I chose The Haunted Hotel as one of my Venice Reads and as I usually find with Wilkie Collins novels, it didn’t disappoint.
The Haunted Hotel is a sort of ghost story-come-mystery. The tale opens in England, where a wild-eyed Countess Narona visits Doctor Wybrow in a state of distress, convinced that she is going mad. Her husband-to-be, Lord Montbarry has jilted his kind-hearted fiancé, Agnes for her. The Countess is convinced that Agnes will somehow bring about her downfall. After the marriage, the Countess and Lord Montbarry move to Venice where they stay in a decaying palace. The plot thickens when Lord Montbarry dies, leaving £10,000 insurance money which is claimed by his widow, and simultaneously the wife of Montbarry’s close servant, a courier named Ferrari, receives an anonymous note containing £1,000. The courier has also mysteriously disappeared. The palace is later turned into a fashionable hotel where ghostly goings on occur in room number 13A.
As with many of Collins’s novels, The Haunted Hotel has a strong theme of destiny. The book opens with a satisfying sense of doom and the suggestion that something gruesome is yet to occur. Despite being a comparatively short novel at 240 pages it felt surprisingly in-depth. Collins spends time setting the scene and building up the suspense carefully. I have to admit that there were a couple of points at which I found myself losing concentration in the middle part of the book and wondering where it was all going, but this was more than made up for by the last third of the book which was genuinely creepy!
If you’ve read my comments on Armadale and The Moonstone, it will come as no surprise that I’m a bit of fan of Wilkie Collins, especially in the way that he dramatises his characters, for example in his description of the Countess:
“Every human creature, with the slightest claim to a place in society, knew the Countess Narona. An adventuress with a European reputation of the blackest possible colour- such was the general description of the woman with the deathlike complexion and the glittering eyes.”
His sharp descriptions of comic (Mrs Ferrari) or sadly unattractive (Mrs. Rolland) comments are also very witty.
“A person of unblemished character, evidently – but not without visible drawbacks. Big bushy eyebrows, an awfully deep and solemn voice, a harsh unbending manner, a complete absence in her figure of the undulating lines characteristic of the sex, presented Virtue in this excellent person under its least alluring aspect. Strangers, on a first introduction to her, were accustomed to wonder why she was not a man.”
I loved the narrative voice, especially at the end of the novel where I felt a bit as if I was listening to a proper ghost-story.
Collins also manages to combine humour and mystery with sensitive moments. There is a passage where Agnes is discussing the pain of being jilted that demonstrates poignantly the pain of love lost.
I’m starting to feel that there is a bit of a rather dark theme to the books I’ve read which are set in Venice (Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, Don’t Look Nowby Daphne DuMaurier and Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers). It seems to be the setting for unusual happenings, with danger lurking under the surface. The sense of an unsettling atmosphere is used to great effect in The Haunted Hotel. It is the kind of book that I would call a ‘proper old-fashioned ghost-story’ and well worth a try when you fancy something spooky to read.