"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, October 18, 2019

Celebrating Oliver Onions (1873–1961)

Oliver Onions has a reputation as a bloodless, psychologizing aesthete of pristine refinement. The sense seems to be that if you prefer the cooless and distancing of Henry James, Onions is for you. If you want danger, melodrama, and horrorpilation, look elsewhere.

This sentiment, whose cues in the horror community kept me steering clear of Onions for the last four decades, is at best inaccurate. More fool me.

Onions is a meticulous craftsman who takes infinite pains. His stories are spacious enough to let readers breathe, to become acquainted with characters and the lay of the land. There is real external horror here, not just the dripping accumulation of menacing atmosphere via pastel prose.

A few notes and excerpts from stories read so far. (I am not done reading Onions).

....What the writer has in practice to investigate is the varying 'densities' of the ghostliness that is revealed when this surface of life, accepted for everyday purposes as stable, is jarred, and for the time of an experience does not recover its equilibrium.
....somewhere between the ultra-violet and the infra-red of the ghostly spectrum.

The Beckoning Fair One • (1911)
There are echoes of Poe's great essay-tale "The Imp of the Perverse" here, as the protagonist struggles against himself and an annihilating supernatural force in his new flat. Onions gives us plenty of the economy of everyday life of a writer living hand-to-mouth.  Each step along the path to self-annihilation is accompanied by new heights of self-deception:
....He was in truth only now beginning to work. He was preparing such a work . . . such a work . . . such a Mistress was a-making in the gestation of his Art . . . let him but get this period of probation and poignant waiting over and men should see . . .

Phantas • (1910)
A story of nautical timeslip, brief and of great poignancy.

Rooum • (1910)
A body-horror story of supernatural assault.
The narrator and Mr. Rooum are civil engineers visiting a construction project.  The narrator has a degree; Rooum does not, but he has a sixth sense about the business, and is also a talented water dowser.
….for all the lateness of the hour, I wasn't sleepy; so from my own bag I took a book, set the candle on the end of the mantel, and began to read. Mark you, I don't say I was much better informed for the reading I did, for I was watching the Vs on the wallpaper mostly – that, and wondering what was wrong with the man in the other bed who had fallen down at a touch in the subway. He was already asleep.

Now I don't know whether I can make the next clear to you. I'm quite certain he was sound asleep, so that it wasn't just the fact that he spoke. Even that is a little unpleasant, I always think, any sort of sleep-talking; but it's a very queer sort of sensation when a man actually answers a question that's put to him, knowing nothing what­ever about it in the morning. Perhaps I ought not to have put that question; having put it, I did the next best thing afterwards, as you'll see in a moment . . . but let me tell you.

He'd been asleep perhaps an hour, and I woolgathering about the wallpaper, when suddenly, in a far more clear and loud voice than he ever used when awake, he said: 'What the devil is it prevents me seeing him, then?'

That startled me, rather, for the second time that evening; and I really think I had spoken before I had fully realised what was happening.

'From seeing whom?' I said, sitting up in bed.

'Whom? . . . You're not attending. The fellow I'm telling you about, who runs after me,' he answered – answered perfectly plainly.

I could see his head there on the pillow, black and white, and his eyes were closed. He made a slight movement with his arm, but that did not wake him. Then it came to me, with a sort of start, what was happening. I slipped half out of bed. Would he – would he? – answer another question? . . . I risked it, breathlessly:

'Have you any idea who he is?'

Well, that too he answered.

'Who he is? The Runner? . . . Don't be silly. Who else should it be?'

With every nerve in me tingling, I tried again.

'What happens, then, when he catches you?'

This time, I really don't know whether his words were an answer or not; they were these:

'To hear him catching you up . . . and then padding away ahead again! All right, all right . . . but I guess it's weakening him a bit, too . . . '

Benlian • (1911)
One of Robert Chambers' artist studio nightmares meets "Nadelman's God" by T.E.D. Klein.

The Ascending Dream • (1924)
A story composed entirely of history-punctuated slingshot endings

The Honey in the Wall • (1924)
Must-read for lovers of E.F. Benson, with a soupcon of L.P. Hartley. The declining fortunes of a once-wealthy family, now reduced to selling-off patrimony.

