“...setting aside the highest masterpieces of literature, there is nothing more difficult to achieve than a first-class ghost story.”
Montague Summers, Victorian Ghost Stories, 1936
The tradition of the English ghost story is an old one dating from the days of Horace Walpole and the genesis of the Gothic Novel. Charles Dickens codified the form with the publication of his A Christmas Tale and the notion of reading a spooky story to a Yuletide gathering, with all the candles but one extinguished, became a seasonal event from that point onwards. Throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, the ghost story worked both as an entertainment and a warning; in his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, H.P. Lovecraft goes so far as to say that horror fiction represents the very earliest form of the transmitted narrative – whether written or orally presented – in that the didactic format was the basis of instructional learning by means of the cautionary tale.
Many writers have tried their hand at the conventions of the ghost story and some are well-known for little else. Chief amongst them is the English writer Montague Rhodes James (writing as M.R. James), the amiable Dean of King’s College in Cambridge until the late 1930s who published many volumes of the ghost stories which he produced as part of the Christmas tradition; his tales “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “The Haunted Dolls’ House” are still classics of the form. Less well-known is the Irish playwright J.S Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote the gothic masterpiece Carmilla that helped inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and his stories such as “Green Tea” and “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” are still capable of raising a shiver today. Rudyard Kipling also dabbled with the form and his “The Phantom Rickshaw” is a memorable entry in the canon, as too is H.G. Wells’ “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”.
However, good as these writers and their efforts are, they still fell prey to the changing nature of the zeitgeist and, as with any populist form of entertainment, it either evolves or falls into desuetude. After the real-life horrors of World War Two, the parlour-room adventures of middle class aesthetes and everymen in haunted backwater inns and country houses seemed too trifling to be any kind of distraction. The realities of genocide, mutation and possible nuclear eradication became obsessions of the post-War era and the nightmare of existential obliteration, rather than the agonies of an unquiet grave, became a focus for dabblers in the horror genre.
Modern horror writing is a fractured and sub-generic minefield that does little to strive for a literary effect. Most publishers and booksellers these days incorporate horror as a sub-genre of ‘Fantasy/Science Fiction’ and such hybrids as ‘Dark Fantasy’ and the dystopian horror of ‘Cyberpunk’ do little to bolster a ‘pure’ notion of horror writing. The mid-20th century successes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz gave way – on the one hand - to the ‘Paranormal Romance’ indulgences of Virginia Andrews (Flowers in the Attic), Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire) and Stephenie Meyers’ dubious offerings, and - on the other - the sub-sub-genre crapulence of ‘Splatterpunk’. It seems little wonder then that such writers as Poppy Z. Brite and Joe Hill should emerge from the wasteland to champion horror fiction and put the ghost story back on the map.
Indeed, the formula for a good ghost story has developed much since the days of Charles Dickens. In 1986 Michael Cox and R.A Gilbert set the following guidelines for the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories when editing their selection for that volume:
“Each story should reveal to the reader a spectacle of the returning dead, or their agents, and their actions; there must be a dramatic interaction between the living and the dead, more often than not with the intention of frightening or unsettling the reader; the story must exhibit clear literary quality ... there must be a definable Englishness about the story ... and finally ... the story must be relatively short.”
For these present purposes, the need for brevity and “Englishness” need not necessarily apply, but M.R. James would most likely have added the following:
“[Ghosts should be] malevolent or odious; [their victims should be] introduced in a placid way, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and in this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head.”
James would also have appended an interdiction to observe rules of folklore in handling bogeys and ghosts, in order to lend an air of verisimilitude. Modern writers in the genre would tend to focus more upon the psychology of the apparition or monster, even pulling an Agatha Christie-like switch à la The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and writing the story from the horror’s point of view: a good example of this is John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, which retells the Beowulf saga from the monster’s perspective.
