Oliver Onions' Portrait
|Born||George Oliver Onions
13 November 1873
Bradford, Yorkshire, England, UK
|Died||9 April 1961
Aberystwyth, Wales, UK
|Pen name||Oliver Onions|
|Genres||Detective fiction, romance, historical fiction|
|Spouse(s)||Berta Ruck (1909-1961)|
Born George Oliver Onions on 13 November 1873 in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, UK, of humble parents. He studied art for three years in London at the National Arts Training Schools (now the Royal College of Art). In the book Twentieth Century Authors, Onions described his interests as motoring and science; he was also an amateur boxer as a young man.
On 1909, he married the writer Berta Ruck (1878-1978), and they had two sons, Arthur (b. 1912) and William (b. 1913). On 1918, legally changed his name to George Oliver, but continued to publish under the name Oliver Onions.
Originally trained as a commercial artist, he worked as a designer of posters and books, and as a magazine illustrator during the Boer War. Encouraged by the American writer Gelett Burgess, Onions began writing fiction. The first editions of his novels were published with dust jackets bearing full-colour illustrations painted by Onions himself.
Poor Man's Tapestry (1946) and its prequel, Arras of Youth (1949) are about the adventures of a juggler, Robert Gandelyn, in the fourteenth century. Onions wrote two detective novels: A Case in Camera and In Accordance with the Evidence. Two of his works are science fiction novels:New Moon (1918) about a utopian Britain, and The Tower of Oblivion (1921), featuring a middle-aged man who recedes back to his youth. A Certain Man (1931), about a magical suit of clothes, and A Shilling to Spend (1965), about a self-perpetuating coin, are fantasy novels. Onions wrote several collections of ghost stories, of which the best known is Widdershins (1911).  It includes the novella The Beckoning Fair One, widely regarded as one of the best in the genre of horror fiction, especially psychological horror. On the surface, this is a conventional haunted house story: an unsuccessful writer moves into rooms in an otherwise empty house, in the hope that isolation will help his failing creativity. His sensitivity and imagination are enhanced by his seclusion, but his art, his only friend and his sanity are all destroyed in the process. The story can be read as narrating the gradual possession of the protagonist by a mysterious and possessive feminine spirit, or as a realistic description of a psychotic outbreak culminating in catatonia and murder, told from the psychotic subject's point of view. The precise description of the slow disintegration of the protagonist's mind is terrifying in either case. Another theme, shared with others of Onions' stories, is a connection between creativity and insanity; in this view, the artist is in danger of withdrawing from the world altogether and losing himself in his creation. Another noted story from Widdershins is "Rooum", about an engineer pursued by a mysterious entity.
The title novella of The Painted Face (1929) is about a Greek girl who is the reincarnation of an ancient spirit; Ashley describes it as "one of the finest works in the genre". The collection also contains "The Master of the House", a story involving a werewolf and black magic.
Reception and Influence
Onions' work has generally been well received. Gahan Wilson ranked him as "one of the best, if not the best, ghost story writers working in the English language," declaring that "Mr. Onions did as much as anyone to move phantoms and other haunts from dark, Gothic dungeons to the very room in which you presently sit." Discussing ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood described The Beckoning Fair One as "the most horrible and beautiful ever written on those lines". J.B. Priestley described Widdershins as a "book of fine creepy stories". Robert Aickman named The Beckoning Fair One as "one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field". E. F. Bleiler lauded Widdershins as "a landmark book in the history of supernatural fiction". Clemence Dane stated of Onions: "His books have a lasting attraction for a reader who enjoys using his brains and his imagination". An Irish Times review of Arras of Youth stated "Mr. Onions writes limpid and often beautiful prose". Martin Seymour-Smith described Onions' Whom God Hath Sundered trilogy as a neglected classic: "In Accordance with the Evidence is the masterpiece of the three, but the other sequels in no way disgrace it". On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft's assessment of Onions' work was negative; in a 1936 letter to J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft stated "I have Onions' Ghosts in Daylight...I didn't care much for the various tales".
