The Strange Fiction of Oliver Onions
Guest writer, author Stephen Carver, looks at the work of this master of the ghost story. ...
"She had almost shrieked.
In the name of God, what was that?"
Born Oliver Onions, he changed his name to George Oliver in 1918, but retained his original name for his books. Born on 13th November 1873, he was a significant English novelist who published over forty novels and story collections.
Originally trained as a commercial artist, he worked as a designer of posters and books, and as a magazine illustrator, before starting his career in writing. The first editions of his novels were published with dust jackets bearing full-colour illustrations painted by Onions himself.
He married the writer Berta Ruck in 1909 and they had two sons, Arthur (born 1912) and William (born 1913).
Besides detective fiction, historical fiction and a science fiction novel, New Moon (1918), Onions wrote several collections of ghost stories, of which the best known is Widdershins (1911). It includes the novella The Beckoning Fair One, widely regarded as one of the best in the genre of horror fiction, especially psychological horror. On the surface, this is a conventional haunted house story: an unsuccessful writer moves into rooms in an otherwise empty house, in the hope that isolation will help his failing creativity. His sensitivity and imagination are enhanced by his seclusion, but his art, his only friend and his sanity are all destroyed in the process. The story can be read as narrating the gradual possession of the protagonist by a mysterious and possessive feminine spirit, or as a realistic description of a psychotic outbreak culminating in catatonia and murder, told from the sufferer's point of view. The precise description of the slow disintegration of the protagonist's mind is terrifying in either case.
Another theme, shared with others of Onions' stories, is a connection between creativity and insanity; in this view, the artist is in danger of withdrawing from the world altogether and losing himself in his creation. Onions was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his 1946 novel Poor Man's Tapestry.