The Rosewood Door • (1929)
Antiquarian time-slip melodrama accumulates into a tragedy of real scope. A novella with the scale of a novel, akin to the best Gerald Kersh historical fiction.

"John Gladwin Says ..." • (1928)
A masterclass in narrative distancing and afterlife fantasy.
...nameboards of ancient wood with finials sticking up at the ends like prick-ears, John Gladwin says. As for the church – well, there it was, what remained of it, that wrecked and ivied hum­mock in the middle of the field. The gap into the field had no gate. John Gladwin imagines he must have stopped his engine, for this pink and silver bowl in the hills was filled with an immense quiet. He got out of the car. Picking his way among the tombstones he pushed through coarse grass to the ruin.

Hic Jacet • (1911)
A man believes he is writing the biography of his dead friend, a penniless artist graced with genius. But the writer, who gave up literature for bestselling detective fiction, comes face-to-face with ramifications of a different order entirely. 

The Master of the House • (1929)
The Peckover siblings versus black magic and lycanthropy. For real. Recalls Sapper, Wheatley, or Blackwood. Boarded windows, secret passages, sealed rooms. 

Tragic Casements 
A very accomplished supernatural horror story.
....From some­where inside the house there had come the squeaking scrape of wood on stone and a creaking as of wicker under a weight. The muffled jingling vibration that followed it resembled nothing so much as the dropping of a tray laden with crockery, and snatching a candle from the table, Eustace Corydon had disappeared by the uncurtained doorway.

Matt Cowan at Horror Delve has his own pertinent notes on Onions here.

I've excerpted a passage on Onions from James Machin's great recent book Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 here.

18 October 2018

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Lovecraft on Hawthorne

….Poe represents the newer, more disillusioned, and more technically finished of the weird schools that rose out of this propitious milieu. Another school — the tradition of moral values, gentle restraint, and mild, leisurely phantasy tinged more or less with the whimsical — was represented by another famous, misunderstood, and lonely figure in American letters — the shy and sensitive Nathaniel Hawthorne, scion of antique Salem and great-grandson of one of the bloodiest of the old witchcraft judges. In Hawthorne we have none of the violence, the daring, the high colouring, the intense dramatic sense, the cosmic malignity, and the undivided and impersonal artistry of Poe. Here, instead, is a gentle soul cramped by the Puritanism of early New England; shadowed and wistful, and grieved at an unmoral universe which everywhere transcends the conventional patterns thought by our forefathers to represent divine and immutable law. Evil, a very real force to Hawthorne, appears on every hand as a lurking and conquering adversary; and the visible world becomes in his fancy a theatre of infinite tragedy and woe, with unseen half-existent influences hovering over it and through it, battling for supremacy and moulding the destinies of the hapless mortals who form its vain and self-deluded population. The heritage of American weirdness was his to a most intense degree, and he saw a dismal throng of vague specters behind the common phenomena of life; but he was not disinterested enough to value impressions, sensations, and beauties of narration for their own sake. He must needs weave his phantasy into some quietly melancholy fabric of didactic or allegorical cast, in which his meekly resigned cynicism may display with naive moral appraisal the perfidy of a human race which he cannot cease to cherish and mourn despite his insight into its hypocrisy. Supernatural horror, then, is never a primarily object with Hawthorne; though its impulses were so deeply woven into his personality that he cannot help suggesting it with the force of genius when he calls upon the unreal world to illustrate the pensive sermon he wishes to preach.

Hawthorne’s intimations of the weird, always gentle, elusive, and restrained, may be traced throughout his work. The mood that produced them found one delightful vent in the Teutonised retelling of classic myths for children contained in A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, and at other times exercised itself in casting a certain strangeness and intangible witchery or malevolence over events not meant to be actually supernatural; as in the macabre posthumous novel Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret, which invests with a peculiar sort of repulsion a house existing to this day in Salem, and abutting on the ancient Charter Street Burying Ground. In The Marble Faun, whose design was sketched out in an Italian villa reputed to be haunted, a tremendous background of genuine phantasy and mystery palpitates just beyond the common reader’s sight; and glimpses of fabulous blood in mortal veins are hinted at during the course of a romance which cannot help being interesting despite the persistent incubus of moral allegory, anti-Popery propaganda, and a Puritan prudery which has caused the modern writer D. H. Lawrence to express a longing to treat the author in a highly undignified manner. Septimius Felton, a posthumous novel whose idea was to have been elaborated and incorporated into the unfinished Dolliver Romance, touches on the Elixir of Life in a more or less capable fashion whilst the notes for a never-written tale to be called The Ancestral Footstep show what Hawthorne would have done with an intensive treatment of an old English superstition — that of an ancient and accursed line whose members left footprints of blood as they walked-which appears incidentally in both Septimius Felton and Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret.

