The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins
Is there no explanation of the mystery of The Haunted Hotel? Is The Haunted Hotel the tale of a haunting -- or the tale of a crime? The ghost of Lord Montbarry haunts the Palace Hotel in Venice --- or does it? Montbarry's beautiful-yet-terrifying wife, the Countess Narona, and her erstwhile brother are the centre of the terror that fills the Palace Hotel. Are their malefactions at the root of the haunting -- or is there something darker, something much more unknowable at work?
I'm a huge fan of The Woman in White, so I was delighted when I discovered The Haunted Hotel as a Kindle freebie. Both titles are misleading to the reader initially; both evoke expectations of true ghost stories and supernatural happenings, where mostly this isn't the case at all. My previous dips into Collins, however, meant I was ready for him and his suspense tactics this time.
The Haunted Hotel has more paranormal plot twists than The Woman in White, but reads more like a murder mystery. We begin with Countess Narona confessing her betrothed, Lord Montbarry, had broken an engagement to another woman, that this in itself had evoked feelings of doom in relation to her upcoming marriage, and that she felt the jilted woman would be instrumental to her downfall. After the wedding, the Lord dies of a sudden illness in a hotel in Venice, and his courier is reported missing. Subsequently, after a slow start, some minimum tension, and a dash of unrequited love, all characters are dragged by destiny to the hotel in Venice to face the horrors awaiting them.
While he slowly leaks out the elements of his mystery, Collins creates a real suspicion in the reader. He builds his plot craftily, with each tiny consequence threading into the next and sealing the next moves of the characters perfectly.
Collins uses his characters to provide a well-rounded plot, alternating between narrators to bind the story together. Each of these perfectly ensured all loose ends were tied, and that each side of the story was conveyed. The characters were incredible; I loved the descriptions of Countess Narona, with her dark eyes and pallid complexion. Collins has written her in such a way that it was impossible to suspect anything less than pure evil from her role in the story.
Even the smaller characters were gorgeous to me; the old maid whose fingernails were itching to scratch Montbarry's face after jilting her Agnes; Francis Montbarry who was interested in nothing other than his theatre company and employing the most sought after dancers in Europe, and even the hotel manager who did everything in his power to assuage the fears his guests expressed over Number 14, despite the damning evidence that something was afoot.
The conclusion was employed wonderfully, and I particularly enjoyed Collins' use of a story within the story in order to explain the entire mystery. It was atmospheric; the villains were chilling in their macabre indifference to their crime, and their sordid justifications were unfathomable.
I enjoyed this entirely, and I'm looking forward to reading The Moonstone in the near future. It was, however, more fast-paced than the Collins I'm used to, with less detail and fewer curves. I wouldn't recommend this as a first foray into Collins, but it's a worthwhile novella for one used to his writing.