Oliver Onions, who lived from 1873 to 1961, was a prolific writer of mysteries, social comedies and historical novels, but today he is chiefly remembered for his ghost stories. In that intense flowering of British supernatural fiction during the two decades before World War I, Onions stands just below M.R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. His most famous collection, “Widdershins” (1911), features such anthology standards as “Rooum” (in which a man is haunted by an entity that can pass, painfully, through his body) and “The Lost Thyrsus,” as powerful a depiction of female ecstasy (or madness?) as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Most famously, “Widdershins” contains “The Beckoning Fair One,” a novella judged by many connoisseurs as the greatest classical ghost story of them all, rivaled only by Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.”
For many years, though, Onions’s other works have been hard to come by, the most sought after being his novel “The Hand of Kornelius Voyt” (1939). It is a difficult book to characterize, though there’s no question about its unsettling eeriness. Imagine a mixture of psychological suspense, existential theorizing, coming-of-age story and the kind of speculative fiction — about supermen and workers’ revolutions — that we associate with the 1930s. But above all, as critic Mark Valentine writes in his excellent introduction to this new Valancourt edition, the novel remorselessly sustains an “atmosphere of uncanny dread.” In places, it even calls to mind such nightmarish classics as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas,” two haunting accounts of magician-like figures with hypnotic power over those around them.