Many of Hawthorne’s shorter tales exhibit weirdness, either of atmosphere or of incident, to a remarkable degree. Edward Randolph’s Portrait, in Legends of the Province House, has its diabolic moments. The Minister’s Black Veil (founded on an actual incident) and The Ambitious Guest imply much more than they state, whilst Ethan Grand — a fragment of a longer work never completed — rises to genuine heights of cosmic fear with its vignette of the wild hill country and the blazing, desolate lime-kilns, and its delineation of the Byronic “unpardonable sinner,” whose troubled life ends with a peal of fearful laughter in the night as he seeks rest amidst the flames of the furnace. Some of Hawthorne’s notes tell of weird tales he would have written had he lived longer — an especially vivid plot being that concerning a baffling stranger who appeared now and then in public assemblies, and who was at last followed and found to come and go from a very ancient grave.

....But Hawthorne left no well-defined literary posterity. His mood and attitude belonged to the age which closed with him, and it is the spirit of Poe — who so clearly and realistically understood the natural basis of the horror-appeal and the correct mechanics of its achievement — which survived and blossomed.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

James Machin on Oliver Onions

'this vague we know not what' 

Vernon Lee

....Another author of weird fiction associated with the Edwardian period is Oliver Onions (1873–1961), an erstwhile illustrator who began writing for the periodicals in the 1890s, publishing his first novel in 1900 (Kemp et al. 2002b, 301). His most well-known story, 'The Beckoning Fair One', is an example of the clear influence of Henry James on his writing, effective as it is in its own right. This, and several other of Onions' stories, is concerned with an artist struggling with the creation of their art, expressed through a supernaturally inflected narrative. Even though Onions was clearly drawn to psychic phenomena and ghost lore—explicitly referencing the Society for Psychical Research in 'Benlian' (1911) for example (Onions 1911, 177)—his oeuvre evades being subsumed within the ghost story genre proper, a fact not lost on contemporary critics:

The stories are by no means all to be dismissed as 'ghost' stories. They deal rather with various forms of supernaturalism which man does not profess, or is unable, to account for. (Athenaeum 1911, 274)

A good example of this weirder valence of his writing is the 1910 story 'Rooum', which concerns an invisible presence stalking the titular character, an itinerant construction engineer. Onions blends the traditional trope of supernatural persecution (a nineteenth-century example being Sheridan Le Fanu's 'The Familiar' (1872)) with contemporary scientific theory. In his attempts at explaining his strange affliction, Rooum speaks vaguely of 'osmosis' and 'molecules', which the narrator, although demonstrating greater scientific education, struggles to parse (Onions 1910, 1118). Typically, Onions never offers a definite explanation in terms of any specific supernatural agency (there is no ghost, as such), and never closes the door on the possibility that what is being described is a purely psychological affliction. Despite its brevity, Onions' execution of the narrative is compellingly suggestive: is Rooum's crisis over his identity, and the alleged threat to it, based on his own ethnicity (he is described by the narrator as mixed race and 'very dark' (1115))? Or is it connected with the liminal spaces of construction, and (again) the metropolitan suburbs in which the story is set (the 'eruption of red-brick houses' (1117))?

