Oliver Onions

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Oliver Onions
BornGeorge Oliver Onions
(1873-11-13)13 November 1873
Bradford, Yorkshire, England
Died9 April 1961(1961-04-09) (aged 87)
Aberystwyth, Wales
Pen nameOliver Onions
GenreDetective fiction, ghost stories, romance novels, historical fiction
SpouseBerta Ruck (1909–1961)

George Oliver Onions[1] (13 November 1873 – 9 April 1961), who published under the name Oliver Onions, was an English writer of short stories and novels. He wrote in various genres, but is perhaps best remembered for his ghost stories, notably the collection Widdershins and the widely anthologized novella "The Beckoning Fair One". He was married to the novelist Berta Ruck.

Personal life[edit]

George Oliver Onions was born on 13 November 1873 in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, to George Frederick Onions, a bank cashier (born 1847, London, England) and Emily Alice Fearnley (born 1850, Scholes, Yorkshire, England).[2]  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.[3]

In 1909, Onions married the writer Berta Ruck (1878–1978) and they had two sons: Arthur (born 1912) and William (born 1913).[3] In 1918, he legally changed his name to George Oliver, but continued to publish under the name Oliver Onions.

He died on 9 April 1961 in Aberystwyth, Wales.

Writing career[edit]

Oliver Onions ca. 1915

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.[3] The first editions of his novels were published with dust jackets bearing full-colour illustrations painted by Onions himself.[3]

Poor Man's Tapestry (1946) and its prequel, Arras of Youth (1949) are about the adventures of a juggler, Robert Gandelyn, in the 14th century.[4] The Story of Ragged Robyn (1945) focuses on the adventures of the titular stonemason at the end of the 17th century.[5] Onions wrote two detective novels: A Case in Camera and In Accordance with the Evidence.[6] 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.[7] A Certain Man (1931), about a magical suit of clothes, and A Shilling to Spend (1965), about a self-perpetuating coin, are fantasy novels.[8]

Onions wrote several collections focusing on ghost stories and other weird fiction. The best known of these collections is Widdershins (1911).[9][10][11] It includes the novella "The Beckoning Fair One", widely placed among the best in the genre of horror fiction, especially psychological horror.[10] On the surface, it 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.

A theme that "The Beckoning Fair One" shares with others of Onions's stories is a connection between creativity and insanity; here the artist is in danger of withdrawing from the world altogether and losing himself in his creation.[11] Another noted story from Widdershins is "Rooum", about an engineer pursued by a mysterious entity.[11][12] Other ghost stories such as "The Cigarette Case", "The Rosewood Door" and "The Rope in the Rafters" involve time and identity shifts.[13]

The title novella of The Painted Face (1929) concerns a Greek girl's reincarnation of an ancient spirit; Mike Ashley describes it as "one of the finest works in the genre".[12] The collection also contains "The Master of the House", a story involving a werewolf and black magic.[11]

A long supernatural horror novel is The Hand of Kornelius Voyt, about an isolated boy who falls under the psychic influence of a mysterious man.[13] Onions was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his 1946 novel Poor Man's Tapestry.[3]

Reception and influence[edit]

Onions' work has largely been well received. Gahan Wilson ranked him as "one of the best, if not the best, ghost story writers working in the English language. ... 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."[14] Discussing ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood described "The Beckoning Fair One" as "the most horrible and beautiful ever written on those lines".[12] J. B. Priestley described Widdershins as a "book of fine creepy stories".[15] Fellow ghost story writer A. M. Burrage said of Onions' work, "There is some hair-raising stuff in Widdershins", and added "there is great literary excellence in this book, besides satisfaction for the mere seeker after thrills."[16] Robert Aickman named "The Beckoning Fair One" as "one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field".[12] E. F. Bleiler lauded Widdershins as "a landmark book in the history of supernatural fiction".[17] Clemence Dane stated of Onions, "His books have a lasting attraction for a reader who enjoys using his brains and his imagination."[3] An Irish Times review of Arras of Youth stated, "Mr. Onions writes limpid and often beautiful prose."[4] Martin Seymour-Smith described Onions's 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."[18] Neil Wilson calls Onions' supernatural works "notable for their depth of psychological insight, elegant writing and sophisticated plots". Wilson notes that

'The Beckoning Fair One' (1911) is regarded by many as one of the greatest English tales of the supernatural but has overshadowed Onions' other work in the genre which some consider of equal, if not greater, importance. In fact, the majority of the author's supernatural fiction is of an extremely high standard and is notable for its originality, subtlety and careful characterizations which lift it well above the average.[19]

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."[20]

Karl Edward Wagner's short story "In the Pines" (1973) pays homage to Onions's "The Beckoning Fair One".[21] "The Beckoning Fair One" was also the inspiration for a 1968 Italian/French horror film called A Quiet Place in the Country. Russell Hoban alludes to Onions' work in his books Her Name Was Lola and Amaryllis Night and Day.[22]

Selected bibliography[edit]


  • 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), reissued in 2013 by Valancourt Books with a new introduction by Mark Valentine
  • 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)

Omnibus collections[edit]

