As I've been wading through my mountain of Victorian Sensation Fiction, in particular Wilkie Collins, I've found myself to be more than a little disturbed and distracted. It's not like reading a conventional modern horror book whereby shocks and disturbance are part and parcel of the experience. It all works on a more discreet level and after years of soundish sleep after reading novels I suddenly find myself scanning the room for unfamiliar shadows and listening out for noises.
So how does Collins, a writer who died 120 years ago, manage to disturb a modern reader? I think it lies in his characterisation.
The events of his novels can be considered quite predictable I suppose. A reader today, well-versed with narrative techniques and willing to pay attention to Collins' exceptional grasp of foreshadowing, would have little trouble deciphering most of his plots. It is the startling personalities he brings to life on the page that really demonstrate his genius.
The most obvious, of course, is Anne Catherick, the woman in white herself. From the first depiction of her in the dead of night she is a mysterious and alarming figure. The Woman in White is full of them. The devious Count Fosco is a brilliant villain who plots and schemes whilst also acknowledging admiration for the manly Marian Halcombe. In fact, it feels to me that the least-rounded and interesting of all the characters in the novel are Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie, the couple whose happiness the novel is essentially centred around. It's no secret that antagonists are more interesting characters to write but Collins seemed to take in delight in writing not only his antagonists but his helpers and secondary characters alike.
The Law and the Lady is one of his lesser-known novels. It revolves around a newlywed, Valeria, discovering her husband stood trial for poisoning his first wife and wasn't entirely exonerated. Her resolve to prove his innocence leads her on quest which brings her into contact with two extraordinary characters - Miserrimus Dexter and his cousin/slave, Ariel.
Dexter is an attractive but severely deformed man. From birth he has had no lower limbs, a condition that has resulted in an eccentricity which becomes gradually more pronounced throughout the novel. At Valeria's first meeting with him she finds him gliding along in his chair, taking on the parts of Napoleon and Shakespeare in succession. He becomes, by degrees, the most disturbing of creatures and one of the most memorable characters Collins ever created. The image of him hopping down a corridor on his hands to make up for his lack of legs is one which will stay with me for a while. His servant, Ariel, is categorised mainly by her devotion to this strange man. She becomes jealous of Valeria, wanting to be the only one to brush his beard, and she insists on smelling her hands before she leaves to check for the smell of him. All in all, this pair are both fascinating and concerning.
Finally, I'd like to return to The Haunted Hotel, a short novel by Collins I reviewed a few weeks ago. Agnes Lockwood, the heroine, isn't as transparent a character as, say, Laura Fairlie, but, again, she seems pale in comparison to the anatagonist, Countess Narona. Although the reader cares about Agnes they are certainly more interested in the unfolding mysteries and the characters which surround them.
I'd say that Collins' strength lies in a perfect melding of character and plot. The character of Miserrimus Dexter would not be half as fascinating if he wasn't so closely entwined with the mystery of the novel, for instance. He could be brought in as a humorous character elsewhere but his power lies in his ability to disturb the reader. Equally, Count Fosco had to play an integral part in the mystery of the woman in white whom Walter Hartright encountered - less would've felt like a waste of the extraordinary character.
So what can we learn from Collins? Take your character from your plot and your plot from your character. Unless you're writing a very formulaic story where your plot is by far the most important aspect why not try and meld the two together? If Wilkie Collins managed to create characters which still distract a twenty-first century girl from her sleep then it has to be worth a try.