[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the June 30, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
Oliver Onions was a master of the supernatural tale. His ghost stories were elegantly written and well plotted, and his characters were fully fleshed. He is known for psychological insight into his characters, and a common theme is a character’s realization that ghosts are not confined to traditional haunted old places but exist in the contemporary world. His theory of ghosts, at least in his fiction, was that they are all around us but are usually not visible. Only when there is a slight shift in the equilibrium between the supernatural and the natural worlds are ghosts sometimes sighted. Though Onions wrote convincingly about the supernatural, he did not believe in ghosts.
George Oliver Onions was born on November 13, 1872 or 1873, in Bradford, Yorkshire, England. He legally changed his name to George Oliver in 1918 but used the name Oliver Onions to publish fiction.
Onions studied art from 1894 to 1897 at the National Arts Training Schools (now the Royal Academy) in London, and then for another year in Paris. While in France, he edited a student paper, Le Quartier Latin. During this period, he wrote his first story, “Smoking Flax,” which was published in Lady’s Pictorial, but he did not entertain thoughts of becoming a writer. On his return to England in 1898, he embarked on a career as an illustrator and poster designer. Even after he took up writing, he continued his commercial art work, most notably in the design of book jackets.
His first novel, The Compleat Bachelor, came out in 1901, and was serialized in the United States in Harper’s Bazaar. It was nearly a decade before his next books were published. These included three novels which established his reputation as a master of the psychological thriller: In Accordance with the Evidence (1910), The Debit Account (1913), and The Story of Louis (1913), which make up his Whom God Hath Sundered trilogy. These were published in an omnibus edition in 1925.
At this point, he began making less money from art and more from writing, so he shifted gears to a literary career. At first, his works were not horror but did contain his signature strangeness and were written in the unique style he strove for.
In 1909, Onions married Berta Ruck. They had two sons, Arthur (born in 1912) and William (born in 1913). With her husband’s assistance, Ruck began a career as a prolific and popular writer.
Onions wrote about 24 weird tales. His ghost stories were published in three collections: Widdershins (1911), Ghosts in Daylight (1924), and The Painted Face (1929). These three books were later published in an omnibus edition, The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions (1935), which, as he states in the “credo” to that book, contains all the stories he cared to collect at that point. Some of these stories were later published in a retrospective collection, Bells Rung Backward (1953).
One of his earliest stories is also his most famous one and is considered by many to be among the finest English supernatural tales. “The Beckoning Fair One” (1911) tells of a writer who moves into a haunted house and the effects the haunting has on his personality and his writing.
As with “The Beckoning Fair One,” many of his stories deal with the themes of isolation and alienation, perhaps reflecting Onions’ own feelings of isolation. The main character in “Rooum” (1910) believes there is an unseen thing that pursues him and even runs through him, and he tries to kill this thing. In “Benlian” (1911), the title character is a sculptor who creates a hideous carving, treats it as a god, and tries to transfer his personality to it.
Fate is another frequent theme. “Phantas” (1910) and “The Accident” (1911) are about visions of the future, which become real in the former and lead to avoiding a murder in the latter. Time dislocation plays a part in “The Cigarette Case” (1911), “The Rosewood Door” (1929), and “John Gladwyn Says…” (1935).
“The Painted Face” (1929) tells of a shy girl who travels with a group of friends to Tunisia. She comes alive during the trip, revealing her true personality, which is a spirit condemned to be a temptress who will never find love.
Only one of Onions’ stories was based on an actual supernatural event, which happened to his son Arthur. He was in a hotel room and heard someone pacing about the floor, but he saw no one there. In addition, he felt a strange coldness and smelled damp earth. Onions used this incident as the basis for “The Rope in the Rafters” (1935).
Only a handful of Onions’ novels could be considered horror or supernatural. These include The Tower of Oblivion (1921), which is about a man who is convinced his “personal time” has been reversed and he is growing younger. The Hand of Kornelius Voyt (1939), which has the familiar theme of isolation, is about an orphan who becomes alienated from his tutor and attached to Dr. Voyt, whom he seldom sees.
In The Story of Ragged Robyn (1945), the title character falls in disfavor with a group of bandits, who vow vengeance in seven years’ time. Robyn runs away, has a series of strange adventures, returns after seven years, and is put on trial by the bandits. This novel is considered one of Onions’ finest works. The respected British author Sir John Betjeman says of this book that “such a feeling of remoteness, boding inevitability, horror, such a sense of the past and such narrative power are rarely found in one book.”
Other supernatural books are The New Moon (1918), A Certain Man (1931), and A Shilling to Spend (an unfinished novel which was published posthumously in 1965).
In 1946, Onions won Scotland’s oldest book award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, for his novel Poor Man’s Tapestry (1946).
Onions died on April 9, 1961.
Widdershins and The Beckoning Fair One are available from most booksellers. Tartarus Press published Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, which contains 22 tales, but it is currently out of print. Many of his stories can be found on-line.