Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 2: Decaying Vegetable Matter

When you do an internet search for the name "Oliver Onions", you are more likely to gather information on the Italian folk music duo than on the English writer who actually had that name, and wrote dozens of books, and was best known for writing ghost stories. Why this should be, I don't know, although the Italian guys wrote a lot of soundtracks for Bud Spencer/Terence Hill movies, while most of the English guy's books have turned to dust. Of those books, the biggest exception, the great survivor, is a collection of short stories from 1911 called Widdershins (a word which means, according to Onions in his brief author's note, "contrary to the course of the Sun"). The story, or rather novella, that serves as Widdershins' launching point is called "The Beckoning Fair One", and if, as seems likely, Widdershins is the sole reason Onions is remembered today, "The Beckoning Fair One" is quite possibly the sole reason Widdershins is still in print.
I say "quite possibly" because, first off, who among us can know such things, but also, and more to the point, because "The Beckoning Fair One" is thus far the only Oliver Onions story I've read (and that's pronounced "oh-nee-ons", by the way, not "un-yuns", which might be another reason his star has faded -- that's like having a last name spelled "Mouse" and insisting it be pronounced "moe-yoos". I'd refuse to reprint your books, too, Mr. Oh-nee-ons!!) But throughout my life as a reader of horror fiction, "The Beckoning Fair One" is one of those ubiquitous titles, along with "The Great God Pan" and "The Rats in the Walls" and The Turn of the Screw. If you hadn't read one of those stories, it was made abundantly clear that some day you damn well better, if you expected to have any authority in this field. "The Beckoning Fair One" is one of the tentpoles of horror literature, whereas the remaining stories found in Widdershins -- "Benlian", "The Accident", "Hic Jacet", for instance -- aren't, exactly. Which is no comment on their quality, because I'm in no position to make any such comment. But Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft and Henry James all had more than one story to live on. Onions doesn't, apparently, and I can't help but wonder if there's a reason for that.
Because I didn't much care for "The Beckoning Fair One". I mean, it's fine. But it's also a bit exhausting. At 70-ish pages, the plot of "The Beckoning Fair One" requires almost no summarization, consisting, as it does of the travails of a novelist moving into a new flat, after which point he stops writing the novel he'd been working on, and slowly goes mad, or maybe he's being possessed by a ghost. Both of these things are equally likely! Who knows the real answer, and so on.
The very idea of summarizing a story like "The Beckoning Fair One" defeats me, even though there are interesting elements here and there. I do like that our protagonist, Paul Oleron, is what we would now call a mid-list writer, who writes fiction very much as a profession, with one eye on artistic ambitions and the other on a living wage, and there was a time, after Oleron announces to his friend Elsie Bengough (whose love for Oleron is not only unreciprocated, but also unnoticed) that he plans on ditching the fifteen chapters of his novel, Romilly Bishop, he's already written so he can start from scratch, that I thought perhaps Onions was aiming to marry the themes plumbed so deeply in New Grub Street, George Gissing's 1891 novel of tragedy, ambition and pandering in England's literary world, with a classical ghost story, and I became quite interested (quite!). But Onions isn't doing that -- Oleron is a writer, I suspect, because so is Oliver Onions, and it just seemed like the thing to do. Plus, it simplifies things narratively, cutting out any co-workers that and otherwise employed Oleron -- who will become a recluse over the course of the story -- might have to deal with, and limiting his necessary social interaction to Elsie, and a nosy neighbor or two.
Instead, the only thing that might count as interesting here is the -- sigh -- ambiguity regarding whether or not the ghost, who manifests itself as a female through action -- the house seems jealous of Elsie, Oleron hears the sound of a woman brushing her hair -- rather than appearance, is real. Because it might not be! When Oleron starts to go crazy, it may not be because a ghost is making that happen. He might actually be going crazy. And I'm just flat tired of this sort of thing. It can be handled brilliantly (see Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla"), but by and large it's something of a trick, even a cheat. The writer refuses to commit, so the reader, who may be biased, is able to choose the interpretation that best suits his or her taste. What's so wrong with that? you might ask. Well, it sticks in my craw more than a little when I hear that Edmund Wilson was fully on board with James's The Turn of the Screw, right up until somebody told him that James always intended the story to be taken as a straight-up ghost story, whereupon he grabbed his copy off the shelf and shit-canned it at once (I'm speaking figuratively here, at least as far as I know). It betrays a certain embarrassment about the very genre you're writing in, an embarrassment it is assumed the reader shares, and therefore a window is opened that will allow us all to scamper out the back, unnoticed by the Edmund Wilson's of the world.
The other thing -- and I've mentioned this before -- is that stories like "The Beckoning Fair One" get praised, independent of their literary qualities, for the simple reason that they employ that most sought after creative device that we call "ambiguity". Ambiguity, I've come to learn, is an absolute good. Or so we're supposed to think. The sort of people who think that the absence of irony (which means there's an abundance of sincerity) is always a bad thing are the same people who think a fantastical premise presented with conviction and without ambiguity is a sign of artistic weakness. By this rationale, if you read a really good epistolary novel, no non-epistolary novel can possibly match up.
Ambiguity's just a device, is what I'm saying, and when it's applied to a ghost story like "The Beckoning Fair One", it has the tendency, in my view, to render the whole thing meaningless. By the end of Onions's story, some rather unfortunate things have occurred, and these things are irreversible. Given that we don't know the answer and never will, what in the world does it matter whether there really was a ghost or not? More to the point, what good can "deciding for ourselves" do? And since this is a fiction anyway, which renders this next question the only one that matters, what does leaving the question hang add to the reader's enjoyment or appreciation or understanding of what's just been read? No new or extra or brighter light will be shone on the story's climax, whichever side of the ghost fence we find ourselves on. So what, finally, is the function of Onion's ambiguity? I submit that, whether writers like Onions and a host of others actually felt this particular motivation, the function is to allow those who would rather not think they've just read a horror story to convince themselves that they haven't.


