It was English author Mike Ashley, writing in Newman & Jones’ excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books, who first introduced me to the remarkable collection Widdershins, from 1911. While enthusing about the eight splendidly spooky stories therein, and in particular “The Beckoning Fair One,” one of the greatest ghost stories in the English language, Ashley told his audience that in them “we find a portrayal of madness that leaves the reader uncomfortably unsure about the state of reality and sanity.” Indeed, the stories in Widdershins really are some doozies, and I’ve been wanting to experience more from that collection’s creator – namely, Oliver Onions – since that first dose of him 12 years ago. The only problem is, books by the Yorkshire-born author are not exactly easy to come across today, despite the fact that Onions wrote around 30 novels and seven collections of short stories during his long lifetime (1873 – 1961). Fortunately, and not for the first time, Valancourt Books has come to my rescue with its reissue of Onions’ borderline unclassifiable, full-length novel The Hand of Kornelius Voyt.
The Hand of Kornelius Voyt was originally released in 1939 in a hardcover edition by the British publisher Hamish Hamilton, and featuring some wonderfully faithful cover art by someone only known as Abbey. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 30 years, till another English publisher, Lythway Press, revived it in 1969. And then … OOPs again, this time for 44 more years, till Valancourt chose to resurrect it in 2013, and sporting that same, wonderful Abbey artwork, as well as another highly erudite introduction by Mark Valentine, who had done a similar service for another of Valancourt’s 2013 releases, R. C. Ashby’s He Arrived at Dusk (1933), and who demonstrates here that he really does know his Onions! In his introduction, Valentine tells us that The Hand of Kornelius Voyt was the first work that Onions had released in a five-year period; an unusually long gap for this otherwise prolific author. Happily, the lengthy hiatus apparently resulted in no diminution of Onions’ considerable talents; quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.
The Hand of Kornelius Voyt is narrated to us by a middle-aged man named Peter Byles, currently residing and working in a fraternal monastery of sorts in the heart of London. His manuscript begins, however, when he was a 12-year-old lad living in a northern industrial city (probably based on Onions’ childhood town of Bradford). When Peter was 12, his father had passed away, leaving him and his sister Nora suddenly orphaned. Eight-year-old Nora had been sent to live with their strictly religious nurse, while Peter had been sent to the Gothic Victorian pile belonging to his father’s German friend: the bearded, bespectacled, pipe-smoking Herr Doktor Kornelius Voyt. Peter had seen this gentleman several times at his father’s house, silently observing the chess games that were routinely played there, but it would be some time before the young ward would see his new guardian in his own estate. Rather, his days had been spent under the tutelage of his kindly German instructor Heinrich Opfer, who had been ordered to teach Peter the German language, as well as the art of sign language. It was only then that Byles had learned that his guardian Voyt was both deaf and dumb, and incapable of ordinary communication. But, it seemed, the Herr Doktor possessed other gifts that more than compensated for these deficits. At their first encounter, in the house’s billiard room, Voyt had silently demonstrated his uncanny ability on the table. As time progressed, Peter had become aware of other powers that his benefactor possessed: the ability to inflict pain from afar; the power to hypnotize with his eyes; the knack of bringing out another’s latent intelligence and an ability to see into the future. And, Peter soon realized, Voyt harbored great plans for his new young subject.
As Byles’ tale proceeds, we witness him become sexually involved with the amorous housemaid Minna (pretty impressive, for a 13-year-old kid!), quickly develop both mentally (he becomes something of a chess whiz himself fairly rapidly) and physically (how many 13-year-olds are already 6’4” bruisers, to the point where Voyt wonders if he might possibly have acromegaly?), and have several fallings-out with the wholly decent if simpleminded Heinrich. Though somewhat fearful of what he had been morphing into, as Herr Voyt continued to stimulate his bodily essences and link minds with him, he had remained there for many months, until an argument with the Doktor had caused him to depart. And at what a time in the town’s history, too! In fulfillment of one of Peter’s visions, the largest factory in town had been burnt to the ground by its angry employees, the town’s residents had gone on a sympathy strike, and Peter was reduced to beggary, busking and thievery to ward off starvation. But when the angry populace had decided to storm the home of Doktor Voyt, who was the silent partner of sorts of another factory, Peter had had to make a decision as to whether or not to return to his benefactor … or not.
