OnionsOliver Onions' "Painted Face"

commentary by rbadac


Weird stories can of course be much more than just that; the best ones are found in the purlieus of literature, & generously exhibit the rewards of it. The discerning reader has nothing to fear in the way of losing dignity in the pursuit of his or her aberrant taste; there is no longer any Inquisition to convict the supernatural & burn it from the body of letters. I know you don't care; I only wanted to point out that you could actually be considered literary if you wished, if you could only give up those police thrillers & Fabio-faced romance novels ... what, you don't read those? Well, somebody is reading them, quite a lot of somebodies, to judge from the sales lists, pardon me for thinking you may be one of their number.

Perhaps you wouldn't be interested in a sexy tearjerker from Oliver Onions, then. Oh, it's literature too, all right, & weird to boot, it's just that ... well, love means never having to say you're promised to Poseidon, or it should at any rate. Otherwise young Verney Arden could have been spared a great deal of trouble when he encounters the bevy of teenaged beauties under the guardianship of Mrs Van Necker, & fastens his attention upon the most beautiful of them all, the mysterious Xena Francavilla, daughter of Umberto Francavilla, possibly the richest man in the Mediterranean.

Mrs Van Necker has somehow contrived to be keeper of these girls, one of which is her own daughter Mollie, during a trip from Palermo to Tunis. There are also the two English lasses, the Bruce-Harrieses, & Amalia, who is American, & fond of sketching. Their respective parents are all possesed of more money than time for their progeny, hence the present volatile situation; as it turns out, Mrs Van Necker has a bit more to worry about when traveling with this party than randy soldiers or heartsick suitors at every turn.

Onions must have been well-traveled himself, or at least he knew, like any good novelist, how to pull off that impression. His evocation of place is surreally magnificent throughout; adding to the natural romance of setting is his careful & knowing characterization of each of the three major heroines, Mollie, Amalia, & most of all Xena, & their varying reactions to their freedom in foreign lands on the eve of even more foreign expeditions into their womanhood. Within the conventions of the time it manages to be a rather "hot" story; nothing like May Sinclair or anything, but more subtle, nevertheless with a sultry undercurrent that bursts through the skin of appearances in Hellenistic pandemonium at several points. Comparison to E. M. Forster would not be inappropriate, not only in the manner in which it is handled, but also in the subject matter, similar to more than one of Forster's own excellent forays, especially "The Story Of The Siren."

The general critical barometer on Onions is all over the place, but few will argue that he produced a handful of top-notch ghost stories, to which group this, while not haunted in the usual sense, certainly belongs. It's a long one, though— 100 pages in the Dover Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions to "The Beckoning Fair One"s 68 or so — so be ready to settle in with it for awhile. It's a love story too, so get out your hanky, preferably an azure silk one trimmed in sand with a little embroidered trident in the corner.

- rbadac, wondering how much a copy of Bells Rung Backwards is going for these days


copyright 2001 , all rights reserved


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