Richard Harland Smith said...

I've meant to get to this for quite a long time but it's as you say (implicitly, anyway)... so many of these classic ghost stories just lay there to the modern eye. I don't know if we're spoiled or stupid or if the genre has just been wrung out of any existing juice but I'm rarely bowled over by an old ghost story, even though I collect them obsessively. There are occasional good lines of description but little in the way of total effect. I am rereading Dorothy Mcardle's The Uninvited this Halloween, which I remember as a charming book from my initial reading a few years back. We'll see how it holds up

By the way, my middle name is pronounced "Hairlund."

Roderick Heath said...

I always did get a laugh out of Edmund Wilson's crack about HP Lovecraft and invisible whistling octopi. On the other hand, to hell with Edmund Wilson, anyway.

bill r. said...

Richard, I do honestly like, even love, a lot of classic ghost stories. I think there are bad ones too, obviously, but what disappoints me about stories like "The Beckoning Fair One" is that I wish Onions would shit or get off the pot, and that this stuff wouldn't be overpraised years later simply because no one is sure if there was even a ghost in there in the first place.

Rod - To hell with him, indeed. In fact, I hope he's ROTTING IN HELL!

Neil Sarver said...

I love "The Horla".

I have nothing to say about anything not related to Maupassant's brilliance.

Although I do wish now I had a copy of Diary of a Madman with Vincent Price.

John said...

I read this a long time ago, and remember thinking it was terrific, and not really all that ambiguous (like Turn of the Screw, despite its phony lit-crit rep). However, I'll have to reread it before I can make any kind of detailed comment on it, and I can't say when that might happen.

Onions had a number of fine ghost and borderline-horror stories to his name, including one called "Rooum" that I do happen to recall in pretty vivid detail, an original and striking piece of work that I also didn't find all that ambiguous.

