Tag Archives: Wilkie Collins

The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories

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.

It’s been a few days

Hasn’t it? 

Christmas Day was foggy, windy and icy. Boxing Day was sunny, calm and icy. The day after Boxing Day was cloudy, windy and icy. Rob said that there was even some snow, which didn’t surprise me because when I’d been off DVD shopping I kept expecting to see flakes of snow flutter across my path. There wasn’t much snow, though. I think I saw the aftermath of some, but by that stage it was no longer recognisable as snowman DNA. 

On Christmas Day, I had a chat to my parents on Skype and then went round to Yvette’s for lunch. The food was excellent and we had a good time. After that, I felt no inclination to have tea. 

We went to Ronnie’s for our staff meeting two nights ago. Ronnie’s is an Australian restaurant out near 南禅寺 (Nánchán Sì). (Ironically [I think], Yvette’s also Australian, but she teaches maths. Hmmm. Perhaps “coincidentally” might be the more relevant adverb.) The food was good and included fish and chips, and pies, although the prices were a little steep. I won’t object if we go back some time, but I won’t be going there without good reason. Not easy to find either. I ended up getting a taxi with Caleb, Bruce and Angela by chance. The driver delivered us to the allegedly correct address, but we were outside a Home Inn. The restaurant wasn’t that far away, but because the building had apparently been renumbered (although how the driver knew that 58 was actually 29 I don’t know [the numbers had been halved?]; and just to be ironic [yes, actual irony this time], a shop about two doors down was numbered 80), we didn’t know which way to go until someone led us there. Ronnie’s was, in fact, further along the street, but back from the road. 

Yesterday afternoon was the New Year’s concert for the whole school. Obviously the act I was involved in was not included in the programme, and what I stayed to see (I generously gave an hour to something I saw eight years ago) was much more polished than our rather sorry excuse for a performance. Nick and Peter appeared in some performance by the PAL 1 class, but their presence made little sense. There was a Michael Jackson tribute routine because he is to China today what the Carpenters were when I first arrived here. Mind you, kids here still think rap is current. Is it? 

Meanwhile, the New Year’s honours list is out and I see that Peter Jackson has been knighted; so, too, Patrick Stewart. If I was an old person (well, really old), I’d be all overexcited about Status Quo getting gongs. Jenson Button was awarded an MBE and Anthea Bell, who’s one of the translators of Asterix, got an OBE. 

And the awards strike quite close to home because my uncle was awarded a Queen’s Service Order for services to horticulture. Who knows? One day I might get a gong for services to education. Now I really am being ironic. 

After Nick (that is, my sister’s husband and not the physics teacher) got me Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategy for Christmas, it was apparent I needed the other books in the series, most of which arrived today. These were Play Winning Chess, Winning Chess Tactics, and Winning Chess Openings. I’m waiting for a fourth volume to arrive. Anyway, this lot will shut me up for some time to come. 

I’ve been reading short horror stories by Wilkie Collins (yeah, it’s still the Wilkie Collins season) and I’ve been formatting and editing (slightly) the text of the letters of Mary Wortley Montague which she wrote as she travelled across Europe to Istanbul as the wife of the English ambassador to Turkey. Interesting letters to read (you can actually get a 1794 edition from Google Books) and Lady M seems to have been a decent sort of person quite ready to correct the misconceptions the rest of Europe had about the Turks. On the other hand, she does seem to have met all the hottest babes in Turkey and practically no other species of woman on her travels. 

Outside the school, fencing was being erected to block off access to the pavement, which means that there will be pedestrians wandering down the cycle lane, blindly oblivious to cyclists and electric bike riders who will, in turn, be blindly oblivious to the pedestrians. The buildings on the street along the north side of the school have been being demolished and there’s now a concrete block wall up along that street. We’ll be moving our kit to the other building at the end of the term. Thus construction season continues in Wuxi.

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins.

Having read The Moonstone earlier this year, I thought I’d read Collins’ other well-known novel, The Woman in White.

Walter Hartright has an encounter with a mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum, and being a jolly decent sort of chap, he helps her evade her captors. We learn that her name is Anne Catherick.

With a recommendation from his friend, Professor Pesca, an Italian émigré, Walter lands a job as a drawing master at Limmeridge House where he teaches babelicious Laura Fairlie and the ugly Marian Halcombe under the roof of Laura’s uncle, the über-hypochondriac Mr Fairlie. Walter falls in love with Laura, but their love is thwarted when it’s revealed that she’s been betrothed to the perfectly nice Sir Percival Glyde. Having looked up the number for the French Foreign Legion in the phone book (not available until 1873), Walter goes to Central America instead.

