Oliver Onions – a forgotten weird fiction classic

Oliver Onions didn’t believe in ghosts or any kind of mysterious cults. He was a pragmatist, always looking for a logical, rational explanation. Nevertheless, his favorite literature genre, surprisingly, was weird fiction. Should the ghost stories written by Oliver Onions be considered among the most celebrated horror classics such as H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, or Algernon Blackwood? Let’s find out.  

Oliver Onions - a forgotten weird fiction classic

British writer Oliver Onions (1873-1961) gained recognition and popularity among readers as well as critics almost immediately after his debut. Most other horror authors of his era could only dream about such a start and sometimes became famous only a long time after their deaths. Wait a second, though – I bet that some of you have never heard about Oliver Onions. It comes as a no surprise, as this great writer somehow got forgotten by the wider public and is now mostly read by weird fiction passionates.

One of the reasons for this is quite apparent – many artists who tried to create literature from somewhere between belles-lettres and popular fiction, failed to go down in history. And so did Oliver Onions. His works were too experimental for the commercial taste and too conservative when it comes to narrative, which resembles the one we know from famous Victorian ghost stories. I hope that this article will encourage at least some of you to give short stories by Oliver Onions a chance. 

From Ghaisttes, Ghoulies and long-leggity

Beasties and Things that go

Bump in the night—

Good Lord, deliver us!

This traditional Scottish prayer opens up the short story collection written by Onions – Widdershins. Why? In my opinion, choosing it as the motto of the whole anthology was both perverse and cynical. The text contains pretty much everything that man has come up with to postpone confronting his demons. Actually, madness is the main subject of this short story collection, but supernatural beings are by no means its cause. The true problem lies in suppressed human instincts and the fear of things we don’t understand, the unknown. 

The first text contained in the Widdershins is also the most famous story written by Oliver Onions. Algernon Blackwood, another weird classic horror writer, considered it to be a true weird fiction masterpiece – The Beckoning Fair One. It makes a stunning impression on the reader thanks to the gradually built tension and very intimate insight into the main character’s psychosis. 

 Onions chose the main character – a writer who moves into a comfortable and cheap apartment, where he must finish his novel. When the man is acclimatizing in the new space, strange things begin to happen.

Although Oliver Onions uses the haunted house theme, which is a typical one when it comes to classic ghost story, he also enriches it with the psychological perspective. And that’s precisely what makes this short story unique. The author focuses on the shadows and secrets of human subconsciousness, achieving it not only bye using the plot of the story, but its composition too. The apartment in which The Beckoning Fair One takes place is gradually getting darker and more dangerous. With time even colors and smells change. This modernist literary experiment goes nicely with Victorian stylistic used by the author. 

Another great weird fiction piece by Oliver Onions is Hic Jacet. A Tale of Artistic Conscience. It tells us the story of a writer planning to write the biography of a deceased painter. Should he comply with the requirements of the publisher or follow his artistic instinct?

The creative process is the main subject of both The Beckoning Fair One and Hic Jacet. That is why they were placed respectively at the beginning and the end of Widdershins collection – which creates a closed composition. In the latter, Oliver Onions gave up supernatural elements and focused on the problems harassing the artist-craftsman. This way, the author shares his dilemmas as an artist with the readers and also shows us how imagination and madness affect artists.

While reading Onion’s stories we will experience not only the hardships connected with being a writer, but also the gradual collapse of characters’ personalities, which happens when they realize the true source of their terror. This disturbing, seemingly supernatural power doesn’t come from old castles and cursed artifacts but develops right next to them in their everyday lives. What’s interesting, Onions, similarly to, for example, Robert Aickman, lets the reader decide if the events presented can be explained by psychological tools or are they really supernatural.

Summing up:

If you liked stories written by Arthur Machen or M.R. James, I believe that you should also give Oliver Onions a chance. Some of his works, such as The Beckoning Fair One, Hic Jacet, or Rooum are true weird fiction masterpieces, while others provide interesting insight into the development of this genre. Good read for a long autumn evening. 

If you are looking for some other good scary stories, you might want to take a look at our list of interesting horror books and our reading propositions for Halloween.

Have you read any short stories written by Oliver Onions? What do you think about them? Please let me know in the comments.

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