Of course, in both stories, the exact nature of the haunting is not fully explained, and that's how it should be, or else you end up with something prosaic and mundane, as all too many modern horror stories have proved.

John said...

I should add that I take issue with your implications that Onions was trying to cater towards snooty "Horror isn't literature" types by penning a subtle horror story with relatively delicate hints of the supernatural, as opposed to today's "balls out" approach. Subtlety and ambiguity are key stylistic features of most if not all of the best and most memorable ghost and horror stories ever written. Whether Onions uses them to good effect or not, there's no denying "Beckoning Fair One" or any of his other horror tales are exactly that, stories that are designed to disturb, creep out, and haunt the reader, but maybe with an extra layer of emotional complexity.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thank you for summing up things that always bothered me, much more eloquently then I could.

The only Horror film that played the ambiguity card at all well in the past while, was Pan's Labrynith. And it's definitely debatable, how much it's playing that card at all.

bill r. said...

Neil - I have that on DVR! I've never seen it before. I take it it's good?

John - I'm never overly fond of writing one of these posts about a writer I had no prior experience of, and I'm not dismissing the guy outright. I didn't think "The Beckoning Fair One" was anywhere near bad enough for that. It's just that this ghost/no ghost device is really wearing me down, and Onions' story was maybe the last straw.

Also, I'm not saying that Onions was deliberately grubbing for elitist praise -- I said he may well have had no such thing on his mind. My point is that this sort of ambiguity functions in that way regardless of intent.

And I much prefer subtlety and ambiguity in my horror fiction, though I don't see why it should be either that or "balls out". Still, Robert Aickman is possibly my favorite horror writer of all time, and both subtlety and ambiguity got extensive workouts in all of his stories. I had a very specific criticism in this post, and wasn't taking a swipe at quiet horror fiction at all. I just think the ghost/no ghost premise is boring, and overpraised precisely because there might not be a ghost, therefore rendering the story more psychologically "realistic". I think it's a cheap ploy, and I don't like it.

Bryce - Thanks. And I don't think PAN'S LABYRINTH is doing that at all. I know Del Toro has claimed otherwise, but there are certain elements to the way that film plays out that makes the idea that it's all in her imagination simply not work at all.

Neil Sarver said...

I absolutely loved Diary of a Madman years ago when I saw, I suspect in high school. I haven't been so lucky as to see it again, although I've meant to make an effort to see it any number of times since then.

If when I do see it again, I find it was merely another example of younger Neil being foolish or generous, I will still be grateful to have seen and loved it, as it introduced me to the writings of M. Maupassant.

Frank B said...

Great post! The subject has particular relevance to me; I recently completed the second draft of my first novel, which happens to be a supernatural horror story dealing with possession. I had to make the decision early on whether, and to what extent, I was going to play the ambiguity game. I opted to lay my cards on the table for all of the reasons you've covered above. Also, readers these days generally want to know ahead of time what kind of story they're investing in. If they want horror and ghosts, they want horror and ghosts; if they hate the genre, they'll want to steer clear. What exactly would be the purpose of stringing them along? Like you said, it can be a tiresome game when played for its own sake. I'm sending this entry to myself so I can lazily forward it the next time this subject comes up. Thanks for doing my thinking for me!

John said...

I'll admit, I don't remember the story all that well these days, but I can't recall being too vexed by the question of "Is it really a ghost?" when I read it. (And I, too, don't have much time for fictional works where the question of "Is what we're seeing 'real' or just present in so-and-so's head?" is An Important Point To Consider.)

It seemed pretty clear to me at the time that the creepy things the protagonist was experiencing were all, or at least, for the most part, supposed to be taken as real phenomena of clearly supernatural origin, edging him gradually towards some kind of personal obsession and thence to madness. The climax, in particular, for some reason, I seem to remember being pretty clear, even blatant, about this, but again, I'm not able to say why at this point.

