The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins, is a short gothic romance set in Venice. A mere 140-something pages, it elicits much of the mood he so successfully created in The Woman In White. We are introduced to the same kinds of mysterious women, one with an extraordinarily pale complexion, one with an especially tender heart, who play out their roles within a palace in Venice which had been converted to a hotel.

This is not to say there are no men in this novella. It’s just the men are quickly disappearing, and therein lies the tension. What has happened to the Baron Rivar? To Lord Montbarry? To the courier, Ferrari, who has disappeared shortly after arriving in Venice to work for Lord Montbarry? And, what lies within the secret compartment revealed when the statues adorning the mantel are pushed in a certain way?

I can see now, after reading this novel, The Comfort of Strangers, and Don’t Look Now, how Venice has become the perfect setting for the mysterious. The dangerous. Those lost in love. Because it is a city of great beauty, to be sure, but also a city which seems to defy reason. How can it exist, set as it is on a lagoon? How can the characters in these stories escape an imminent danger we sense as soon as we read the first page? I’m ready for something lighter now, but Wilkie Collins never seems to disappoint even if he does write of things darkly mysterious. Like the human soul.

I made a collage of covers, sorely lamenting my own lack of one, as the novel is available for free to those of you who own a nook. Now I can vicariously enjoy what Penguin and other publishers have used to present Collins’ novella.)

Marian Halcombe, Chapters VI-X; Postscript

On my way to the village I prepared myself for the possibility of meeting Sir Percival. As long as I had him to deal with alone, I felt certain of not losing my presence of mind. Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper. (p. 315)

Alas, it is an overconfident Marian Halcombe who said these words which made me cheer. After listening to Count Fosco and Sir Glyde, while hiding herself on the roof above the library where they met, she becomes so ill from getting chilled that the Count has invaded her journal. He knows that she heard all of their discussion: there is a tremendous need for money, especially on the part of Sir Glyde, which can only be obtained if Laura will sign the parchment or in the case of her death. In addition to this, is the Secret. It has something to do with the reason Anne Catherwick was put in the asylum (where she has since escaped), something to do with her mother, something which makes this mystery all the more mysterious…and Sir Glyde all the more evil.

I’m afraid I became so enraptured with this book that I finished it, many days before the Big Read V is to officially end. Suffice it to say, that I can think of no book more intricately layered, nor full of unexpected surprises, than this. Not even the end of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which has one of my favorite surprises of all, can compare to this unveiling of the woman in white which we take through the eyes of Laura, Walter, Count Fosco, and Sir Percival Glyde. No book of 600+ pages goes more quickly.