The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Beckoning Fair One,” Paul Oleron, a novelist who has not catered to popular taste, becomes fascinated with the spirit that he detects occupying his apartment. He believes that the beckoning fair one is the spirit of a woman, and he tries to court her; the spirit appears, instead, to take possession of him and to drain him of his energy and his will. Under the influence of that spirit, he apparently murders the woman who loves him and nearly starves himself to death.

The process of Oleron’s decline begins when he is attracted to an old, decaying building as an inexpensive way to solve his problem of living and working in different places. To unite living and working, he takes a single larger apartment in the otherwise abandoned building. He makes this move when he is fifteen chapters into what he believes is his greatest novel, Romilly. On completing the move, he discovers that he is unable to continue working on that novel.

The heroine is based on his journalist friend Elsie Bengough. As he attempts to continue writing, he finds himself dissatisfied with the heroine. He wants to begin again with a new heroine quite different from Elsie. Just as Elsie fits less well into his novel and his imagination after he moves, so too does she feel unwelcome in his new dwelling. She cannot be comfortable there. During two visits, she is injured in unaccountable ways, nails appearing where he is sure he had already removed them, and a step that had seemed perfectly sound to him suddenly breaking.

Oleron’s attitude toward Elsie has always been ambivalent. Though he likes Elsie, she strikes him as too worldly for his austere taste. Similarly, his attitude toward his career has grown ambivalent. He confesses to her that he has become weary of his writing. He has not achieved the comfort and success that would make the effort seem worthwhile, and the effort itself has become an intolerable burden. Writing no longer provides him enough of the glow and thrill that it offered when he was younger.

Gradually, Oleron comes to believe that the opposition between the old and the new Romilly arises from an opposition between Elsie and a being occupying his rooms, a being whom he calls “the beckoning fair one.” Her name comes from the title of a song that he hears in the sound of water dripping from a faucet and that is identified by a neighbor when he spontaneously hums it. This opposition also exists within himself, in his ambivalence toward Elsie and also in his desire both to live comfortably in the ordinary world and to enter into transcendent regions of artistic inspiration. The latter desire pushes him toward an exploration of the mysteries that he detects in his new rooms; the new tensions in his life seem to have their true spring in this division in his character. As he follows this impulse, he cuts himself off from Elsie, from his writing, and finally from the world.

Before he discovers an active spirit in his rooms, he believes that in his own love for them, he might create such a spirit. Not until after he learns of Elsie’s desire to marry him does he discover that such a spirit already occupies his home. By the time that he learns of Elsie’s love, he is already under the influence of that spirit; he finds that he does not want Elsie now. For days after this discovery, he is torn between a part of himself that would welcome her love and that fears for her safety, and another part that draws him toward the life that he feels in his rooms’ hostility to Elsie. Then, one night when he finds himself as near as he has been to loving Elsie, he hears the sound of a woman brushing her hair, though no one is with him. Though he panics at first, he quickly accepts the possibility of a female spirit in his rooms, and he turns from...

(The entire section is 1,014 words.)