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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Book Review: The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

I'd almost made it a rule not to review any book I read related to my Ph.D because I know Victorian fiction can be... stale, shall we say, to most people. However, when I finished The Haunted Hotel last night, a relatively short work by Wilkie Collins, I was terrified. I was so disturbed that I was extremely reluctant to turn the light off, and I can honestly say that's something I haven't experienced through a book before.

The beauty of The Haunted Hotel is that it doesn't rush to explain everything. It's essentially an old-fashioned ghost story, set partially in Venice, which relies on both psychological manipulation and the depiction of truly gruesome images.

I have to say, I was unsure about the first couple of chapters which focus chiefly on one of the antagonists of the novel, Countess Narona. I honestly felt a little cheated when I discovered she was embroiled in the mystery but Collins had a reason for everything. The beginning, therefore, is a trip through the family history of Lord Montbarry, Countess Narona's fiancée, which can seem to detract from the main event but is merely delaying the deliciousness of the plot proper.

Agnes Lockwood is the heroine of the story, a woman in love with Lord Montbarry before he marries the Countess. After his death at a hotel in Venice she finds herself unable to let go of his memory and marry his brother, Henry, despite being jilted by the Lord. She takes up work as a governess and when the family go to Venice they find themselves in the very hotel in which the Lord died.

I refuse to ruin the plot but I will say this: it may not be the gory shock-shock-shock of a modern horror novel but the quiet, steady build of Collins' narrative is positively more disturbing. The ghostly images which wouldn't be so frightening on their own are coupled with grotesque discoveries that root them firmly in reality.

It's a short novel - my compact copy is 190 pages - but I'd call it a book to read if you don't like reading Victorian fiction. It feels extremely modern in parts, like CSI in the 19th century.

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