While reading through the horror stories of Oliver Onions, I pulled up a bit at one of his lesser-known tales, "Hic Jacet: A Tale of Artistic Conscience." The story is one of several that Onions devoted to the perils of artistic production, whether High Art or Commercial--Onions tends to draw the line rather sharply between the financially-successful hacks, in whatever form, and the impecunious true artists. In some of the stories, this binary is also gendered, as in his most famous story, "The Beckoning Fair One" (the female journalist, who repeatedly acknowledges her inferiority, vs. the serious male novelist), as well as in "Resurrection in Bronze" (the wife whose magazine writing pays the bills vs. the serious male sculptor). To say that women "get in the way" in these and other stories is not quite right: in the two stories just mentioned, for example, the women are either in the right ("The Beckoning Fair One") or have a genuine point ("Resurrection in Bronze"), and the male artists, far from being on idealized, romantic quests for artistic achievement, are often cruel, violent, or sometimes just utterly misguided. (The one authentic woman artist, in "The Painted Face," is also represented as problematic: she's a sort of female Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Grey.) Onions' stories do seem to argue, though, that dedication to High Art is incompatible with the call of flesh and family, a point made most brutally in "Resurrection in Bronze," where, in a stark reversal of the Pygmalion legend, the wife winds up entombed in her husband's masterpiece. (Onions likes Pygmalion allusions--"The Beckoning Fair One," "The Real People," and "Benlian" also play around with it.)
What's interesting about "Hic Jacet," though, is that the narrator bears a suspicious resemblance to an actual famous author. The story is simple: Harrison, our narrator, is a successful short-story writer who writes for the "gaping public" (360). His old (albeit ex- ) friend, a Polish Jew named Andriaovsky, was an unsuccessful but genuinely gifted painter. As the story begins, Andriaovsky has just died, and his sister asks Harrison to write his biography, as Harrison had indeed once agreed to do; Harrison's difficulties with the task form the meat of the story, especially insofar as he appears to be haunted by Andriaovsky's self-portrait, which may or may not be alive. In the end, Harrison reveals that all of his work on Andriaovsky's memoir has produced...his next set of popular stories--"my own condemnation," he ruefully acknowledges (387). Ah, but what are these short stories? Harrison is the "creator of Martin Renard, the famous and popular detective" (360), whose cases are serialized in a magazine called the Falchion. He admits that Martin Renard has become rather stifling. Indeed, "I have tried to kill Martin Renard. He was killing me. I have, in the pages of the Falchion, actually killed him; but I have had to resurrect him. I cannot escape from him..." (380). Now, that sounds transparently familiar: it's Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.
This is not to say that Harrison can be collapsed into Doyle, only that Onions alludes to Doyle in order to suggest how the shape of a commercial career might become Gothic in its own right. Although Harrison is not literally pursued by this figment of his imagination, as characters are in "The Beckoning Fair One" and "The Real People," the undead Martin Renard implacably invades every nook and cranny of his creator's imagination. Early on, Harrison assures us that "[t]he moment the public showed that it wanted something better I was prepared to give it" (361), but the story's outcome suggests that once the artist suits his work to popular demands--"Compromise" (367)--he can never return to the path of high art. Andriaovsky, Harrison notes in passing, was revolted "when a good man, for money, has consented to modify and emasculate his work" (369), and the gendered imagery here implies that the work, once figuratively unmanned, can never again achieve its full strength--its virility. (I did mention that Onions associates high art with masculinity...) Harrison, in Andriaovsky's eyes the creator of unmanly art, has, he admits, "sinned" (371), and tries to take refuge in the fact that he has never tried to do anything better (372). But, having wholly embraced his role as a producer of pop-culture pablum, he discovers that he is, as it were, damned. The final sections of the story are loaded with Biblical imagery--redemption, angels, sin--all of which prove totally useless in the teeth of Andriaovsky's posthumous condemnation. Having served Mammon, the writer finds that there is no way back to God.