A slight case of murder?

I've always been a bit of a fan of Wilkie Collins (this may explain my dislike of the dreadful Drood previously reviewed here). Until I chanced upon it in a local library I'd never heard of his The haunted hotel. It's a smashing tale. Part horror/ghost story, part out-and-out murder mystery.

The horror part works very well replete with nightmares, secret passages, bouncing heads and an atmospheric Venice. It's guaranteed to make you jump. But ultimately I think it's the crime element that works brilliantly well here, with a wonderfully well plotted murder. Even a hardened crime novel aficionado like me didn't anticipate the twist in this particular tale.

It has some of the usual faults of the sensationalist Victorian novel. There are too many coincidences, some of the suspension of disbelief forces the reader perhaps a step too far, and there's the usual dippy heroine; but it also has the assets of the very best in Victorian reading - a stand out female villain (why are Victorian bad women so much more likable and compelling than their morally upright cousins?). Collins' Countess Narona is every bit as bad as his earlier wicked lady, Lydia Gwilt of Armadale. And, as you might expect from an author who was admired by Dickens, the writing flows rushing the reader along with it.

The story centres around young Agnes Lockwood, formerly engaged to Lord Montbarry, who broke the engagement to marry the Countess Narona, a woman with quite a reputation. Montbarry's younger brother is in love with Agnes, but his pleas to marry him fall on deaf ears as Agnes is still infatuated with her ex. Trying to forget Montbarry, Lockwood is drawn back to the family again when a former servant begs her help in securing a job for her husband with Montbarry.

The newly married Montbarrys had headed off to Venice for their honeymoon staying in a semi-derelict palace where the relationship rapidly heads downhill while Narona's sinister brother tries to become the first alchemist in history to find the philosopher's stone. And then Montbarry dies suddenly apparently of natural causes.It seems quite innocent, but when the relatives find themselves haunted in the property where Montbarry died it appears that something rather sinister is going on.

This novel is a great introduction to Victorian horror fiction, and a great introduction to Wilkie Collins and Victorian fiction in general. At just 234 pages it's easily readable, and as nice a piece of grand guignol as you could hope to read. First published in 1889, the year that Collins died, it's not his best work, but it does demonstrate British horror at its very best. A thoroughly enjoyable chilling tale. Welcome to The haunted hotel.


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