- The Compleat Bachelor (1900)
- Tales from a Far Riding (1902)
- The Odd-Job Man (1903)
- The Drakestone (1906)
- Pedlar's Pack (1908)
- The Exception (1910)
- In Accordance with the Evidence (1910)
- Good Boy Seldom: A Romance of Advertisement (1911)
- A Crooked Mile (1914)
- The Debit Account (1913)
- The Two Kisses: A Tale of a Very Modern Courtship (1913)
- The Story of Louie (1913)
- 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 (1926)
- Cut Flowers (1927)
- Little Devil Doubt (1929)
- The Open Secret (1930)
- A Certain Man (1932)
- Catalan Circus (1934)
- The Hand of Kornelius Voyt (1939)
- Cockcrow; or, Anybody's England (1940)
- The Story of Ragged Robyn (1945)
- Poor Man's Tapestry (1946)
- Arras of Youth (1949)
- A Penny for the Harp (1952)
- A Shilling to Spend (1965)
- Admiral Eddy (1907)
- Draw in Your Stool (1909)
- Gray Youth (1913), US omnibus of The Two Kisses and A Crooked Mile
- Whom God Hath Sundered (1925), omnibus of In Accordance with the Evidence, The Debit Account and The Story of Louie
- The Italian Chest (1939)
Ghost story collections
- Back o' the Moon (1906)
- Widdershins (1911)
- Ghosts in Daylight (1924)
- The Painted Face (1929)
- The Collected Ghost Stories (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1935)
- Bells Rung Backward (1953)
- The Collected Ghost Stories (Carlton-in-Coverdale: Tartarus Press, 2000), expanded edition
- The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions (London: Wordsworth, 2010) ISBN 978-1-84022-640-9
- Pronounced by his family as in the vegetable, not oh-NY-ons'. See Twentieth Century Authors, 1950.
- Kunitz, Stanley J.; Haycraft, Howard, eds. (1950). Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature (3rd ed.). New York: H. W. Wilson. pp. 1051–52.
- "Recent Fiction by "B.M"" (Review of Arras of Youth), The Irish Times, July 23rd, 1949.
- Allen J. Hubin, Crime fiction, 1749-1980: a comprehensive bibliography. Garland Publishing, 1984. (p. 305)
- E. F. Bleiler and Richard Bleiler. Science-Fiction: The Early Years. Kent State University Press, 1990. (p.575-76). ISBN 9780873384162.
- Brian Stableford, "Onions, Oliver", in The A to Z of Fantasy Literature Scarecrow Press,Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6 (p. 309)
- Keith Neilson, "Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, The" in Frank N. Magill, ed. Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Vol 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, Inc., 1983. (pp.294-299). ISBN 0-89356-450-8
- Norman Donaldson, "Oliver Onions", in E.F. Bleiler, ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers. New York: Scribner's, 1985. pp.505-512. ISBN 0684178087
- Mike Ashley, "Oliver Onions:The Man at the Edge" in Darrell Schweitzer, ed. Discovering Classic Horror Fiction I, Starmont House, (p.120-26). ISBN 1-55742-084-X
- "Books", F&SF, May 1973, p. 75-6
- J.B. Priestley, The Edwardians, Harper and Row, 1970 (p. 129).
- E. F. Bleiler, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Kent State University Press, 1983 (p. 392).
- Martin Seymour-Smith, "Forgotten Classic". Scotland on Sunday, February 22, 1998 (p.26)
- Quoted in S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft's Library: A Catalogue. Hippocampus Press, 2002 ISBN 0967321573. (p. 108)
- "The tale is a retelling of sorts of Oliver Onions’ classic ghost story The Beckoning Fair One (which Wagner references in his story) and it shows how well Wagner understood the mechanics of the horror tale". Stefan Dziemianowicz, Review of Where the Summer Ends and Walk on the Wild Side by Karl Edward Wagner. Locus Magazine, 13 May 2012. Retrieved 24 December 2012.
- "He also references Gothic writers who have influenced him, such as Margaret Oliphant and Oliver Onions". Review of Her Name Was Lola by Russell Hoban. The Times, November 8th 2003, p.14.
- Leonard R. N. Ashley, 'Onions, (George) Oliver (1873–1961)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Oliver Onions http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/o/oliver-onions/
- Frank Swinnerton, "Oliver Onions and J. D. Beresford", in The Georgian Literary Scene, 1910–1935 (London: Heinemann, )
- Brian Stableford, "Onions, (George) Oliver", in David Pringle, ed., St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers (Detroit: St. James Press, 1998) ISBN 1558622063
- Glen Cavaliero, "Daylight Ghosts: The Novels and Stories of Oliver Onions", Wormwood 2, 2004
- Works by Oliver Onions at Project Gutenberg
- The Beckoning Fair One — text available online as part of Nina Auerbach's course reading
- Review of The Hand of Kornelius Voyt by Oliver Onions Michael Dirda, Washington Post, May 8, 2013.
- Oliver Onions at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database