By Wilkie Collins.
The Wilkie Collins season ends with this collection of short horror stories, although The Haunted Hotel occupies about half the book. In that, Lord Montbarry marries the Countess of Narona in preference to Agnes Lockwood. They end up in a Venetian palazzo where Montbarry becomes a recluse and dies. The Countess of Narona and her brother, Baron Rivar, go to America to start afresh. The palazzo is then converted to a hotel in which Henry Westwick (Lord Montbarry’s brother who is in love with Agnes) has shares. The family stay there, but each family member who occupies Room 13a has terrible nightmares. The Countess, her brother having died in America, reappears and contrives for Agnes to spend a night in the room. She also writes a play which reveals the truth. Mr Ferrari, who was recommended by Agnes as a servant, briefly impersonated Lord Montbarry before he died. Lord Montbarry was hidden and then murdered. The aim was to get funding for Baron Rivar’s experiments in alchemy. But the Baron was unable to dispose of Montbarry’s head, which remained in a hidden compartment in the room upstairs. The Countess drops dead once she has written her confession and Henry marries Agnes.
The Dream Woman is a story about an ostler, Isaac Scratchard, whose employer explains to a visiting doctor why the man is asleep during the day. He once dreamt of a woman who attacked him with a knife, later meets her, Rebecca Murdoch, in person, and marries her. She’s a bad lot, though, and the dream which Isaac had becomes reality.
In Mrs Zant and the Ghost, the spirit of a woman’s dead husband protects her from his brother’s machinations.
I’ve read A Terribly Strange Bed before, hence I skipped it.
Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman is the story of a man who rescues a French woman from the attentions of a drunk. Although he fancies her himself, there’s someone else and he breaks off his interest in her after his dying mother makes him promise to pursue a career in the Church. He takes a couple of pupils and after giving a sermon in London, is approached to take a third to whom he takes an instant dislike. Eventually, the clergyman discovers that his third pupil was the other man, who then asks for a leave of absence. Miss Jéromette’s ghost, bleeding, appears to the clergyman, and although it’s clear who the murderer is, there’s not enough evidence to convict him.
In The Dead Hand, Arthur Holliday goes to Doncaster during race week, but finds that he has to share the only room available with a dead man. He perseveres, but as the night passes, he becomes more and more nervous until he realises that the dead man’s hand has moved. As it turns out, the man was not dead at all, but in a deep coma.
Blow up the Brig! is a story of torment rather than the supernatural. A sailor on a ship carrying gunpowder to South American rebels gets into a quarrel with a pilot who, it turns out, is a spy. The Spanish capture the brig and murder the crew except this one man who is chained in the hold with the remaining gunpowder and a slow match which he can only watch with horror as it takes hours to burn away and will eventually ignite the gunpowder, blowing the man and vessel to pieces. It is only the timely arrival of an American ship which saves the man’s life.
I thought Nine O’Clock! was a somewhat dull story, although I may have lost interest in it. It’s set during the French Revolution just as the Reign of Terror is beginning. The Girondins have been condemned to death and are spending their final night together. None of them know what time they are to die, except Duprat who explains to Marginy, one of the Girondins who is to witness the executions, that he knows exactly when he will die – nine o’clock – because his father and brother died at the same time. Sure enough when the guillotine falls and Marginy asks what the time was, he is told that it was nine o’clock.
The final story, The Devil’s Spectacles, returns to a supernatural theme. Alfred inherits the spectacles from Septimus Notman, who during a voyage to the Arctic and an ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole, had to resort to cannibalism to survive, and was rescued by the Devil who gave him the glasses which allow him to see the truth about people, although such knowledge they bring typically has adverse consequences. Alfred’s problem is that he wants to marry Cecilia and his mother wants him to marry his cousin, Zilla. He uses the spectacles to discover the truth, although must be unable to use them to find that Cecilia loves him whereas the allegedly angelic Zilla is a gold digger. The story ends with Alfred passing the glasses on to Sir John, the man who wanted to marry Cecilia until the truth was revealed.