During the winter, when the days darken early and the nights are long, do you enjoy reading horror fiction? I certainly do, and I have to say I especially like reading ghost stories in the classic mode, atmospheric tales by people like M.R. James, Sheridan LeFanu and Edith Wharton. In all honesty, it hasn't gotten that cold yet in New York City, but the sun does set early and the nights last a long time, and I started to feel the itch recently to read a ghost story of the type I'm describing. I chose one that I read many years ago and have long wanted to re-read, "The Beckoning Fair One" by British writer Oliver Onions, a story first published in his collection Widdershins in 1911.
"The Beckoning Fair One" is among the most anthologized horror stories ever written, and once you read it, you understand why. Novella-length, it tells a relatively simple tale about a writer named Oleron who moves into an empty house in London and slowly, inexorably, goes insane. In one sense, it's a haunted house story, a very creepy one, but along with that, it's a masterful psychological study, and indeed, it is in the realm of the psychological ghost story that Onions shines. In the history of supernatural fiction, he played a large part in pushing the ghost story's evolution forward with his emphasis on deep but subtle characterization and psychological realism.
Onions' forte was what for horror critic and publisher Williams Simmons calls "the intimate relationship between 'creating' and mental instability." Continuing, Simmons says, "His characters often get lost in their own creations. The artist, the sensitive being, always runs the danger of complete and soul effacing mental absorption. The creative process is only one thin line away from self-destruction."
"The Beckoning Fair One" explores this idea thoroughly. It's never entirely clear whether Oleron, struggling with a novel that is way overdue to his publisher, is dealing with a malign presence in the house or having a psychotic breakdown. Ambiguity is well maintained. At first Oleron has a close woman friend, of flesh and blood, who is urging him to finish his novel, but as the tale progresses Olerun withdraws more and more from his friend and becomes increasingly drawn to the house's apparent feminine presence, the Beckoning Fair One of the title, who seems to be telling him to burn his unfinished manuscript and start a new one from scratch, with her, not his friend, as a central component in it. That the house is an ordinary building in London, not some isolated Gothic mansion somewhere, adds to the story's plausibility. This could just be a story of a reclusive writer slipping into full blown agoraphobia, going mad at his inability to finish his novel. At one point, he thinks something that has popped into the head of many a person who has toiled away for years at scribbling. Was all the work and effort worth it:
Yes, he was himself, Paul Oleron, a tired novelist, already past the summit of his best work, and slipping downhill again empty-handed from it .all. He had struck short in his life's aim. He had tried too much, had over-estimated his strength, and was a failure, a failure...
Would he have been better off, he wonders, had he chosen "the wife, the child, the faithful friend at the fireside"? That he might have tried to find a balance between devotion to art and family life doesn't seem to have been an option to him, but then again, there are a lot of writers like that and the balance in question, even when tried, is not so easy to accomplish.
I'd rate "The Beckoning Fair One" among the best and most timeless supernatural tales I've ever read, and it is perfect for a frigid and starless winter night.
The story, by the way, was made into a movie in 1967, with Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave. The film is A Quiet Place in the Country, an Italian film directed by Elio Petri (the same director who made the great Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion). The film changes the setting to a villa in the countryside and is much more florid and baroque in tone, as well as more sexual and violent. But it works. Call it a loose adapation. Set in then contemporary Italy, the movie has a Pop Art look and is gorgeously shot, and it leaves you unsettled and disoriented. It's the kind of film you want to rewatch after seeing it once.
"The Beckoning Fair One" and A Quiet Place in the Country make an effectively disquieting story/film double bill.