Vulpes Libris

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.

The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions

onionsAnd 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:

Don’t procrastinate.

If you too would like to scare the crap out of yourself, The Beckoning Fair One is available to read here.

6 comments on “The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions

  1. Pingback: The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales | Vulpes Libris

  2. Bryan
    June 27, 2014

    I thought of this as an allegory for storytelling and the difficulty, even necessity, of being original and inspired. Oleron seems unable to divorce his own life and desires from his work. Once he realizes he’s written his novel as a thinly disguised love letter to his friend, he’s horrified that he’s inadvertently written an autobiography and directs his self-contempt toward Elsie. He tries to start the story over again with a different version of her (and fails again), and his third failed incarnation of the story near the end suffers from the same problem, this time with the new protagonist of the titular Fair One (who is more or less a reborn, mysterious and idealized version of Elsie, who has become uncomfortably familiar to Oleron over the decades). He’s become incapable of writing about anything but his own obsessions, and paralyzed by the fear of creative stagnation. Oleron’s psychosis results from his existential crisis of being a writer utterly unable to write, or at least having lost the capacity to finish his masterpiece.

    Or, you know, maybe there really was an evil, invisible ghostie hiding in the shadows who made him do all the bad stuff, and he’s still that good-hearted protagonist we’d like him to be 😉

  3. E.Hatt-Swank
    February 17, 2015

    Nice review! I just finished reading this story and — surprisingly — was quite shocked at the climax. I didn’t expect it to get that dark, that suddenly. The image of Oleron standing at just the right spot in his bedroom doorway, so that he can wait there in the moonlight watching all of the other rooms for the slightest hint of the Fair One … truly chilling!

  4. Anthony
    July 29, 2015

    Two weeks ago, I read this story for the seventh time. I was in the mood for reading more horror stories and so I looked for more. But what I read didn’t satisfy me, so just now I read The Beckoning Fair One again. I was 12 the first time I read it, and of course, didn’t understand it. But the scenes where the “Fair One” manifests itself herself are the most bone-tingling I’ve ever read anywhere. I suppose you can analyze the story as the painstaking description of a psychological breakdown into catatonia, or whatever, but I don’t buy it. Ghosts exist. I’ve never seen one, but I never saw Napoleon either. Of course, the fact that one can, often quite convincingly, put a psychological interpretation to this story is only one reason The Beckoning Fair One is so rich and one of the best ghost stories ever written.

  5. Ed Lieber
    October 2, 2016

    “… [T]he vicar hesitated and then broke into a little gush of candour “—and since you appear to have come for this information, and since it is better that the truth should be told than that garbled versions should get about, I don’t mind saying that this man Madley died there, under somewhat unusual circumstances….”


    …”And when [Oleron] found himself, as he now and then did, hating the dead man Madley, and wishing that he had never lived, he felt that that, too, was an acceptable service….”

    He’s jealous of a long dead “rival” (?) whom he never even knew….? Now there may be a psychological condition that allows for that oddity, but the mere existence and bizarre fate of the enigmatic previous lodger seems (to me, anyway) to confirm there’s a supernatural entity involved, about which we know nothing. That I think is what’s terrifying, as is the fact that there is a harp song, with the same title as the story itself, from the 14th century.

    Plus Oleron was a normal author of “literature” about to achieve “breakthrough” success with his book, as his journalist friend Elsie Bengough informs us in Onion’s very stilted writing. (Clearly, dialogue was not his forte). Paul was bewitched by something in the story’s nearly impenetrable opening pages, which I’m going to re-read until I can locate, precisely. Also the notion his novel’s protagonist is based on Elsie I completely don’t buy. That thought invaded his psyche after he moved into that house. He wrote 15 chapters and hadn’t realized that? It’s possible but in this context, questionable, at least.

    I also found the ending much more ambiguous.

    Not criticizing, just adding my voice. Excellent article, Ms. Kirsty. I look forward to reading more as soon as I finish Widdershins.

  6. Doug Doepke
    May 28, 2018

    I thought I’d try a brief interpretation of a fascinating ghost story that so confounded me as a teenager, lo, some 60-years ago.

    Oliver Onions’ strange tale takes some patience and maybe several readings, but the rewards, I think, are there. One important thing to notice has to do with style. When author Onions is dealing with main character Oleron, the style is often literary and turgid, but becomes noticeably straightforward once authorities take over in the latter part. Thus, the difficult style is meant, I think, to reflect the haze consuming Oleron’s mental state once he settles into the afflicted abode. In short, it’s that natural order of every-day normalcy that’s being clouded over by congested prose. The narrative’s main portion conveys Oleron’s gradual immersion into the Fair One’s growing spell. And that means diminishing poor Elsie’s role in his self-centered life. In fact, the story also amounts to something of a tragedy once poor Elsie is taken as main focus.

    Now, I take a succubus as being the tale’s lurking demonic presence. The word itself is dropped in near the end, maybe to help focus slow readers like me. Anyway, I take the succubus to be a long-haired, harp playing former resident who somehow got demon possessed and now afflicts others like Wray and Oleron with her ghostly powers. I believe the classic idea of a succubus is something like the following. She comes stealthily in the night to drain a male’s vital fluids (nocturnal emissions), until, over time, only the husk of the body remains. But she cannot get full access until all thoughts of other women are eradicated. Thus the Romilly project must be destroyed, and the devoted Elsie killed. Just how this latter is accomplished within the story’s confines, I’m not sure. Perhaps a better reader than myself can locate clues. At story’s end, the demon may well be awaiting further unsuspecting males like the frustrated novelist, while, more unnerving, she may even have sisters awaiting us in other times and places.

    Anyway, this is my take on a heckuva good horror tale that’s lurked within my own confines for some six decades.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: