A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
And he smiled to think of man’s arbitrary distinction between that which has life and that which has not. Here, quite apart from such recognisable sounds as the scampering of mice, the falling of plaster behind his panelling, and the popping of purses or coffins from his fire, was a whole house talking to him had he but known his language. Beams settled with a tired sigh into their old mortices; creatures ticked in the walls; joints cracked, boards complained; with no palpable stirring of the air window-sashes changed their position with a soft knock in their frames. And whether the place had life in this sense or not, it had at all events a winsome personality. It needed but an hour of musing for Oleron to conceive the idea that, as his own body stood in friendly relation to his soul, so, by an extension and an attenuation, his habituation might fantastically be supposed to stand in some relation to himself. He even amused himself with the far-fetched fancy that he might so identify himself with the place that some future tenant, taking possession, might regard it as in a sense haunted. It would be rather a joke if he, a perfectly harmless author, with nothing on his mind worse than a novel he had discovered he must begin again, should turn out to be laying the foundation of a future ghost! . . .
I have a terrible habit. I like to scare the crap out of myself with ghost stories.
This is not a particularly good idea, because I am a wimp, and scaring myself with something is a more or less permanent process. I saw a trailer for The Exorcist on TV in 2006, and I can still incur a sleepless night by remembering the music at just the wrong time. Nonetheless, I do it, and I choose my material carefully. Because if I’m going to collect yet more associations of the sort that can lead me to scare myself stupid in a familiar room on a sunny day *just by remembering*, then they’re bloody well going to be good ones. Just because I’m easily terrified doesn’t mean I don’t have my own standards.
So what I favour, when I set out to give myself the terminal cauld grues, is a particular kind of literature. I stay well away from shape-shifting clowns, plagues of vermin, undead pets and squid-faced cosmic entities. For someone of my temperament, that’s like trying to scratch an itch with a chainsaw. No, what I go for is the psychologically unsettling. The kind of story where the setting is familiar, but one thing is horribly, irrevocably wrong, and you don’t realise until it’s too late. The kind of story that leaves the crucial question unanswered, so that your mind can never quite leave it alone. The kind of story where you think you’re doing OK until the phone rings and you almost wet yourself. Something like M. R. James’ Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, or Walter de la Mare’s Out of the Deep, or Edith Wharton’s Afterward. That sort of thing.
The Beckoning Fair One, by Oliver Onions, is one such. The plot in itself is simple. Paul Oleron, a blocked writer in search of creative solitude, takes rooms in an abandoned building. Over time, a ghostly female presence begins to manifest, attracting Oleron’s attention, and then his affection; as his obsession grows, so does the presence, until he effectively immures himself in his flat with her. The woman friend who comes to rescue him is found murdered, and Oleron near starvation, lying in a stupor on his bed. Layered over this brutal arc are a number of familiar themes, far less muted than in James: class stratification, sexual fear, social eccentricity, the far-off trumpet of religious fundamentalism. The execution is slow and methodical, ticking along inevitably towards the awful conclusion and drawing us with it. What might have been a bog-standard ghost story in other hands is something of a different order here, not least because Onions denies us even the basic reassurance of knowing whether it is a ghost story at all. Is the Fair One a literal ghost, the spirit of a dead woman who haunts her former house, or is she a manifestation of Oleron’s fragile mental state? Who exactly are we to believe murdered Elsie Bengough? Is this possession, or projection?
Nor do we have a comforting moral scheme to cling to. Oleron is unpleasant, verging on repulsive — a finicky, self-regarding misogynist — but, unusually for the genre and the time, he hasn’t actually done anything to warrant his own destruction. He hasn’t ruined anyone’s livelihood, or messed about with cursed artifacts, or done anything much but put off working on his book. There’s no clear trigger for the process of tragic mental and physical disintegration that ends in the killing of Elsie, the story’s only really sympathetic character. Because if Oleron comes to loathe Elsie for her clothing, her class, her career and her character, Onions does not. There is no sneaking regarderism in his portrayal of Oleron’s growing disgust and, finally, implied violence towards his former muse and greatest friend — or is she his lover? Nothing here is right; nothing is fair.
The Beckoning Fair One is a story without a moral. But if you’re absolutely determined to find some kind of lesson in it, if you won’t rest until you do, then I suppose it might be this:
If you too would like to scare the crap out of yourself, The Beckoning Fair One is available to read here.