Oliver Onions was a British artist turned writer who was born on November 13th, 1873. He got his start doing artwork for posters, books and magazines. He’d later use these skills to do cover art for some of his own works after becoming a writer. His collection of ghost stories, WIDDERSHINS (1911), contained some of his finest stories, including the novella “The Beckoning Fair One”, which was named one of the greatest ghost stories ever written by a number of horror masters including H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, and Robert Aickman. Onions didn’t believe in the supernatural which may account for his propensity to write tales that were subjective as to whether or not anything paranormal was actually occurring. Onions died on April 9th 1961.
1. “Rooum” (1910) – A nervous man named Rooum shows up from time to time to do construction work for the tale’s narrator. Rooum was terrified of anyplace that could produce echoes. After spending a night abroad with Rooum, the narrator hears him saying peculiar things in his sleep. It comes to light that Rooum believes he’s being pursued by a phantom runner which is driving him mad. Near the end of the story Rooum devises a plan to try and destroy his spectral pursuer.
2. “The Beckoning Fair One” (1911) – Writer Paul Oleron leases a house that’s more convenient to his present situation. His best friend, a woman named Elsie, has feelings for him. When she visits him at his new place, she gets a bad vibe from it and tells him he will never finish his manuscript there, which is of great importance to his career. It also seems the house, or something inside it, dislikes Elsie as exposed nails mysteriously appear to cut her and previously solid wooden steps break beneath her. When alone, Oleron begins to hear the sound of a woman brushing her hair, and as time goes on his mind becomes infected by an overwhelming obsession with her. Onions is best remembered for this novella which was called the greatest ghost story in the English language by the Algernon Blackwood. I enjoyed it, just not as much as Blackwood. It deals primarily with the mental degradation of its main character with very few actual manifestations of the malevolent ghost he believes resides in the house. Onions was inspired to write it after noticing the unique static sound generated by his wife running a brush through her hair.
4. “IO” (1911) – A young woman, still recovering from an illness that nearly killed her, reads a book of Keats poetry based on Greek mythology. She believes the strange dreams she’s been having will merge with her reality as she begins seeing mythical beasts such as Centaurs’, Satyrs’, and snake-people. Perhaps a dark god is coming to claim her.
5. “The Cigarette Case” (1911) – A man relates a strange tale from his past, spurred by a friend’s cigarette case involving a time when he and another man were traveling abroad and encountered an old house with two alluring women in it.
6. “Benlian” (1911) – A man who works sculpting miniatures of people he’s photographed meets his neighbor Benlian, a statue sculpture. At first he’s put off by Benlian’s demanding personality but agrees to look at the man’s all-consuming endeavor. The statue he’s shown is a grotesque thing with disproportionally large arms that Benlian claims is his god.
Article by Matt Cowan