It’s been years since I read any Wilkie Collins; I thought he was probably pretty great, even though I barely remember either The Woman in White or Little Novels, and also in spite of the fact that I found The Moonstone‘s plot to be incomprehensibly complicated. Why did I think he was great? I must have been giving him the benefit of the nineteenth century, not to mention besties with Dickens, doubt.
I just finished The Haunted Hotel (1878) and I am not about to energetically distance myself from my earlier enthusiasm; that would require more investment than this novel inspires. Rather, all I can do is look curiously at my excitement about returning to Collins as the unrecognizable thing it now is. The Haunted Hotel was okay, that’s all. The writing was fine–inoffensive, even–but in no way memorable. It had little energy and I’m already forgetting everything that doesn’t fall under the heading of Bare Outline. People, I finished this book yesterday, and it’s already leaving me.
This is what I still remember: No hotels are seen to be haunted until more than halfway through the book, but that ought to be okay since the cause of the haunting begins developing at the very beginning of the novel. There is a mysterious woman from the Continent (Countess Narona) who steals a perfect cipher of a young lady’s (Agnes Lockwood) betrothed (Lord Montbarry) for his money. When the two women meet, Agnes is perfectly gentle and perfectly courteous and perfectly limp; the Countess, however, is terrified by Agnes, seeing in her innocent face the pale yet rosy-cheeked embodiment of her own conscience and its attending angel of vengeance.
Rather an awkward metaphor, what? Collins didn’t write that, but he may as well have. Anyway, the Countess marries the Lord, they go on their loving honeymoon, and within a year, the Lord is dead and the Countess has a whole pile of insurance money. There’s a missing courier and a mysterious letter containing £1,000, and no one is very comfortable–except for the dead Lord’s siblings, who think it is in no way morbid or in bad taste to invest in the Venetian palace where their brother died to help turn it into a mad money-making hotel venture.
The widowed countess predicts early in this sensational mess that she and Agnes will meet again and, of course, they do–because the Countess and/or her destiny simply can’t resist, as she earnestly insists to Agnes:
‘Have you ever heard of such a thing as the fascination of terror? I am drawn to you by a fascination of terror. I have no right to visit you, I have no wish to visit you: you are my enemy. For the first time in my life, against my own will, I submit to my enemy. See! I am waiting because you told me to wait–and the fear of you (I swear it!) creeps through me while I stand here. Oh, don’t let me excite your curiosity or your pity! Follow the example of Mr. Westwick. Be hard and brutal and unforgiving, like him. Grant me my release. Tell me to go.’
The frank and simple nature of Agnes could discover but one intelligible meaning in this strange outbreak.
‘You are mistaken in thinking me your enemy,’ she said. ‘The wrong you did me when you gave your hand to Lord Montbarry was not intentionally done. I forgave you my sufferings in his lifetime. I forgive you even more freely now that he has gone.’
Henry heard her with mingled emotions of admiration and distress. ‘Say no more!’ he exclaimed. ‘You are too good to her; she is not worthy of it.’
The interruption passed unheeded by Lady Montbarry. The simple words in which Agnes had replied seemed to have absorbed the whole attention of this strangely-changeable woman. As she listened, her face settled slowly into an expression of hard and tearless sorrow. There was a marked change in her voice when she spoke next. It expressed that last worst resignation which has done with hope.
‘You good innocent creature,’ she said, ‘what does your amiable forgiveness matter? What are your poor little wrongs, in the reckoning for greater wrongs which is demanded of me? I am not trying to frighten you, I am only miserable about myself. Do you know what it is to have a firm presentiment of calamity that is coming to you–and yet to hope that your own positive conviction will not prove true? When I first met you, before my marriage, and first felt your influence over me, I had that hope. It was a starveling sort of hope that lived a lingering life in me until to-day.’
The fascination of terror: Collins was really on to something there! But there’s a catch: as I discovered a few years ago, when I read Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), while the fascination of terror may in itself be a timeless phenomenon, what is actually terrifying is specific to the cultural milieu that imagines it. Terror changes form and has an extremely short expiration date. Walpole’s novel is damned silly. Collins’s book isn’t old enough to be quite as silly, but it is old enough to be, well, old. Murdering for money, underground vaults, hauntings by ghosts polite enough to reveal themselves but not to touch people–no one’s going to find this scary in a novel that doesn’t for one moment pretend to be anything other than an obvious fiction.
And Collins’s fiction is really obviously fictional. Sometimes he’s even playfully meta-fictional in The Haunted Hotel, as when the guilty Countess writes a “fictional” stage play outlining the true facts of Lord Montbarry’s final days on earth. Okay, sure: her conscience, driven on by Agnes’s implacable English purity, can’t help but express itself in a ghost drama (to be purchased and staged by the dead Lord’s brother). (I reserve judgment on whether or not this is an unendurably awkward device.)
But sometimes the fictional nature of this book is so obvious and forced and stilted that you can hear the plot gnashing its teeth in pure rage and shame. Example: just about halfway through, Collins introduces two characters, Arthur Barville and Miss Haldane, who serve no other purpose than to get all the Montberries and Agnes Lockwood to Venice and that haunted hotel. If I thought Agnes was a cipher (and she is), then these two are mere shadows of empty plot devices. Behold the awkwardness that signals the birth of their plot-required love affair:
‘Miss Haldane is the most charming girl in all Ireland!’ he said. ‘I caught sight of her yesterday, over the wall of her garden, as I was riding by. What time is she coming to-morrow? Before two? I’ll look into the drawing-room by accident–I am dying to be introduced to her!’
Agnes was amused by his enthusiasm. ‘Are you in love with Miss Haldane already?’ she asked.
Arthur answered gravely, ‘It’s no joking matter. I have been all day at the garden wall, waiting to see her again! It depends on Miss Haldane to make me the happiest or the wretchedest man living.’
‘You foolish boy! How can you talk such nonsense?’
He was talking nonsense undoubtedly. But, if Agnes had only known it,he was doing something more than that. He was innocently leading her another stage nearer on the way to Venice.
The young Haldanes arrive at the damned hotel in Venice after everyone else does, but they’re so unimportant that Collins doesn’t even allow us–or any of the main characters–to see them. It is simply reported that they have arrived and are looking around. Having served their function, they will be allowed no encores.
I can’t help but commiserate with Collins’s poor, misused plot–what chance did it have? It’s not the plot’s fault. Everything that’s wrong with this book is the fault of its misguided sire, Wilkie Collins. He clearly decided to sacrifice everything to the “fascination of terror”–there are long passages describing the ghost’s various attempts to communicate with the most important characters–but it doesn’t work, and not only because terror just doesn’t translate well into the future.
The bigger, much bigger, problem is that Collins has spent no time whatsoever on character development, and so how any of them feel about being haunted by bad dreams, bad smells, a loss of appetite and an inability to sleep, fails to arouse any interest whatsoever. I’ve said Agnes, the novel’s thwarted domestic angel, is a cipher; dammit, they’re all ciphers.
They are all, poor things, paper dolls stuck in a half-arsed plot. Wilkie, I’m sorry to say that the only sensation your novel stirred in me was mildly irritated boredom.