Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Onions, Oliver

(1873-1961) UK writer who, after 1918, changed his name legally to George Oliver, but retained his given name for all his writing; he was married to the romantic novelist Berta Ruck (1878-1978). Outside the fantasy genre OO is best-known for his grim, unrelenting character novels, especially In Accordance With the Evidence (1912), a murder mystery, and The Story of Ragged Robyn (1945), which creates a nightmare landscape of the 17th-century Lincolnshire marshes and often challenges the reader to distinguish between Reality and fantasy. Within the more orthodox fantasy field, however, OO is remembered mostly for "The Beckoning Fair One" (1911), considered by many to be among the best of all Ghost Stories. It was inspired by OO hearing the sound of his wife combing her long hair, and becoming aware of the distinctiveness of sounds that might continue to haunt a house (see Haunted Dwellings). In the story it is only sounds and imagination that deliver the writer protagonist, Paul Oleron, into madness and starvation. OO himself, a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, had no truck with the supernatural, and this defiance of belief adds weight to the story's growing unease. It was included in OO's Widdershins (coll 1911; vt The First Book of Ghost Stories: Widdershins 1978 US). Although he had written no earlier fantasies, his stories, particularly those in Tales from a Far Riding (coll 1902) and Draw in Your Stool (coll 1909), had shown an increasing tendency to explore the grimness of human existence. Once OO discovered the power of using the supernatural he was able to add the dimension of the inexplicable to enhance situational terrors and, often, the mental disintegration or Transmutation. "Benlian", about a sculptor who believes he can transfer his Spirit to that of his Statue, and "Rooum", about a man living in fear of a spirit that constantly chases him, are the two best examples of this.

OO produced two further collections of ghost stories, Ghosts in Daylight (coll 1924) and The Painted Face (coll 1929). These were assembled with Widdershins and slightly revised as The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions (omni 1935), from which was made the selection Bells Rung Backwards (coll 1953). At their best, OO's ghost stories are powerfully charged explorations of psychical violation, their effects heightened by detailed character study and a preparedness to challenge the accepted.

OO's novels of the supernatural defy categorization. Two are rather slight, and could be classified as wish-fulfilment fantasies: A Certain Man (1931), about a man who acquires a Magic self-repairing overcoat that fits like a skin, and A Shilling to Spend (1965), about a self-perpetuating shilling. Both also contain messages concerning Immortality and survival, a theme turned on its head in The Tower of Oblivion (1921), about a man who is growing progressively younger. All of OO's works contain feelings of rejection and alienation, and none is more powerful in this respect than The Hand of Kornelius Voyt (1939), in which a boy comes under the psychic influence of the mesmeric Heinrich Opfer (see Mesmerism). As in The Story of Ragged Robyn, OO develops an atmosphere of despair and of dislocation from reality. It is this ability that makes OO's stories among the most challenging and rewarding in Supernatural Fiction. [MA]

other works: The New Moon (1918), about a future ideal UK state.

George Oliver Onions


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.