Tales from a Far Riding, 1902
Back o’the Moon, and Other Stories, 1906
Ghosts in Daylight, 1924
The Painted Face, 1929
The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, 1935
The Italian Chest, and Other Stories, 1939
The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, 1971
The Compleat Bachelor, 1900
The Odd-Job Man, 1903
The Drakestone, 1906
Admiral Eddy, 1907
Pedlar’s Pack, 1908
Draw in Your Stool, 1909
Little Devil Doubt, 1909
The Exception, 1910
Gold Boy Seldom: A Romance of Advertisement, 1911
In Accordance with the Evidence, 1912
The Debit Account, 1913
The Story of Louie, 1913
The Two Kisses: A Tale of a Very Modern Courtship, 1913
A Crooked Mile, 1914
Mushroom Town, 1914
The New Moon, a Romance of Reconstruction, 1918
A Case in Camera, 1920
The Tower of Oblivion, 1921
Peace in Our Time, 1923
The Spite of Heaven, 1925
Whom God Hath Sundered, 1925
Cut Flowers, 1927
The Open Secret, 1930
A Certain Man, 1931
Catalan Circus, 1934
The Hand of Cornelius Voyt, 1939
Cockcrow: Or, Anybody’s England, 1940
The Story of Ragged Robyn, 1945
The Poor Man’s Tapestry, 1946
Arras of Youth, 1949
A Penny for the Harp, 1952
A Shilling to Spend, 1965
At the height of his popularity in the early part of the twentieth century, Oliver Onions (UHN-yuhnz) was hailed as a candid observer of human behavior whose novels merited comparison to those of D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, and other modernists. Since his death, he has been remembered almost solely for a handful of ghost stories whose fantastic themes would seem to contradict the literary realism for which he was best known in his lifetime. This inconsistency characterizes his output as a writer, which ranges across a broad spectrum of tones and concerns.
Onions was born George Oliver Onions in Bradford, a city in the Yorkshire region of northern England. Initially he trained for a career as an artist, studying for three years at the National Arts Training Schools in London before traveling to Paris on a scholarship in 1897. Upon his return to London he briefly made a living illustrating books, designing posters, and working as a draftsman for the Harmsworth Press. When he turned to writing fiction, it was not surprising that many of his stories featured artist protagonists and were set in the bohemian art world of the day.
Onions wrote his first novel, the lighthearted The Compleat Bachelor in 1900, in response to a challenge from his friend Gelett Burgess. He followed this two years later with Tales from a Far Riding, a collection of grimly realistic stories that offered a better indication of where his literary interests were taking him. Onions continued his unsentimental examination of modern life in his second novel, The Odd-Job Man, which featured an unsympathetic artist as its lead character and explored a character type that would reappear in The Two Kisses: A Tale of a Very Modern Courtship, its sequel A Crooked Mile (published together in the United States as Gray Youth in 1914), and several short stories: the artist who is perverted, rather than ennobled, by the passions of his or her calling.
By 1913, Onions had embarked upon a full-time writing career, having received strong reviews for two novels critical of the spirit of the age: Little Devil Doubt, which attacked the devaluing of serious literature by crass commercialism, and Gold Boy Seldom: A Romance of Advertisement, a social satire that told of an unscrupulous financier’s comeuppance. That year, he wrote In Accordance with the Evidence, a crime novel narrated in the first person by an ordinary young man who is driven by his morbid obsessions to murder the fiancé of a woman he loves. The book began as a short story but grew into a highly regarded full-length study of psychopathology that spawned two sequels over the next two years: The Debit Account, which deepened the psychological portrait of its predecessor by exploring the effect of guilt on the unapprehended murderer’s psyche, and The Story of Louie, which shifted focus to a minor character in the series, offering a different perspective on events that altered their meaning and significance. In 1925 Onions wove the three novels together into a large mosaic novel, Whom God Hath Sundered, that cemented his reputation as an experimenter who flouted literary conventions.
Although he tried his hand at many different types of fiction, Onions–who, in 1918 officially changed his name to George Oliver for the sake of the two sons he had with his wife, the popular novelist Berta Ruck–never achieved the same renown as Onions. The diffuseness of his literary interests appears to have kept him from developing a substantial following. The 1920’s saw the appearance of a murder mystery, A Case in Camera, and a fantasy novel of a man who grows progressively younger, The Tower of Oblivion. In the 1930’s he produced an espionage tale, The Open Secret, the fairy tale A Certain Man, and the continental novel Catalan Circus. All of these books received mixed reviews.
In the 1940’s and early 1950’s Onions revealed a latent penchant for historical fiction: Both The Story of Ragged Robyn and The Poor Man’s Tapestry, the latter of which won the Tait Black Memorial Prize, poetically evoked a seventeenth century as vivid as the contemporary times of his earlier novels, while the last two novels published in his lifetime, Arras of Youth and A Penny for the Harp, were set in an even earlier period. However, his best writing was already behind him, and he published no fiction in the last ten years of his life. A Shilling to Spend, a fantasy novel left unfinished at his death, was published posthumously.
It is in the fantasy genre that Onions has achieved his enduring reputation. His oft-anthologized story “The Beckoning Fair One,” the lead tale from his landmark 1911 ghost story collection Widdershins, recounts in horrifying detail the psychological breakdown of a novelist who becomes enchanted with the heroine of his work in progress, possibly under the influence of a female ghost that supposedly haunts his rented rooms. Acclaimed by many as the single best ghost story ever written, the tale is a masterpiece of ambiguous supernaturalism and bears out the idea that emerges from the “Credo” introducing The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions–that ghosts are omnipresent but invisible in daily life, and their presence is confirmed only at those moments when our acutely heightened senses tell us that something out of the ordinary is happening.
In “The Painted Face” and “The Honey in the Wall,” the emotions surrounding a young girl’s sexual awakening and a woman’s descent into spinsterdom suggest the existence of the supernatural. The imminence of death in “Phantas” and the removal of civilization’s restraints in “The Lost Thyrsus” open their characters up to encounters with the uncanny. In “Benlian” and “The Accident,” artists deeply immersed in their work find that the wall separating the real from the imagined has crumbled. It is never clear from the experiences of most characters in the stories collected in Widdershins, Ghosts in Daylight, and The Painted Face whether the ghostly is a part of objective reality or is a subjective projection of the excited imagination. In their depiction of a reality shaped by both external events and the psychological lives of their characters, these stories crystallize the best qualities for which Onions’s fiction was lauded in his lifetime.