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!