While not my favorite work by Wilkie Collins, or by any stretch his best, time spent with one of his stories is never time wasted. In this case the story in question is his 1878 novella The Haunted Hotel. It was serialized in Belgravia magazine in six monthly parts. According to the introduction he was paid a mere fifty pounds per installment, which must have been a pittance compared to what his other stories must have fetched. It appears the publishing world thought him past his prime and so compensated him accordingly. I wouldn't call this story past his prime at all, but it was the last big work before ill health and an opium addiction robbed him of any further masterpieces.
The Haunted Hotel is loosely based on a true crime case from France (as was The Woman in White so says the introduction), so it has a basis in reality but with a good dose of the supernatural as well. It's set mostly in Venice, a city that Collins loved and knew and was very familiar with, and he was one of the first writers to "explore the strange, hypnotic power of this mysterious city resting on the seething waters of the Adriatic Sea." The story is, as is usual to a good Wilkie Collins story, peopled with a colorful cast of characters (think Count Fosco in The Woman in White, or Lydia Gwilt in Armadale), the worst of them wicked nd devious indeed. The Haunted Hotel is as much a mystery as anything, and a murder mystery specifically. But this is a story that is not straightforward with an ending neatly tied up. Collins leaves the reader swimming in ambuguities (which I actually like on occasion), so the reader can decide if it is truly a case of murder or death by natural causes. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The Haunted Hotel is narrated by an observer. It's 1860 and a famed London physician receives in his office a stranger. He must soon make his hospital rounds, so he'd rather take flight than deal with this unknown woman, but she snags him. She has a foreign accent and a startling appearance. Her face is deathly pale, almost corpse-like. Her large black eyes hold him almost spell-bound. And she asks him a most unusual question.
"I want to know, if you please, whether I am in danger of going mad?"
Her pallor, she tells him, was caused by a poison from which she very narrowly managed to escape death when she was younger. She tells him she is a widow and is soon to be married again. She's being blackmailed into this marriage, however. If she refuses to marry, unfavorable reports of her character will appear true when she assures him they are not, and her reputation will be ruined. So she goes through with the nuptials. Her betrothed formerly had passed time with another young woman who is still in love with him. Yet she still goes through with the wedding.
Countess Narona is a most interesting character and it's on her, her desires, her reputation, her actions that the outcome of the story hinges. What follows, a story narrated by the physician (but the reader becomes so immersed in it that all that you forget everything except what's being told to you), is really quite bizarre. It's one of the strangest stories I've read yet by Wilkie Collins.
Countess Narona, who becomes Lady Montbarry upon her marriage, travels with her husband to Venice. Along with the couple goes the purported brother of the Countess. Is he really her brother or something more? In Venice they stay at an ancient palazzo where Lord Montbarry promptly dies and his courier disappears. Back in England we meet Agnes Lockwood who is still somewhat infatuated with Lord Montbarry. Infatuated and disappointed by the turn of events. And Lord Montbarry's younger brother Henry is in love with her to make things just a little more complicated. As it was Agnes who helped the courier get the position, his widow comes to her to try and discover what really happened in Venice. Thus does the story become a detective story as well.
The palazzo is sold to one of Lord Montberry's family members and is turned into a hotel where strange things happen in the now-dead Lord Montbarry's bedroom. Very strange things. Ghostly appearances and disembodied heads show up. All is seemingly revealed through the Countess's writings, but by story's end she has become so deluded and distracted, the question is--is she telling the truth? Does she really reveal the details of Lord Montbarry's death, which might or might not mean murder rather than a natural death? It's hard to know who or what to believe. Things will come to a head when Agnes Lockwood is driven by Fate (as the Countess believes) to stay at the hotel. Will she, too, experience the ghostly occurrences in the haunted room?
The Haunted Hotel is a creepy story with corpses that change identities, heads without bodies and the hint of ghosts. It's Wilkie Collins at his usual entertaining-self. If you are looking for a good ghost story, The Haunted Hotel is a worthy choice. Most years I try and read at least one book by Wilkie Collins. This novella hit the spot and I still have a short story to read by him this weekend. If, by the way you are curious about which is my favorite Wilkie Collins novel? I'd have a hard time choosing between The Woman in White and Armadale. I've loved everything I've read by him, however. My RIP reading is nearly finished for the season!