Indeed, for the modern reader of horror fiction, the psychology of the players is paramount. In a time when our ‘monsters’ are more likely to be stalkers, rapists and serial killers than ghosts, vampires or werewolves, the desire to understand the motivation of the malefactor assumes a primary position: we no longer live with a worldview that ‘to be is to do’ – which more than sums up why a werewolf would attack a lone traveller under a full moon – since our new monsters are most likely people we know, or those whom we would not look at twice. Edgar Allen Poe began this probing into the understanding of the fiend and his works largely influenced the writing of the French and English Decadents, ultimately moving clear of the traditional ghost story; Lovecraft and his crowd, through the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties up until today, dabbled in speculations as to the impact of horror in turning a sane mind mad; but it was not until the end of the Twentieth Century and into the current era that the psychology of the ghost story became a fait accompli.
Which brings us finally, to Oliver Onions.
George Oliver Onions was born on the 13th of November in 1873 and was trained as a commercial artist before turning his hand full-time to the business of writing; many of the forty novels and short story collections which he published had dustjackets that he designed himself. He married the author Roberta ‘Berta’ Ruck in 1909 and they had two children. Berta had been born in India in 1878 – one of eight daughters –and was a successful novelist in her own right, penning over eighty works, mainly romantic novels, until her death in 1978. A handful of her tales were made into movies during the early ‘Twenties. Onions officially changed his name to ‘George Oliver’ in 1918 but still used Oliver Onions as his nom-de plume. He continued writing throughout his life, covering many different genres including an early foray into Science Fiction (New Moon in 1918), and received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1946 for his novel Poor Man’s Tapestry. He died on the 9th of April in 1961.
“The Beckoning Fair One” comes from a collection of ghost stories entitled Widdershins, which Onions published in 1911. It is the best-known of his works, despite being ignored by many anthologies and other lists, most likely due to its length. It tells the tale of a writer named Paul Oleron struggling to prepare the manuscript of what will surely be his greatest novel, a romance entitled Romilly. A major impediment to his working practise is the fact that he occupies a flat at one end of London and has an office in which to write, some distance away; he resolves this issue by renting a floor in an unoccupied house which he notices for let whilst journeying between the two tent-poles of his existence. Once settled, his writer’s block becomes acute as the business of decorating and settling takes precedence; a ‘lady journalist’ friend of his, and would-be paramour, named Elsie Bengough, becomes concerned not only for Paul, but also for his masterwork, as he begins to fall under the spell of a possible entity dwelling in the building. He slips firstly, into a hermit-like, paranoid exile and then into depression and catatonia. When the authorities finally pay Paul a visit, following up the suspicious whispers of the neighbourhood, Elsie’s terrible fate is revealed and fingers are swiftly pointed at Paul ... but is he really to blame?
We can start to check off Cox and Gilbert’s list in our examination of this story. As already noted, it fails the test for brevity, but we aren’t too concerned with that here. In terms of its Englishness, his story actually travels into aspects of London life that are little known in other classic tales of the period (although they were probably mainstays of the popular fiction of the time): Elsie’s life as a journalist (and attitudes to women at work), the process and practise of renting property, even the condition of busses at the time are brought into relief and give us a window into Onions’ world.
As to literariness, things become somewhat murky. Onions’ language is dense and a trifle overblown although it stops short of being turgid. There are occasional tortuous phrasings, but on the whole his style works well with the material. Unlike M.R. James – a natural literary mimic who could churn out convincing prose in the style of whatever period asked for at a moment’s notice – or the likes of Kipling, Ambrose Bierce, or Wells - trained as newshounds and wary of muddy transmissions – Onions was a purely populist writer, tied to the strict deadlines of monthly serials like The Argosy and Cornhill’s Magazine, with all the limitations which that places on style.
Nevertheless there is definite mastery present here in the description of, not only Paul’s psychological disintegration, but also of the wedge which the Beckoner drives between the two would-be lovers, and the meticulous observations of the gulf widening between them delivered in dialogue and physical description – especially their parting discussion on the bus, wherein Elsie confesses the extent of her feelings for Paul - are deft and even heart-breaking.
