There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Case for "Tragic Casements"

Tartarus Press has just released a new two-volume edition of their The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions


I have written previously about Onions here.


The new edition features the first publication of the novella "Gambier." No date is provided for the story, but in her introduction editor Rosalie Parker says it is an early work. 


Parker goes on to say that "Gambier" will "be of interest to enthusiasts of Folk Horror." It certainly has elements that Folk Horror has gone back to claim: an isolated rural setting; old ways that are peculiarly maintained.


"Gambier" is the first person narrative of a new-minted country doctor, John Wilson. It begins:


Few, even, of my friends, have looked on me as a man whose nerves are lightly set a-start; and for this, I fancy, I have to thank a certain heaviness and immobility of countenance, together with a bigness of frame, not generally associated with high-strung natures. And, indeed, my training as a doctor of medicine has ridded of all terrors for me such things as deathbeds, wounds, and the like, regarded by most folks as dreadful. Nevertheless, I confess here that this big, bragging body of mine holds a spirit sometimes bold (I hope), but sometimes timorous as a child's. And in particular, I have always been extremely sensitive to that kind of Spirit of a Place, be it gay or gloomy, which has its commonest manifestation in the desire folks have to cast themselves from heights, as if an imp within them urged them to their end.

     The most remarkable instance of this sensitiveness that I can remember happened to me in the year 1778. I am able to give the month, from the fact that I was at the time hastening, fresh from college, to take up my first practice, that of my friend James Rewell, who had lately died; and it would be the first or second week in September. As the incident is all of a piece with my story, I will begin at that point.


Wilson finds that the village of Wastley is ruled by Father Gambier, and that the area was untouched by the Reformation and Cromwell's rule. 


"Gambier" presents the struggle between Wilson and a few local allies against Gambier's personal dictatorship. It is a no-quarter-given battle between the two men: a battle of wits and brute force with plenty of shocking and bloody violence. I have only read Onions' supernatural fiction, and "Gambier" has an eloquently ferocious tone that the reader of stories like "The Beckoning Fair One" and "The Cigarette Case" will be completely unprepared for.


*     *     *


In her introduction to the new edition, Rosalie Parker writes:


Selecting the stories for this volume has been a positive joy. We have been able to adopt a policy of inclusivity wherever possible, but, in order to maintain the quality of the collection, four stories which might have been included have been omitted. These are 'The Master of the House', a mystery novella included in the original Collected Ghost Stories of 1935, 'Two Trifles' ('The Mortal' and 'The Ether Hogs') and the recently rediscovered 'Tragic Casements'.


(The missing stories are available in The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions [Wordsworth, 2010].)


The omission of "Tragic Casements" is a serious mistake. While the story does not have the scope or aesthetic authority of earlier Onions tales, it is an accomplished story of supernatural horror, well-organized and finely executed. On these strengths, and as a rarity, it deserves inclusion in any Onions collection that hopes to present the scope  of the author's career. (Especially when the collection has two volumes of space to work with.)


Jay

20 June 2021









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