“The Haunted Hotel” by Wilkie Collins – review

I was so excited when I came across this book; “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone” are two of my favourite novels and it seemed like the perfect read for a gloomy winter afternoon.  I am definitely not a fan of horror novels or supernatural stories and I’m quite happy to admit that I scare very easily, but this being the well-loved Wilkie Collins I was reassured there’d be nothing here I couldn’t handle.

I was right about that.  If you’re after a terrifying ghost story that will keep you awake at night then this isn’t it.  It’s really more of a mystery whose supernatural overtones don’t feature until quite late on.  We are, however, treated to a pretty sinister lead character: the enigmatic and occasionally vicious Countess Narona.  With her black eyes and “corpse-like pallor” this repulsive yet magnetic woman has caused a stir across Victorian society by her association with undesirable individuals and most recently her seduction of the aristocrat Lord Montbarry.  In spite of her widespread notoriety, when we first meet her it is in the humble surroundings of a doctor’s surgery, where she arrives in a curious state of desperation mixed with defiance, demanding to know whether the doctor would diagnose her as being purely evil, or insane.  He doesn’t give her a satisfactory answer – and so the mystery begins.  What exactly has happened to drive the Countess to this neurotic state?

The tale that unfolds is one of unexplained disappearances, mysterious letters and untimely deaths, all centred on a Venetian palace that later becomes the hotel of the title.  There’s even an obsessive scientist conducting experiments deep in the palace vaults: how much more of the Gothic could you want?  And through it all, the Countess constantly disappears then reappears, slipping in and out of the action but always with the suggestion of impending horror whenever she shows herself.  Even when the spooky goings on really get underway, I still found Countess Narona to be the novel’s most frightening creation.  What makes her so unnerving is her ability to bend others to her will, even when they realise it goes against their better judgement.  As a reader you’re inwardly screaming for everyone to get out of her path as quickly as possible, and yet all who meet her are drawn in like moths to a flame.  Is this woman evil, or is she simply deranged?  The author never tells us for sure.  By the end of the book, various different characters have arrived at their own interpretations of the unpleasant events that have taken place and we too get to decide on which side of the fence we sit.

I very much enjoyed this book; it’s an undemanding piece of Gothic fun with a dark enough edge to keep it just the right side of melodramatic.  Some of the plotting is a bit contrived, but that’s all in the name of getting everyone in the right place for the denouement.  Creepy but by no means terrifying, this is my ideal level of horror!

November is here!

It’s with a slight sense of shame that I look back on the autumn reading ambitions I wrote about on the blog a couple of months ago.  Out of what seemed at the time a pretty exciting list I’ve managed to read…..one.  The problem is that I suffer from something I can only describe as book-magpie syndrome: if something bright and shiny and exciting comes along, then my carefully constructed “to be read” list goes out the window.  That said, those bright and shiny distractions have given me a really enjoyable few weeks of reading so I can’t have too many regrets!

It’s with some trepidation, then, that I’m sharing with you today the next tranche of novels I’m hoping to get through before too long.  There may be reviews popping up on Girl, Reading sometime soon – or not, depending on how many other bright and shiny and exciting books come along between now and then…

“Katherine” by Anya Seton – now this one I can guarantee I‘ll be blogging about, as I’ve actually started it!  At the moment I’m pretty close to thinking it’s the best historical novel I’ve ever read; food for an interesting blog discussion if ever there was one.

“The Haunted Hotel” by Wilkie Collins – abysmally late with this one really, since if I’d had any foresight at all it would have made the perfect Halloween blog post!  I love Wilkie Collins but didn’t know this book existed until couple of weeks ago; looks like one to read with the lights on!

“Astray” by Emma Donoghue – this collection of short stories looks intriguing.  I’ve heard so many positive things about her other novels, “Room” in particular, so I can’t wait to get started on this.

“The Skull and the Nightingale” by Michal Irwin – I got a signed copy of this as a present last week, which I’m well and truly chuffed with.  A historical setting (hooray!) but it’s the 18th century, a period about which I know far less than some others, so it’s something a bit different to look forward to.  Awesome cover too.

I also have a little pile of Christmas books at the ready, but something tells me it’s a bit too early to start on these just yet!  Keep an eye on the blog over the next few weeks and I’ll let you know how November’s reading is shaping up…