If literary quality can be determined by a work’s ability to inspire and direct other writers, then Onions can also be said to have achieved this: Claude Tardat’s, novel Sweet Death, published in 1988, has strong echoes of Onions’ tale. This book tells of the purposeful self-killing of its emotionally-brutalised heroine by devouring chocolates, cakes and other sweet treats. The piece takes the form of her diary, meant at first only to be a catalogue of everything which she consumes, but which becomes a record of her mental state and observations during her horribly-focussed desire to end her own existence. The withdrawal, both psychological and actual, through which she goes are, as in Onions’ work, meticulously drawn and there is an analogue of the Elsie Bengough character in an outside agent whom the suicide meets: known only as “the student” he echoes Elsie’s movements at the end of Onions’ tale, as he desperately pounds on her door to gain admittance while she, feeling the sugar silting through her veins and the syrup slowing her heart, chooses to ignore him and conclude her horrible plan.
The notion of what exactly is working upon Paul Oleron raises our fourth criterion. The ‘Beckoner’ is an invisible female presence, who pouts and flirts over Paul throughout the tale. The only notion we (and Paul) have of her is the sound of her silk skirts and the electric crackle of her hair being brushed. Nevertheless, Paul interprets her ‘moods’ and responds by decorating the apartment to her taste, exiling Elsie as unwanted ‘competition’, and by destroying his unfinished novel, the other object of his affection. Certain clues crop up: the fact that the previous tenant – a talented artist named Madley – also wasted away in the flat; the discovery of the old harp bag hidden in the window seat; and the revelation of an ancient Welsh tune (“The Beckoning Fair One”) by his housekeeper. Together these might lead us to conclude that the Beckoner is a creature of Celtic legend, a ‘fairy mistress’ called the leanan sidhe in Gaelic, who, like a vampire, drains men of their creativity and talent, leaving them wasted and dead. Not that Onions tells us this information in so many words, preferring to drop veiled hints, but the folklore of the British Isles is redolent with the stories of this and similar creatures. In this sense, M.R. James would be well-pleased, as it conforms to his notion of having sprung from a well-scripted legendry. That the “ominous thing” also puts out it head in Paul’s lovingly-decorated apartment would no doubt also have amused him.
Manifestations of the dead and their interaction with the living are all that remain. In this instance there is a notion of the returning dead in the discovery of the dead artist Madley, whose history prefigures and warns Paul of his fate. There are other returns too: the harp bag reappears and the wig-powdering closet is opened: these two seemingly random objects from a past age take on their own chilling roles in the dénouement, no matter how innocently they emerge in the text. Despite the fact that the dramatic interaction with the spectral - the death of Elsie - takes place off-screen, the final question – ‘was it a ghostly creature, or was it Paul?’ – is placed emphatically before the reader.
It is the minutely observed disintegration of Paul’s sanity that makes this an unexpectedly modern piece of writing. There are a few points where the reader is pushed a little too hard to believe in the Beckoner – one scene shows the unequivocal self-movement of Paul’s comb, as the creature brushes its invisible hair – but, on the whole, the question of whether or not something supernatural is actually happening to Paul, or if it is all in his mind as part of an extended psychosis, is a compelling one that holds the reader until the very end. In part this explains the length of the story – the tracking of Paul’s psychological disintegration would most likely suffer and seem less real if it were unnecessarily rushed.
Today’s writers regularly plumb this realm of ‘psychological horror’, a style which has its roots in Poe and his stories, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” in which guilt reveals the depravity of the villain. Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) took the notion of psychological horror to the fore and its power certainly impressed Alfred Hitchcock, himself an explorer of the mind’s construction as a springboard for evil. Latterly, such writers as Joe Hill and Poppy Z. Brite take to the psychologist’s toolbox to re-examine old tropes: Hill re-casts Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a Cold War, B-Movie fable of a boy who – under the influence of atomic radiation or Heavenly Judgement, it’s not revealed – becomes a giant locust in “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” and devours his father, an act which he interprets with his locust-brain as a selfless act of parenting that strengthens their bond; Brite writes a elegiac love-letter to Elvis Presley, examining his motivations in “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” by intercutting a fan’s longing for the glory days of her idol with the frankly-disturbing details of the crime-scene investigation of his death and his autopsy. Alongside these deft performances, Oliver Onions rates equally well with this frightening examination of the link between creativity and sanity, the tumble into existential despair and complete psychological breakdown, against a colourful frisson of supernatural potentiality.