A Book of BargainsBy Vincent O’Sullivan (Leonard Smithers; 1896)

The premiere work of fiction by an author who seems destined to be known forevermore as a “friend of Oscar Wilde.” The Wilde connection is evident in the Aubrey Beardsley illustration that graces the first page of A BOOK OF BARGAINS, a collection of highly decadent minded stories in which murder and madness are constants. As the title indicates, bargains (of various sorts) are further constants of this short but resonant book whose opulent prose still resonates.

“The Bargain of Rupert Orange” begins the collection in fitting style, with the naive pauper Rupert Orange meeting a strange old man who promises untold riches if only Orange will agree to give up his life in five years. Orange agrees to the proposal with a proviso: that he be allowed to get revenge on a woman who laid him low. The old man agrees to the bargain and, as you might guess, the results are none too pleasant, in a tale that includes a genuine social conscience and a gritty portrayal of life in late-19th Century New York City.

“My Enemy and Myself” deals affectingly with jealousy, murder and insanity, while “The Business of Madame Jahn” likewise contains a murder, committed by a decidedly demented individual. In “A Study in Murder” a lovesick man is driven to suicide by his “best friend,” who maliciously withholds some key information. “Original Sin” provides an unnerving look into the disturbed psyche of a child killer. “When I was Dead” reintroduces a social conscience into its account of a wealthy homeowner unable to face up to the fact that he’s deceased. The concluding story is “Hugo Raven’s Hand,” another dark account of a murderer brought low by guilt, complete with a gruesome surprise in the final pages.

It’s difficult reading these stories today, with their relentlessly doom-laden trajectories, without taking into account the facts of their author’s life. It seems Vincent O’Sullivan lived comfortably off his family’s income until 1909, when an ill-advised financial gamble left him destitute, a calamity that’s eerily foreshadowed in these pages.