Sunday, 4 November 2012

Penguin no. 222: Widdershins
by Oliver Onions

     It all came to him in the single word, enwrapped and complete; it needed no sequential thought; he was a failure. He had missed...
     And he had missed not one happiness, but two. He had missed the ease of the world, which men love, and he had missed also that shining prize for which men forgo ease, the snatching and holding and triumphant bearing up aloft of which is the only justification of the mad adventurer who hazards the enterprise. And there was no second attempt. Fate has no morrow. Oleron's morrow must be to sit down to profit-less, ill-done, unrequired work again, and so on the morrow after that, and the morrow after that, and as many morrows as there might be...

It seems that widdershins means to travel counter-clockwise, or in the opposite direction to the course of the sun, and it is used to imply something unlucky, although before coming across this old Penguin recently I had never heard of it, or seen it used.

And so it was the unusualness of the title which first caught my attention, along with the delightfully improbable name of the author, and maybe also that perfect, unfaded cover. Few of my very early Penguins are as well-preserved as this one. Widdershins turned out to be a collection of ghost stories first published in 1911, and so I serendipitously found myself on Halloween reading a tale suggested on Wikipedia as a classic of the horror genre. I guess that it is something of a forgotten classic now, though, and I assume that Oliver Onions, despite being the author of more than 40 novels and short story collections in his day, is largely forgotten as well.

His classic tale is The Beckoning Fair One, and it is the story of Paul Oleron, a man who has consciously spurned the relative ease of a more conventional life in pursuit of something he considers to be more worthy: the opportunity to create a masterpiece. The years of effort have so far brought little success, and he can see ahead to the time when he will have passed his prime, for he is now forty-four, unmarried, and living in financially straitened circumstances. But he has high hopes of his current half-written book, and even higher hopes of the character he is creating. Romilly Bishop will be unforgettable, all that men desire, and a vehicle for his finest thoughts.

But lately he has been wondering if his living arrangements are conducive to his artistic pursuits, and after years spent in small and shabby dwellings, he decides to take on the surprisingly inexpensive lease of a single floor in a decaying and untenanted house. As content as he feels in his new surroundings, it is a move which proves to be his undoing, for something in the house seems inimical to the book he is writing, and he finds himself unable to complete even another line. Even worse, he begins to doubt the adequacy of all that he has written so far.

He develops a conviction that the house is haunted by a feminine presence, one that is beguiling, coquettish, and intensely jealous. He courts the elusive spirit, and gradually and willing submits himself to what he perceives to be her desires, isolating himself from the world. But we have only Oleron's perspective on what is occurring, and it may be that instead we are watching as the pressure of being an ageing writer bereft of inspiration, and with little to show for the years of work, begins to induce a disintegration of his mental state.

As I read, though, I wondered if the spirit was really a personification of the creative process or literary inspiration, which could be envisioned as an ethereal and fickle mistress, with Oleron's courting of it representing his dependence and desperation in this longing for success. A literary life requires introspection and solitude, in effect a willing retreat from life and company, which is just what the spirit seems to require of the protagonist here. And as he increases the comfort of his surroundings he finds himself unable to write, possibly reflecting the idea that struggle and pain may be necessary correlates of creativity. Perhaps it is really a story about the price which must be paid in the pursuit of a literary life, the seeming incompatibility between artistic integrity and financial comfort, the possibility that fame and success are paths reached only through the compromise of ideals, and the close kinship between genius and insanity. And perhaps Oliver Onions was describing in a small way tendencies he recognised within himself, because his character's name could almost be seen as an abbreviation of his own.

Similar reflections on the creative life are explored in a number of these stories, while in others the focus is on science, and the question of whether it is sufficient to explain everything which can occur. I think I could almost have enjoyed these stories simply for the snapshot of early 20th Century technology he inadvertently provides. But mostly, I would recommend them for his prose, with its occasionally  unfamiliar words and its carefully composed sentences. These really are wonderfully compelling stories, full of suspense and tension, appealing characters, and interesting ideas.

The Beckoning Fair One has been published online here.

I was photographing my vintage Penguin editions of Wuthering Heights this week, and came across this forgotten bookmark concealed in the pages of my oldest copy:

It appears to be an unused ticket to the 1951 Davis Cup Doubles tournament, which was won by Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman for Australia. I wonder if it was placed inside the book some time, and then on the day in question couldn't be found. 

It seems likely that the ticket belonged to Barbara Megan Maddox of Killara, as she signed her name on the first page of this book in December 1946. It is possible to trace a little of her story via the internet, and to know that she was born in March 1927, received her degree from Sydney Uni in 1949, and had at least two brothers. Her father was John Owen Maddox, a WW1 veteran and partner in the law firm Tress, Cocks & Maddox. Unfortunately the trail goes cold around 1958. 


  1. Hello Karyn. Interestingly (or maybe not) most of us walk around the prison oval in a counter-clockwise direction. Yet in van Gogh's classic painting of a prison yard (Ronde des prisonniers, reproduced as the cover of Penguin 2329) they are depicted walking clockwise. Perhaps its the difference between folk ('Guests of Her Majesty') being given free reign and those that are compelled. Or it might be a north-south hemisphere thing, like cyclones and the water down the plug-hole. Do folk on the outside do it differently? Certainly in my great-aunts day (and duly passed on down to us)walking widdershins was equivalent to stepping on the cracks in the pavement and certain to bring down terrible misfortune, possibly in addition to summoning up the devil.

  2. Oliver Onions isn't completely forgotten. Wordsworth have recently published his collected ghost stories in their Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural series. I have it on the tbr shelves so I'll have to get it down & read this story.

  3. It's a brilliant name: Oliver Onions. Worth it for that alone!

  4. My girlfriend always stirs the sugar in her tea widdershins, and I keep telling her not to do that, having first encountered the word decades ago in a Ruth Rendell novel. But then she comes from witching stock, she tells me, so maybe it's their thing. Robert Aickman rated The Beckoning Fair One as one of only six perfect ghost stories. And it has, to me, one of the most perfectly composed endings in literature (first and last sentences are a sort of hobby of mine).

  5. Just searched through some near-at-hand anthologies and located 'The Cigarette Case' by Oliver Onions, one of the ghost stories from 'Widdershins'. Brilliant observation, Karyn, in noting that similarity in the name Oleron. Now I will have to keep a look out for this collection.

  6. I love forgotten bookmarks - once I found an acquaintance's library ticket.

    I first came across the term widdershins in Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, when Peter Wimsey remembers it's unlucky to walk widdershins around a church. And that may be the only place I've come across it!

  7. Oliver Onions. I'd marry a guy with a name like that!

  8. I've come across the word widdershins in old folk tales, and some of those weird customs where people try to predict the future (like seeing the face of their true love)on specific days, but it does seem to be associated with bad luck, and the breaking of boundaries or taboos between our world and the world of spirits, witches etc.

  9. I learned the word widdershins from Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel books many years ago.

    The word horror bothers me, but the themes are interesting and I see that Mr Onions won the James Tait Black prize, so I shall check my library catalogue.

    1. The horror label would certainly have discouraged me from considering the book if I had heard it described so before reading it, and I can only assume that the word carried different connotations in the past. There is nothing written here with the intention of inducing fear or revulsion in a reader; the focus seems on things unexplained, and they are stories which often explore issues clearly of interest to the writer. I hope you find his book in the library, and are able to enjoy his wonderful prose.

  10. Widdershins is used quite frequently in Scotland I've always thought of it as a Scottish word but it is also used by astronomers to describe anti-clockwise motion.



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