“What Was It?” Fitz-James O’Brien, 1859 — The denizens of a boarding house take a dare and move to a “haunted” house. At first, they’re titillated. While the protagonist ruminates on the nature of terror with his friend, he and the other boarders pass around a copy of Mrs. Crowe’s Night Side of Nature to keep themselves excited. One night, the narrator is attacked in bed by a vicious “monster.” He captures it in a violent struggle; however, when he turns on the lights, it proves invisible to the eye. When the rest of the boarders are summoned, the creature’s invisibility overwhelms them with horror and most quit the house. The narrator and friend remain to study the monster, and then conduct a battery of scientific tests. Near the conclusion, they have a mold made of its body to divine its features. However, despite their persistence, they never learn how to feed it, and the creature dies a slow, horrible death due to starvation.
Comments: Horror meets the scientific method. Included in genrecraft for the generic crossover with horror and the reference to another work of fantastic fiction.
Read in A Century of Science Fiction, with an introduction by Damon Knight. Knight notes that the methods “they use to make [the monster] visible, and the monster itself–no stock figure from mythology or demonology–mark it as science fiction. But in the suggestion that the house is haunted,” and the turn of thoughts as they smoke opium on the nature of terror, there are hints of the “purely supernatural story it would have been had it been written twenty years earlier.”
(A note on Catherine Crowe: Wikipedia: “Crowe turned increasingly to supernatural subjects, inspired by German writers. Her collection The Night-side of Nature (1848) became her most popular work and was reprinted as recently as 2000. It was translated into German and French, and is said to have influenced the views of Charles Baudelaire. Her own involvement in such matters came to a bizarre culmination in February 1854, when she was discovered naked in Edinburgh one night, convinced that spirits had rendered her invisible. She was treated for mental illness and recovered. Two of her ghost stories reappeared in Victorian Ghost Stories (1936), edited by Montague Summers.”)
Author: As noted by Knight, O’Brien died in 1862 at age 34 of a wound in the Civil War, left behind 13 stories. Wikipedia: “Fitz James O’Brien (also spelled Fitz-James; December 31, 1828 – April 6, 1862) was an Irish-born American writer.”