Nothing can be done to prevent Laura’s impending marriage to Sir Percival (who’s twice her age), but she manages to ensure that Marian will be her companion when she gets to Sir Percival’s seat, Blackwater Park, after a honeymoon on the Continent. When they do return, it’s with his full-figured friend, Count Fosco, and his venomous wife, who’s also Laura’s aunt. Sir Percival, who was such a delightful chap when he was trying to win Laura’s hand, turns out to be a villain of the first order and up to something which Marian does her best to thwart, but is ultimately unable to prevent. It becomes clear that Sir Percival married Laura for her inheritance and, thanks to her resemblance to Anne Catherick, a little sleight of hand allows him to get his hands on the money.

Walter returns to England to find that Laura has apparently died, only to find that she’s alive (Anne Catherick having died instead) and has been spirited by the resourceful Marian away from the asylum where she’d been kept. The three now live together in secrecy and Walter does what he can to find evidence that’ll prove Laura is, in fact, Lady Glyde. He has to contend both with Sir Percival and with Count Fosco, and eventually learns that the former’s secret is that he has no claim on his baronetcy. Sir Percival (or, as I suppose I should now call him, Percival) manages to die in a fire at the church in Old Welmingham when he tries to recover the evidence of the fraud he perpetrated. The identity of Anne’s father is also revealed – not Percival, as Walter believed, but Laura’s father who was a beau in his day.

That just leaves Count Fosco who holds the one piece of evidence which will prove that Laura (now Walter’s wife) really is who she claims to be. It is with the help of Professor Pesca that he gains sufficient hold over the Count to have him reveal that last vital piece of evidence. Laura is acknowledged by her uncle and the law to be herself. Count Fosco is murdered by the Brotherhood (shady foreign types), and Laura’s uncle dies of a fit o’ th’ vapours, which leaves her and Walter’s son the heir of Limmeridge.

The story is told in similar fashion to The Moonstone as different characters make some contribution to the narrative. As for the pace of the narrative, I felt there was a slough in the Blackwater Park section until nearer the end when Marian eavesdrops on Sir Percival and Count Fosco, but after that things pick up. Collins could’ve been writing for a movie with all the revelations coming in rapid succession at the end along with Sir Percival’s unexpected death in Old Welmingham.

The most interesting characters are Marian Halcombe and Count Fosco. Marian attracts the Count’s admiration for her actions, and she acts boldly to protect Laura. Her biggest problem is Collins himself who undermines her by reminding the audience that she’s a weak and feeble woman when, in fact, she’s demonstrating the opposite. Count Fosco is interesting because he seems wholly reasonable and somewhat eccentric when he is, nonetheless, utterly villainous. His background is also uncertain, and it’s not until Pesca reveals more that we learn the Count is a spy and a member of the Brotherhood. His weakness is Marian Halcombe, and his end is as mysterious as almost everything else about him.

Sir Percival, on the other hand, seems to be little more than a stock villain (BA Moustache Twirling, Oxon.). Walter Hartright, who is absent from a large part of the story, is one-dimensional as the stout British chap defending the honour and safety of his beloved, the anaemic Laura. An hon. mention should go to Mr Fairlie, especially in the section which he narrates and in which he hilariously reveals just how completely oblivious he is to his own failings. He has the decency (or should that be “predictability”?) to die of apoplexy. Madam Fosco, whose character is revealed earlier in the book and indirectly, is a nasty piece of work; and Mrs Catherick, Anne’s mother, is also venomous, vindictive and condescending.

As I said, once Collins really got going with The Woman in White, it moves along at a reasonable pace. On the other hand, I thought it was rather Victorian where I could do with something from the 21st century.[1]

But looking at my bookshelf what do I find but The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories by, er, Wilkie Collins. I’m afraid my return to the 21st century is going to be delayed.


  1. As an aside of a sort, I’ve been wondering whether the peculiar thing which the Chinese believe is formal English (the odd creature that’s to be found in Senior English for Schools or the College Entrance Exam) is actually based on 19th century English and, perhaps, elements of American English which from a British perspective would be regarded as old-fashioned. In my English, the verb recommend can take a finite clause as a dO, but not (I’m reasonably sure of myself) an infinitive, which is something I’ve been correcting (erroneously it seems) in my little darlings’ English. Thus “I recommend that you (should) read The Woman in White”, but not “I recommend you to read The Woman in White” (which, if not ungrammatical, sounds dated) But I found Collins using recommend with an infinitive construction, which then got me thinking about this because school Chinglish often makes me think of the 19th century and its often stilted prose style.