As I have discussed, this latter trope was a particular Edwardian hobby horse, but despite this, Onions' work refuses to conform neatly to retroactive periodization. Reviewing Widdershins—the collection that included

'Rooum'—the Saturday Review objects to Onions' alleged preoccupation with 'decay', leading them to place him with the 'decadent class of writers who, tired of the beautiful, seek only sensations and find them in the

study of all that is repulsive' (Saturday Review 1911, 214). The reviewer repeatedly criticizes Onions for 'taking the ugly theme of madness for so many of the stories', a preoccupation the reviewer again associates with decadence, 'the flowers of evil', and Charles Baudelaire (214–15). This reading of Widdershins as a series of investigations into degenerate psychological maladies sidelines any supernatural element to the work. For instance, 'The Beckoning Fair One' is described as 'a pitiless record of the various stages traversed by a man on his way from perfect sanity to the lunatic asylum,' though 'disguised as a ghost story' (the reviewer here echoing Max Nordau).

Indeed, this fin-de-siècle atmosphere is readily evident throughout the collection: the bohemian studio milieu of 'Hic Jacet' (1911) for instance, or the Classical Paganism of 'Io' (1911). In this latter story, which the

Saturday Review concedes to be a 'wonderfully clever piece of writing' (215), a woman is transported from her humdrum middle-class existence into a Bacchic frenzy; whether this is through actual invocation of a divine

agency or insanity is unresolved. The English Review said of the story that it was 'a masterly and beautiful conjunction of clerkly life and Dionysiac ecstasy', a description that could also apply to several of Machen's works, including 'A Fragment of Life' (English Review 1911, 755). Here again there is a through line between torrid fin-de-siècle paganism and what Carey identifies as the Pan-worship provoked by the quotidian suburbs:

the quiet external lives of their inhabitants, a stability interrupted, destabilized, and enriched by the resurgence of the romantic imagination.

Although it is certainly possible, as I have demonstrated, to identify various tropes and tendencies in Edwardian weird fiction, it is of course impossible to neatly distinguish fiction written after 1900 from that written before it. Onions in 1911, for example, was clearly being written about as an (unwelcome) outlier from the Yellow Nineties. In Chap. 4, I will discuss in detail the weird fiction of John Buchan, specifically in this context. Having acknowledged the possibility of an Edwardian weird fiction, therefore, I will once again subsume it within the more capacious ambit of the long nineteenth century.


James Machin

Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939

2018: Palgrave Macmillan

Sunday, October 6, 2019

More appointments in Samarra: Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Tales from the Crypt (1972) Amicus Productions

Amicus and Freddie Francis waylay five venal, unthinking, careless fools together and let Sir Ralph Richardson goggle-eye them into reflecting on actions that have earned them eternal damnation.

"...And All Through the House"
A man unfolds the newspaper in his comfortable chair. At home on Christmas Eve, carols playing, he is relaxing before a minimalist white hearth. We are watching our side of his newspaper when we hear the meaty thwack, and the black and white newsprint begins to soak red. That's the sharpest shot in "...And All Through the House." The rest is comeuppance folderol as the Joan Collins character tries to keep juggling husband's corpse, young daughter, and the onslaught of a Santa-suit-clad escaped lunatic.

"Reflection of Death"
Dream of a death foretells death. Ian Hendry gets punished with living death for leaving wife and kids for younger, more attractive woman. Then wakes up from this nightmare to do it all - we are sure - again, and for real. E.C. Comics might have fallen foul of the 1950s witchhunt, but that was for droll graphic irreverence, not its reactionary moral line.

"Poetic Justice"
Peter Cushing at his scene-stealing again, a twittery old rag--picker (read: Jew), a widower in the crosshairs of gentrifying neighbors. They have his dogs impounded, drive away the children who adore him by spreading rumors he is a pedophile, and push him to suicide with a poison pen campaign in rhyming Valentine's Day cards. One year later, Cushing returns to pen a couplet of his own. Code of Hammurabi dramas go down easy when it's the rich getting their hearts torn out.

"Wish You Were Here"
A Monkey's Paw tale in which protagonists realize they're in a Monkey's Paw tale. But it doesn't matter: you can't win against the MP.

"Blind Alleys"
A fine conte cruel in which institutionalized blind men revenge themselves on their new administrator, who acts like the warden of a Stalag and keeps a pet Alsatian on a short leash. The incomparable Patrick Magee lends his sublime poignancy. Nigel Patrick is perfection as the officious, sadistic dog lover. 

6 October 2019