  • 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)

Story collections[edit]

  • Back o' the Moon (1906): "Back o’ the Moon", "The Pillers", "Skelf-Mary", "Lad-Lass", "The Fairway"
  • Widdershins (1911): "The Beckoning Fair One", "Phantas", "Rooum", "Benlian", "Io", "The Accident", "The Cigarette Case", "Hic Jacet"
  • Ghosts in Daylight (1924): "The Ascending Dream", "The Dear Dryad", "The Real People", "The Woman in the Way”, "The Honey in the Wall"
  • The Painted Face (1929): "The Painted Face", "The Rosewood Door", "The Master of the House"
  • The Collected Ghost Stories (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1935): Omnibus volume comprising Widdershins, Ghosts in Daylight and The Painted Face
  • Bells Rung Backward (1953): "The Rosewood Door", "The Woman in the Way", "The Honey in the Wall", "John Gladwin Says ...", "The Painted Face"
  • Ghost Stories (2003), introduced by Rosalie Parker: "Credo", "The Beckoning Fair One", "Phantas", "Rooum", "Benlian", "Io" ("The Lost Thyrsus"), "The Accident", "The Cigarette Case", "Hic Jacet", "The Rocker", "The Ascending Dream", "Dear Dryad", "The Real People", "The Woman in the Way", "The Honey in the Wall", "John Gladwin Says ...", "The Painted Face", "The Rosewood Door", "The Smile of Karen", "The Out-Sister", "The Rope in the Rafters", "Resurrection in Bronze", "Tragic Casements"


  1. ^ Pronounced by his family as in the vegetable, not oh-NY-ons. See Twentieth Century Authors, 1950.
  2. ^ England Census 1881
  3. ^ a b c d e f 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.
  4. ^ a b "Recent Fiction by "B.M"" (Review of Arras of Youth), The Irish Times, 23 July 1949.
  5. ^ F. Seymour Smith, What Shall I Read Next? A Personal Selection of Twentieth Century English Books. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 0521064929, (p.95).
  6. ^ Allen J. Hubin, Crime fiction, 1749–1980: a comprehensive bibliography. Garland Publishing, 1984. (p. 305)
  7. ^ E. F. Bleiler and Richard Bleiler. Science-Fiction: The Early Years. Kent State University Press, 1990. (p.575-76). ISBN 9780873384162.
  8. ^ Brian Stableford, "Onions, Oliver", in The A to Z of Fantasy Literature Scarecrow Press, Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6, p. 309.
  9. ^ "Another author of weird fiction associated with the Edwardian period is Oliver Onions (1873–1961), an erstwhile illustrator who began writing for the periodicals in the 1890s, publishing his first novel in 1900." James Machin, Weird Fiction in Britain, 1880-1939. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018 ISBN 9783319905266, p. 85.
  10. ^ a b 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
  11. ^ a b c d Norman Donaldson, "Oliver Onions", in E. F. Bleiler, ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers. New York: Scribner's, 1985. pp. 505–512 ISBN 0684178087.
  12. ^ a b c d Mike Ashley, "Oliver Onions:The Man at the Edge" in Darrell Schweitzer, ed. Discovering Classic Horror Fiction I, Starmont House, pp. 120–126. ISBN 1-55742-084-X
  13. ^ a b Mike Ashley, "Onions,Oliver ", S. T. Joshi and Dziemianowicz, ed. Supernatural Literature of the World: an encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. ISBN 0313327742, pp. 874–875).
  14. ^ "Books", F&SF, May 1973, pp. 75–76.
  15. ^ J. B. Priestley, The Edwardians, Harper and Row, 1970, p. 129.
  16. ^ A. M. Burrage, "The Supernatural in Fiction", The Home Magazine, October 1921. Reprinted in Burrage, Someone in the Room: Strange Tales Old and New, ed. Jack Adrian. Ashcroft, B.C. : Ash-Tree Press, 1997 ISBN 9781899562381.
  17. ^ E. F. Bleiler, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Kent State University Press, 1983, p. 392.
  18. ^ Martin Seymour-Smith, "Forgotten Classic". Scotland on Sunday, 22 February 1998, p. 26.)
  19. ^ Neil Wilson, Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British supernatural fiction, 1820–1950 British Library, London, 2000. ISBN 0712310746, p. 298.
  20. ^ S. T. Joshi (2002) Lovecraft's Library: A Catalogue, p. 108, Hippocampus Press ISBN 0967321573.
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ "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, 8 November 2003, p. 14.


  • Leonard R. N. Ashley, "Onions, (George) Oliver (1873–1961)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  • Oliver Onions (George Oliver) at Fantasticfiction.com

Further reading[edit]

  • Frank Swinnerton, "Oliver Onions and J. D. Beresford", in The Georgian Literary Scene, 1910–1935 (London: Heinemann, [1935])
  • Hugh Cecil, The Flower of Battle: British Fiction Writers in the First World War (London: Secker & Warburg, 1995) - chapter 11
  • 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
  • Oliver Tearle. "Re-reflections: Oliver Onions". In Bewilderments of Vision. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8240-0059-2.

External links[edit]