for his lost room.

My impressions:

We have another reprint here, and you can tell. The language is pretty antiquated. That’s part of the reason I had so much trouble reading the story. The prose is thick and detailed, and twice I got a page into it, realized I hadn’t absorbed a word, and had to start again.

This was a portent of things to come. The entire story is pretty boring. Compared to the last one, where I was hanging on to every word, today I just wished the words would stop. One major reason for that is how long it takes to get started. It’s fourteen pages long, but the supernatural element isn’t introduced until page seven, fully halfway through the story. Before that, the narrative focuses on describing the protagonist’s possessions, and yeah we need to be introduced to them so that their change later is shocking, but a single dagger doesn’t need two pages of backstory about how its owner had been Queen Elizabeth’s lover and also a broke asshole. Maybe these descriptions are meant to be red herrings, but they’re so meandering that they pulled me right out of the story.

Then, when things pick up, the story takes a turn for the nonsensical. The protagonist clearly reacts the way he does as a means to put him in the right place for the plot, and not because he’s well characterized, because his responses are inconsistent and baffling. And despite all of that, the ending still manages to be predictable. Maybe this kind of quiet twist ending was new and exciting in 1858, but now? It’s just dull.

And in case that’s not enough for you, this story has our first example of really overt racism. The servant in the house is described as “the Negro waiter, a ghoul-like looking creature from Congo, … When he did come, one felt sorry that that he had not stayed away all together, so sullen and savage did he appear.” Later, he shows up as an actual ghoul, but now his teeth are “saw-like.” The whole thing is just super gross. It should go without saying that building atmosphere should never come at the expense of marginalized people. Not only is it absolutely morally repugnant, it’s lazy and uncreative.

There’s also more subtle racism against Turkish people, as is clear in the transformation scene. The protagonist’s good, wholesome English dagger is transformed into a Turkish one with tassels, and his Canadian snowshoes are turned into Turkish slippers. Because, you know, everything that isn’t made by white people is evil and supernatural. Ugh.

Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta

There are a million other stories out there about creepy people in creepy houses. Read one of those.

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