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The Strange Fiction of Oliver Onions




Guest writer, author Stephen Carver, looks at the work of this master of the ghost story.


Oliver Onions did not believe in ghosts. Nonetheless, as a prolific author of popular fiction across genres in the first half of the twentieth century, if he is remembered at all these days, it is as a writer of startling and original ghost stories. Historically, these were not easy to find, until they were reissued by Wordsworth as part of their ongoing series of ‘Tales of Mystery and The Supernatural.’ With a detailed introduction by David Stuart Davies,
The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions is by far the most comprehensive single collection of Onions’ gothic fiction to ever see print, and it is long overdue. It brings together twenty-four stories from Onions’ three supernatural collections, Widdershins (1911), Ghosts in Daylight (1924), and The Painted Face (1929), including uncollected material and stories omitted from the 1935 Nicholson and Watson omnibus. There is also the author’s fascinating ‘Credo,’ written for the 1935 collection, in which he explained that he was not interested in the ‘traditional apparatus’ of the ghost story, but of what he called ‘far subtler terrors.’ Why must we merely see a ghost, he wondered: ‘May not his proximity be felt and his nature apprehended in other ways?’ (Onions: 2010, 3).

Oliver Onions (1873 – 1961) is one of those writers that got lost over time. Every generation has them; bestsellers that for whatever reason do not survive their own eras. The literary historian Malcolm Elwin called such writers ‘wallflowers.’ Rightly or wrongly, Onions is an Edwardian wallflower, probably because popular and genre fiction rarely achieves the critical hallmark of ‘literature,’ while the period in which he was active undoubtedly belongs to the Modernists. Exposure thus becomes limited, and, war poets excepted, the more notionally conventional writing of the Edwardian and Interwar mainstream is quickly overwritten by the ‘luminous halos’ of experiment and revolt. Onions is somewhere between the two positions. He was thematically experimental, subversive even, but not narratologically so, writing in a commercial style essentially rooted in the Victorian realist tradition.

When seeking to find a correlative, one often reads that H.P. Lovecraft was an admirer, particularly of Onions’ most famous story, ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ (which opens the Wordsworth anthology), thus uniting the two authors under a marketable brand. This claim can be traced back to the 1971 Dover edition of the Collected Ghost Stories, after which it becomes rather vague. There are only a couple of mentions of Onions in Lovecraft’s published correspondence. ‘I hope eventually to have a sniff at the new Onions opus’ he writes to August Derleth on November 1, 1930, referring to The Painted Face, but the subject does not come up again (qtd. in Schulz and Joshi: 2013, 283). Onions appears in the Lovecraft papers once more in a letter to the horror writer J. Vernon Shea in 1936, when he writes of Ghosts in Daylight that ‘I didn’t care much for the various tales’ (qtd. in Joshi: 2002, 108). Neither is Onions cited in Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature,’ which contains praise for his four designated ‘modern masters’ of horror: Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, and Arthur Machen.

Yet in assessing Onions’ work, this should not matter. There are many locatable endorsements from his peers, including Clemence Dane, Robert Aickman, E. F. Bleiler, Algernon Blackwood, and fellow Yorkshireman J. B. Priestley, all of whom probably offer better clues as to where to place Onions in the history of supernatural fiction. We might conceptually link his mythic stories, such as ‘Io,’ ‘Dear Dryad’ and ‘The Painted Face,’ to Lovecraft’s themes of fate and ancient influences, but other than a basic genre association the connection is as fragile as Lovecraft’s praise is apocryphal. In any event, if such heresy be permitted, Onions was a much better stylist than Lovecraft, whose imagination may have been boundless but whose prose was leaden, full of long diegesis and virtually no dialogue. (This is probably why he liked Lord Dunsany, who was similarly fond of the passive voice.) Ultimately, Onions’ stories need no such prop to make them effective and relevant in the English gothic tradition. By assembling them so accessibly, the Wordsworth collection allows critics and lovers of dark tales alike to experience and evaluate Onions’ uncanny fiction for themselves, following his creative journey from his first forays until his final piece, the posthumously published ‘Tragic Casements.’

It is clear from his prefatory ‘Credo’ that Onions was seeking to move beyond the conventional ghost story, which had become hackneyed by the end of the nineteenth century. He is dismissive of the familiar signifiers, the ‘shrouds and moans and bony fingers,’ positing instead ‘a class of beings of a composition so unstable, yet of so plausible an exterior, that they are hardly known to have been ghosts till they have passed.’ Similarly, while he appreciates the gothic epiphany that occurs ‘when the surface of life, accepted for everyday purposes as stable, is jarred, and for the time of an experience does not recover its equilibrium,’ he suggests that his conception of near-human ghostliness, his ‘auto-haunts,’ are ‘the most disturbing simulacra of all, not because they contradict nature, but because they actually join hands with it.’ He chillingly concludes: ‘But for some other compulsion such a ghost perhaps should I be, such a ghost you’ (Onions: 2010, 3 – 4).

As Davies writes, Onions’ tales are ‘so far-ranging in their background and substance that they are not easily categorised’ (Onions: 2010, vii). In one of the few critical articles on the subject, ‘Oliver Onions: The Man on the Edge,’ the word Mike Ashley chooses to characterise this disparate output is strangeness. Ashley also compares the writer’s process to his background in commercial illustration: ‘Onions created his stories as he would a painting, with different layers and tones, subtle hints and shades. The results set into a distorted perspective the dichotomies and disturbances of the real world’ (Ashley: 1992, 121). In Modernist terms, Onions’ fiction defamiliarises the world of everyday perception, revitalizing clichéd narrative (such as the ghost story), thus renewing the reader’s lost capacity for fresh sensation. Nowadays, it could be labelled ‘slipstream,’ the so-called ‘fiction of strangeness,’ not so much a genre as an effect, like horror, comedy or eroticism, but based around cognitive dissonance.

