I originally picked up this hard-to-find book after reading of it in Newman & Jones’ excellent overview volume, Horror: The 100 Best Books. Widdershins is a collection of Oliver Onions‘ short stories, and was first published in 1911. Onions was supposedly a meticulous writer, writing and rewriting and rerewriting, changing words repeatedly until he felt that things were just right. And his attention to detail does indeed show. All the stories in this volume are impeccably written, with wonderful attention to detail, sensuous mood, and finely modulated suspense. None of the tales in this book are what I would call especially scary, especially by modern standards of violence and shock and grue, but all are fascinating and eminently readable. The main feature of all eight creepy little tales in this collection is that the supernatural element in each of them can be otherwise explained; that is, the ghosts or other strange happenings that we read of can be seen as being merely mental aberrations of the protagonist.
The collection starts off with a bang with “The Beckoning Fair One,” one of the most oft-anthologized horror tales. This ghost story has been called one of the best in the English language by such luminaries as Algernon Blackwood and H. P. Lovecraft, and who am I to argue with them? The tale is certainly the best in the Widdershins collection, and concerns an author who moves into a deserted house and starts to become influenced by its ghostly female occupant? Or … is it just in his mind? In “Phantas,” one of the survivors of an 18th century sinking galleon sees a vision of a 20th century ship as his own boat slips beneath the waves. Or … does he really? “Rooum” is the tale of an old engineer who complains of a phantom that constantly races up behind him and then through him, taking a bit more of himself with each passage. Is this really happening … or is the old guy just going barmy? In “Benlian,” a sculptor decides to really put all of himself into his last great project … soul and all. Does he really, or is the old bloke just slightly off his chump? “The Accident” involves no ghosts at all; just two men, enemies from their youth, who meet in a restaurant for dinner 40 years later. It’s a tale of cosmic fate and what might have been. In “The Lost Thyrsus,” we’re back to the spooky region, and a convalescent woman who, after reading Keats’ “Endymion,” is visited by a horde of Grecian bacchanals. Does she really … or is it all in her sick mind? “Hic Jacet,” a longish tale, tells of a hack writer who attempts to pen the biography of his recently deceased artist friend, and the major problems he has with this task. Is the deceased artist really haunting him … or is it, again, all in his mind? Finally, in “The Cigarette Case,” two Englishmen on a walking tour in Provence encounter two strange women. Or do they really? When reading Widdershins, the reader must answer all these questions for him/herself. I prefer to tend toward the more ghostly explanations myself, but that’s just me.
I should perhaps warn potential readers of this volume that Widdershins is NOT an easy read. I can’t imagine anyone of average intelligence going into this book without the aid of an UNabridged dictionary, an atlas, an encyclopedia and the use of the Internet as research tools. There are lots of 100-year-old British slang words and expressions, and even I – a copy editor with what I feel to be an above-average vocabulary – was thrown many times. Still, for those willing to take the time and effort to read this book with the care and attention it deserves – the same care and attention, I might add, that Oliver Onions obviously invested in his writing of this volume – Widdershins will repay their efforts.