Sunday, March 31, 2013

LEFT INSIDE: A Smile that Drives Men Mad

In a recent book buying coup I snagged several extremely scarce books, a few with dust jackets. One of those books is The Black Cap, a collection of stories dealing with crime and the supernatural. It is edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, a writer who dabbled in ghost stories and other genre fiction and who also collected unusual ghost and crime stories for a variety of anthologies.

The book itself is in amazing condition but many of the books I ended up purchasing had several dogeared pages -- and not just the upper corner but the lower corners.  Sometimes the pages were turned from odd to even page, other times the opposite direction. It was maddening to discover this.  The books would be in Very Good, some in Fine, condition if it were not for this annoying practice of the previous owner.  When I got home with my purchases I spent a good portion of the night going through all eight books and turning back carefully all the dog- eared corners and afterwards stacking the books and pressing them with weights.

While paging through this book I discovered only one story had been dogeared -- "The Smile of Karen" by Oliver Onions.  Onions was a unique writer who immersed himself in all sorts of styles and genres, but he is probably best known for his collection of excellent ghost stories Widdershins. That book includes the masterful tale "The Beckoning Fair One" which has been adapted for TV and radio many times. Between the pages of "The Smile of Karen" I found an index card with some odd phrases.

I read the story and the phrase "the smile that touched her generous lips" appears nowhere.  It's an eerie narrative with a fairy tale quality about a man who has oppressive control over his beautiful much younger wife.  He is also a woodcarver of amazing, other-worldly talent.  He has created a small statue of his wife but the eerie object has no face or expression. When the narrator asks why the statue is unfinished the woodcarver says: "Once she did not smile and I was happy, now she smiles always and it drives me mad."  The narrator of the tale befriends Karen and learns she is having a secret affair with a handsome man closer to her own age. She confides in the narrator that if  her husband discovers the identity of her lover he is certain to plot revenge. The tale ends in gruesome murder with a final grisly twist related to the statue.

Why the previous owner wrote those phrases and stuck the card in a story of jealousy, possessiveness and vengeful rage eludes me. While there are passing references to Karen's beauty and the virility and handsome looks of Niccolo, her lover, I found nothing beautiful about the story.


  1. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction.

  2. A great find - well done John.

  3. Hello John,
    I am delighted to find your website, and have subscribed to the emails. Am an Oliver Onions fan. The Beckoning Fair merits re-reading many times!!
    Also, please visit your January 1912 piece on Rufus King. I just left a comment on it. I knew him quite well, as he was a contemporary of my father's. Please direct me to any of his books you may have for sale. I have several, of course, given by him to my mother!
    Best regards, Jane C.

    1. Jane -- A review on Onions' very scarce and recently reissued supernatural thriller The Hand of Kornelius Voyt is coming. Stay tuned.

      Also, thanks for the info on Rufus King. Your comment on the Murder by the Clock review page is now posted. Fascinating anecdotes you shared.

  4. A week or so I got the Wordsworth edition of Oliver Onions ghost stories. Great value!

    Janec, please see my Passing Tramp blog for more on Rufus King. I loved reading your comment too. I know a publisher who would be pleased to reprint King, but no one seems to know who holds the rights to the books.