It is difficult to classify a book such as The Hand of Kornelius Voyt and assign it to a definite pigeonhole. It is not exactly a tale of the supernatural, although some of the powers that the Herr Doktor possesses do seem to approach the borderline. It is assuredly not science fiction, although Voyt is much interested in the studies of phrenology, the human body, and time itself. It is too realistically depicted a novel to be considered a fantasy, although elements of the fantastic do tend to obtrude themselves into the proceedings. More than anything, actually, the book strikes this reader as a Dickensian-type of story with decidedly outre touches, including hypnotism, the bringing forth of latent knowledge, and divination. Onions’ book is also splendidly written and is compulsively readable, and what I once thought about Widdershins could just as easily apply here. To quote myself, this book also boasts a “wonderful attention to detail, sensuous mood, and finely modulated suspense.” The novel, whether transpiring in the Voyt household or somewhere in the nearby town, is strongly atmospheric, and that town itself is wonderfully described and realistically drawn. Any number of memorable sequences are given to the reader, including Peter’s nighttime foray over the rooftop of the Voyt mansion to sneak into the Doktor’s part of the building; the plight of the town after that conflagration and during the universal strike; and the predicament of young Byles becoming a destitute vagabond. Best of all, though, are those occasions when Voyt silently gives a demonstration of his powers, whether on the billiards table, inflicting Heinrich with a sudden knee pain from afar, causing his man Fearnley to suffer strokelike symptoms, making Minna comatose, or causing Peter to have an excruciating headache.
Peter’s relationship with the Doktor, I should add, is in perpetual flux, changing from fascination to admiration to fearfulness to hatred and back again as the book proceeds. His relationship with his kindly tutor is a rocky one, also, as is his relationship with Minna. Peter Byles, it must be admitted, is something of a jerk at age 13. Like many lads his age, he can be oafish, at times unlikeable, selfish, thoughtless and self-centered. Still, he is also, to his credit, very bright, self-reliant, and ultimately someone capable of both loyalty and self-sacrifice. As for Voyt himself, he remains something of a fascinating enigma to the end, and is certainly not the diabolical villain that you might understandably be expecting here. The bits of the Doktor’s backstory that we become privy to, thanks to Peter’s perusal of Voyt’s diary, reveal something of the man but not nearly enough for us to understand him completely. He is clearly some kind of dedicated genius, interested in bringing forth man’s dormant abilities, and his obsession with time – not to mention the giant pendulum apparatus in his sitting room, and the dozens of clocks in his house that he enjoys studying and dissecting – puts him in a league with the great Tone Hobart character in the 5/4/64 episode of The Outer Limits entitled “The Forms of Things Unknown.” But as Peter dismissively tells us, “When a man begins to take his clocks to pieces to find out what time is made of there is no longer anything to be afraid of in him.” Ultimately, much has to be inferred about Herr Voyt, but he sure does make for an interesting conundrum.
I do have some quibbles to raise with Oliver Onions’ impressive work here, however. Just as we don’t get enough information on the Doktor to make for a fully rounded character, so too his theories on the “Sentient Image” and “Vital Centres” go largely undeveloped. Yes, we know that the first is a means by which he can link his mind to another’s, and that the second refers to those portions of the human anatomy that, properly stimulated, engender those mental and physical transformations, but this reader was waiting for some further clarification that was just not forthcoming. The book also features a surprise ending of sorts that I was not satisfied with at all. It just didn’t ring true, although, looking back, admittedly may have been hinted at earlier on. This twist ending casts the Herr Doktor in a wholly different light, although that light is hardly an illuminating one. As in Widdershins, readers venturing into this Onions book from 28 years later must be prepared to resort to their Google machines for help in figuring out some of the British slang words and references to be encountered therein. Or perhaps you already know what Peter means when he describes some pyrotechnics seen in his youth: “I could almost hear the fiery crackle and rush of sparks as a greasy skep was hoisted on, and smell the glowing millband, and hear the single big bang of the maroons.” Or know how much money a “tanner” is, or what a “Pink ‘Un” paper is, or what a “seltzogene” is, or a “blackleg.” Bonus points, though, for the book turning me on to such excellent bits of vocabulary as “crepitation,” “hobbledehoy” and “tritoma”; I always enjoy learning cool new words!
In all, I must confess that Oliver Onions is now a fairly solid 2 for 2 with this reader. So … where to go next? Well, I see that the author also has two other collections of supernatural stories to his credit, Ghosts in Daylight (1924) and The Painted Face (1929). He has two novels in the sci-fi vein, New Moon (1918) and The Tower of Oblivion (1921). And he would appear to have also written two fantasies, A Certain Man (1931) and the posthumous A Shilling to Spend (1965). All six of these books would make for prime entertainment, I have a feeling, if only one could lay one’s hands on these long-out-of-print volumes. And that is precisely where publishers such as Valancourt are needed to step in…