"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

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