The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Will” was written by Vincent O’Sullivan and first appeared in The Green Window (1899). O’Sullivan (1868-1940), an American, was one of the central figures in the English Decadent/fin-de-siècle movement of the 1890s and is one of the best horror fiction writers of the past hundred years. The degree to which his name draws no recognition from most fans of supernatural fiction says much the cruelty of posterity. “Will” is another dark work of horror from O’Sullivan.
A man wonders,
Have the dead still power after they are laid in the earth? Do they rule us, by the power of the dead, from their awful thrones? Do their closed eyes become menacing beacons, and their paralysed hands reach out to scourge our feet into the paths which they have marked Out? Ah, surely when the dead are given to the dust, their power crumbles into the dust?1
The man often wonders this as he sits next to his wife. He hates his wife, and when reminded of how beautiful she is his hate for her multiplies. So he poisons her with his will, “drawing out her life as he gazed at her; draining her veins, grudging the beats of her heart,”2 and he sees how she declines as he pours his hate into her. But before she dies she tells him that
You have thought to live without me, but you will never be without me. Through long nights when the moon is hid, through dreary days when the sun is dulled, I shall be at your side. In the deepest chaos illumined by lightning, on the loftiest mountain-top, do not seek to escape me. You are my bond-man; for this is the compact I have made with the Cardinals of Death.3
After she dies the man travels around the world: “He penetrated the most unknown and difficult countries; he lived for months amid Arctic seas; he took part in tragic and barbarous scenes. He used himself to sights of cruelty and terror: to the anguish of women and children, to the agony and fear of men.”4 And when he returns he is haunted by images of the terrified women he has seen, and he can only sleep while drugged. But one night he sees a monstrous beetle crawl into his room. The beetle reeks “of the heavy odour which clings to vaults and catacombs where the dead are entombed.”5 It looks at him with “two red eyes like spots of blood” and holds him there, “weeping and helpless.” And for the rest of his days he spends his nights transfixed and helpless with horror, observed by the beetle, and his days are spent “looking forward with anguish to the night.”6 He brings precious things to his wife’s vault, from the skins of unusual animals to rare and precious jewels to “the bracelets of the woman he loved, whose heart he had broken by parting with her to propitiate the dead,”7 but they are never enough, and eventually he dies. As he is placed in the vault next to his wife those burying him hear his wife say that there is no peace for either of them, that “You and I are at last together in the city of one who queens it over a mighty empire. Now shall we tremble before the queen of Death.”8 When their coffins are opened, the woman has “the countenance and the warmth of one who has just died,” but the man’s body is “corrupt and most horrid, like a corpse that has lain for years in a place of graves.”9
O’Sullivan was one of the central figures of the 1890s Decadent movement, and “Will” has several of the features and motifs of Yellow Nineties Decadence, from the diseased spirits of the man and his wife to the feeling of isolation to the lush, dreamlike imagery and atmosphere. But more than most of his contemporary O’Sullivan made the Decadent style a part of the story rather than the point of the story. A comparison to Shiel’s Prince Zaleski is instructive. Both use the Decadent style effectively in building atmosphere and tone, but Shiel makes character and plot subordinate to furthering the style of the story—for Shiel, the style of the Zaleski stories is their substance. O’Sullivan uses the Decadent style as the best vehicle for achieving the greatest effect in “Will.” If the ending is predictable—O’Sullivan’s only flaw as a writer—the atmosphere and style and phrasing of the story are so well done that the modern reader will not object.
Print: Richard Dalby, ed., Dracula's Brood: Neglected Vampire Classics by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James and Others. New York: Harper, 2017.
1 Vincent O’Sullivan, “Will,” in The Green Window (London: Leonard Smithers, 1899), 83.
2 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 84.
3 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 85-86.
4 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 86.
5 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 87.
6 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 89.
7 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 90.
8 O’Sullivan, “Will,” 92-93.