Monday, 18 July 2016

The Haunted Hotel and other stories

Wilkie Collins
Wordsworth Editions

This is a unique collection of strange stories from the cunning pen of Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. The star attraction is the novella The Haunted Hotel, a clever combination of detective and ghost story set in Venice, a city of grim waterways, dark shadows and death. The action takes place in an ancient palazzo converted into a modern hotel that houses a grisly secret. The supernatural horror relentless pace, tight narrative, and a doomed countess characterise and distinguish this powerful tale.
The other stories present equally disturbing scenarios, which include ghosts, corpses that move, family corpses and perhaps the most unusual of all, the Devil's spectacles, which bring a clarity of vision that can lead to madness.
Collins is one of the great storytellers. He excels in presenting narratives that both disturb and engross the reader, as this fine collection demonstrates.

I've read a fair few of Collins' stories over the last couple of years and enjoyed them all.  They are lively, imaginative and written with a real readability, an easy way of phrasing that many of his contemporaries and successors lacked.  That said though, I've little interest in reading any of his longer works - or those of the other writers of the era - as I've, for the most part, come to think of these writers as providing my short story kick.  So, the novella that makes up a large - 149 page - chunk of this book was my longest excursion by far into the realms of the Victorian ghost story.

The story itself tells of a jilted woman, her usurper in her ex's affections and his extended family.  The tale moves between London, Ireland and Venice as a seemingly inevitable and perhaps fated meeting between various parties at the hotel of the title.  For most of the novella it feels like a fairly slight story extended beyond its bounds and supported in it's telling by Collins' readability but when the uncanny and the odd begin to appear it is all the more effective for it and the novella culminates in a most satisfying manner.

Making up the rest of the page count are several shorts of varying quality of which I was only previous acquainted with the first, 'The Dream Woman' which tells of a grooms (the horse variety) unrelenting fear of his ex wife.

A marriage is at the heart of the third tale also, 'Mrs Zant and the Ghost', in which a chance encounter with a lady in a park brings a widower and his young daughter  into her life in time to save her from an unpleasant fate.  I've admitted in these pages before that I am a real sucker for a happy story so this proved to be a real favourite.

'A Terribly Strange Bed' is, along with 'The Dead Hand' & 'Blow Up With The Brig!', one of several stories here with no supernatural content.  All are enjoyable, the latter being the least so, but aren't what I read these books for and so my enjoyment is limited but, as I say, the first two are certainly enjoyable in what they are.

Of the three remaining stories, two deal with apparitions, in one 'Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman' this is in the context of a story told about a murder committed whilst the other 'Nine O'Clock' tells of a premonition of death.  Both stories have a sense of inevitability about them as their denouements are telegraphed from the off but the journeys to the ends is enjoyable enough.

The book closes with the frankly absurd 'The Devil's Spectacles' that begins with a story of cannibalism and ends with madness via mistrust, greed, jealousy and a very ugly pair of glasses.

As ever with these Wordsworth Editions what you get is a collection of unusual tales that are often engrossing, sometimes intriguing and occasionally puzzling but every now and again though these stories are written by a master of the craft and manage to be all three at once.

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