Onions’ stories are dense and elusive; highly detailed character studies with an equally strong sense of place. They are fascinating portraits of a vanished world, England between wars, with class distinctions present but fading, the bonds of social etiquette strained by modern anxieties and unseemly desire. This is the kind of shifting social paradigm that invites the uncertainties of the gothic narrative, more recently explored in Sarah Waters’ ambivalent tale of class, sexuality and poltergeists in the age of Attlee, A Little Stranger (2009). Waters’ novel was compared by critics to Henry James and Shirley Jackson, but the scenario is not dissimilar to Onions’ story ‘The Honey in the Wall,’ in which the spinster daughter of an elderly dowager living in a crumbling stately home they can no longer afford is pursued by a ‘devilish’ bourgeois Lothario while the portrait of an Elizabethan ancestress watches ‘ironically from the wall’ (Onions: 2010, 165). As in many of Onions’ stories, the gothic epiphany occurs on the verge of an equivocal but inevitable physical surrender, suggesting that Freud was right and desire lies beyond repugnance as a defence against the intoxicating death wish. Reviewers were unlikely to cite, however, having probably never heard of it.

The destructive nature of creativity is another recurring theme, one that Onions frequently links to sexuality and its repression. This again allies Onions with the new spirit of the age. Although not a ‘Modernist’ in the anti-realist sense, he clearly shared a common interest in Freudian theory with his more radical contemporaries, such as May Sinclair, whose Uncanny Stories (1923) were deeply psychological. This leitmotif is present, for example, in ‘Benlian’ (in which a sculptor attempts to become one with the statue of a hideous personal deity); ‘Hic Jacet’ (subtitled ‘A Tale of Artistic Conscience’); ‘The Real People’ (a darkly comic version of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’); ‘Resurrection in Bronze’ (a tragedy in which an artist increasingly rejects his wife’s advances in order to work); and ‘The Smile of Karen’ (a tale of obsession, betrayal and an anatomically precise statuette).

This is also, of course, the theme of Onions’ most famous story, ‘The Beckoning Fair One,’ in which Paul, a blocked writer in a rundown rented property, either goes slowly out of his mind, or is increasingly possessed by an unseen but jealous female spirit while trying to meet a vital deadline. He is supported by the long-suffering Elsie, a Bohemian companion who would like to be more than a friend, but has no chance against the presence in the house. Like a shadow glimpsed in a Jacques Tourneur movie, the ghost, if it be so, is manifest no more than in the crackling sound of a woman’s hair being brushed, and the accidental refrain of an old folk song in a dripping faucet. Onions was apparently inspired when listening to his wife, the popular novelist Berta Ruck, brushing her hair before bed in their cold, dark house in Hampstead shortly after their marriage. Berta was so disturbed by the finished story, which she felt now haunted their house, that she insisted on moving (Ashley: 1992, 122). As ‘twilight and danger are settling over his soul,’ the true horror of Paul’s situation is a bold statement of his author’s ‘Credo.’ Paul’s ‘treason,’ we are told, is committed ‘by admitting the inexplicable and horrible to an increasing familiarity’ (Onions: 2010, 37). For anyone that has ever written a novel, especially to the scythe of deadline, the raw anguish of Paul’s process will touch many an exposed nerve. You want to warn him of the danger, you want him to embrace Elsie and get out while he still can. You read on the edge of your seat…

But don’t just stop there. There are stories of timeslip and reincarnation, of Eros and Thanatos, of humans touched by pagan gods, dead babies and ghostly seductions. There are stories that recall the eerie folktales of Lafcadio Hearn (‘The Cigarette Case’), J.S. Le Fanu’s Purcell Papers (‘The Woman in the Way’), Kipling’s imperial gothic (‘The Master of the House’), and the haunted objects of M.R. James (‘Tragic Casements’). Also like Kipling, Onions responded to the trauma of the Great War. One of his most powerful stories is ‘The Rope in the Rafters,’ an early reference to plastic surgery in which a horribly disfigured veteran whose lover will no longer look at him is recast as a demon by superstitious countryfolk.

Onions’ craft as a storyteller, combined with his insight into the human condition, and of the isolation at its core that can so easily overwhelm us, make him an English author well worthy of attention. Beyond ‘The Beckoning Fair One,’ a stunning achievement of sustained suspense and unease, lie stories of equal strength and originality, still immensely readable in the main and waiting to be rediscovered. And once read, they are not easily forgotten. As the Observer reviewer Frank Swinnerton wrote of Onions’ prose in The Georgian Literary Scene (1938): ‘it bears re-reading after its denouement has lost all surprise. It has, that is to say, a permanent quality’ (Swinnerton: 1938, 219). It is perhaps in this sense that comparisons with Lovecraft are most justified. Some stories just haunt us.

WORKS CITED

Ashley, Mike. (1992). ‘Oliver Onions: The Man on the Edge.’ In Schweitzer, Darrell (ed). Discovering Classic Horror Fiction I. Gillette, NJ: Wildside Press.

Joshi, S.T. (ed). (2002) Lovecraft’s Library: A Catalogue. New York: Hippocampus Press.

Onions, Oliver. (2010). The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions. London: Wordsworth.

Schulz, David E. Joshi, S.T. (eds). (2013) Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. New York: Hippocampus Press.

Swinnerton, Frank. (1938). The Georgian Literary Scene. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.


Stephen Carver Ph.D is a writer and teacher, and author of 'Shark Alley' For more information, see Stephen's: 
WebsiteAuthor Blog and Academic Blog


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