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.
The novel is structured as the memoir of Peter Byles, now living quietly with some unnamed religious order. As a boy growing up in a small industrial town, he used to sneak down from his bedroom to watch his father play chess with various friends. One regular visitor was Herr Doktor Kornelius Voyt, who always remained in the shadows, smoking his pipe and closely observing those around him through his shining round spectacles. There was, even then, something unnerving about the man: “I never saw the Herr Doktor come,” Peter writes. “I never saw him go. He always occupied the same chair, just behind the lamp from where I sat, very rarely played, and never spoke.”
When Peter is just 13, his widower father suddenly dies but not before assigning care of his son to Herr Doktor Voyt. As the boy arrives at the Voyt’s Gothic mansion, he finds a blue-eyed, blond young man waiting for him. “He clicked his heels together, jerked himself forward in a stiff bow from the hips, and then shot out a hand at me as if he was going to fence me. Down the length of his left cheek there ran in fact two healed fencing-scars.” The young man introduces himself:
“ ‘I am Heinrich Opfer,’ he said. ‘It is the Herr Doktor’s wish that you should be under my tuition. You are Peter Byles and I shall call you Peter. You will call me Heinrich, not Herr Opfer. We shall have supper together one hour from now. You will rise at eight in the morning, and we shall have breakfast at half-past. At half-past nine the lesson will begin. But to-night there will be no lesson. We amuse ourselves instead.’ ”
Could anyone sound more Prussian? And yet Heinrich isn’t quite what he seems. Proper interpretation — of a man’s character, of incidents, of motivation, of feelings — is crucial to this brooding, mysterious novel. Herr Doktor Voyt, we soon learn, is actually both deaf and mute, though almost nothing escapes his notice or understanding. To communicate, Peter soon learns to sign with his fingers and hands. But the Herr Doktor can sometimes eschew even these manual systems, for he seems able to project his thoughts and to read minds as well as lips. He also possesses the ability to transmit soothing sleep or exquisite pain, even from a distance. For the most part, though, no one ever sees the doctor, who remains closeted in his study, surrounded by dozens of clocks and conducting experiments with a huge pendulum.
Voyt is, however, only one of the many puzzles of the novel. Peter, for example, appears to be growing and maturing at an accelerated rate, so much so that at 14 he can pass as a grown man. He finds that his powers of concentration have expanded to such a degree that he needs neither a board nor pieces to play chess: He can visualize and retain all the moves in his head. Sometimes, though, he experiences flashes of almost mystical illumination or falls, dizzyingly, into swoons. Early on he engages in sex, but he is taught to regard love as weakness.
Yet what is the end for which Peter is being prepared? He is told by Herr Doktor Voyt that he must “watch people . . . and try to find out what they’re really thinking.” The deaf-mute scorns most human beings as fools, and before long his disciple starts to view them in a similarly callous and dismissive way. Nonetheless, when the boy finally reads one of the doctor’s private manuscripts, he lingers over an ominous sentence: “The question of the Sentient Image is deeply involved with the problem of bodily growth.” Even more disturbing is the speculation: “Why should the final result not be a being who will be the Master of Mankind?”
Though he is subject to the doctor’s parasitic will, Peter is still drawn to the earthy world of the household servants. “What a place of comfort and warmth that sitting-room next to the kitchen suddenly seemed to be! The towel hung over the parrot’s cage, the fire was a great still glow of red that tinged the whole ceiling except the bright circles over the lamp, and there they were gathered, Mrs. Pitt with her glasses on, reading, Minna up against the fireguard with her petticoats drawn up and dropping them again as her shins got scorched, the placid Alice munching something, the lad Tim strutting about like the master of the house.”
Among all the surprises in “The Hand of Kornelius Voyt,” the most surprising may be its conclusion. But the book remains troubling on many scores, wobbling uneasily on that fine line between the supernatural and the rational. Too much consciousness, as Dostoevsky said and Peter can confirm, is a disease, a positive disease.
Let me close with a word about this attractive reissue of Onions’s disquieting novel. Valancourt Books champions neglected but important works of fantastic, occult, decadent and gay literature. The press’s Web site not only lists scores of titles but also explains why these often obscure books are still worth reading. Many publishers offer editions of, say, William Beckford’s “Vathek” or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” but Valancourt reprints the former’s “Azemia” and the latter’s “Lady Athlyne” (as well as four other Stoker novels). So if you’re a real reader, one who looks beyond the bestseller list and the touted books of the moment, Valancourt’s publications may be just what you’re searching for.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE HAND OF KORNELIUS VOYT
By Oliver Onions
Valancourt. 224 pp. Paperback, $16.99