Any uncertainty or ambiguity I did find in the story was more connected with the intrinsic nature of the haunting (as something almost entirely beyond our ken), its "purpose" or design, its intent (if benevolent or malicious), whether these things even apply to it at all, etc, etc. I came away thinking the haunting was undoubtedly a real, if inexplicable phenomenon, but the protagonist's reaction to it was based on his entirely subjective desires, projected onto something he (like us) didn't understand, that may or may not have had his best interests in mind, so to speak.

John said...

I'd also add that responses like Bryce's and Frank B's merely confirm to me that some people don't get "ambiguity" very well. It's not just a question of "Is X real or a figment of this guy's imagination?" Rather, it's a quality that extends more or less into every area of our perspectives on and understandings of reality, and especially into the written word, with all its imprecision.

Good writers understand this, and can, to some extent, harness the inherent ambiguity of their writing to sometimes profound effect.

Bad writers, on the other hand, not only are generally ignorant of this, but instead produce ambiguities in their writing by accident or out of sheer laziness, which render much of their prose inherently meaningless unless an overly tolerant reader is willing to fill in the gaps.

John said...

Needless to say, by "some people" I don't mean to include you, Bill. But I am also thinking of the "Let the reader/watcher/listener decide" crowd, who take every open ending or not fully explained away detail as an invitation by the creator to fill in the "blanks"--like a story or movie or whatever is essentially a complicated Mad Libs game that has no meaning until we give it one.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's nothing definitive about the meanings we might try to pin onto someone else's creation. It's fine to wonder what the artist meant by this or by that--indeed, isn't that one of the highest goals of art, to inspire wonder? On the other hand, it's still utterly dopey for someone in the audience to say, this is what he meant by that, because that's what I choose for it to be (e.g., The Turn of the Screw).

bill r. said...

Neil - I'll watch it and report back.

Frank - Thanks! I will say (if I may) that maybe you shouldn't worry too much about what modern readers expect, but I would absolutely agree that the brand of ambiguity offered in this kind of fiction is empty, and without purpose.

John - I don't think I understand what your point is anymore. You seem to think that I (and Bryce and Frank) have something against ambiguity as an idea. I certainly don't, and I doubt Frank and Bryce do, either. Our issue is with this particular type of ghost story, which you claim to have no time for yourself. Your problem with my post, from what I can now gather, is that you don't remember "The Beckoning Fair One" being ambiguous in the way I claim. Well, it is, so maybe you should read it again (and no offense, but there's a certain irony in your statements about THE TURN OF THE SCREW in relation to your recollection of "The Beckoning Fair One").

I don't see why Bryce and Frank need to be singled out for anything, since they are simply agreeing with an idea I laid out here, and which, at its base, you don't seem to have a beef with, either. I assure you, the problem isn't ambiguity; the problem is the misuse of ambiguity.

John said...

I summed up my take on this story about four posts back, and that should be my last word on it, at least until I get around to reading it again, eventually (hopefully).

My other comments were simply an attempt to speak up in defense of literary ambiguity, which those two responders I singled out seemed to view as a bad thing, apparently because they seem to think it just boils down to that tiresome question of "Is it really happening or not???"

No, it's not that simple, fortunately, and as I tried to point out, I believe this story demonstrates that point clearly enough.

I don't take your point about "irony" w.r.t. Turn of the Screw, though, because for one thing I admit my memory of the Onions is foggy and, two, similar to your take on Pan's Labyrinth, I'm only offering (not dogmatically claiming) an interpretation that I believe is clearly supported by the text.

Frank B said...

"My other comments were simply an attempt to speak up in defense of literary ambiguity, which those two responders I singled out seemed to view as a bad thing..."

No. At least in my case; I can't speak for Bryce.

"...they are simply agreeing with an idea I laid out here, and which, at its base, you don't seem to have a beef with, either. I assure you, the problem isn't ambiguity; the problem is the misuse of ambiguity."