The coldest month of the year is coming to a close and I am enjoying modern day coziness.
I feel more hopeful in February. Every minute of daylight that we have been gaining since the longest day of the year on December 21 starts to make an appreciable difference in February…so I am actually excited for it.
At the end of December, following reading Ghostland, I became entranced by two more Gothic ghost stories that share a poignant setting:
The Haunted Hotel, Wilkie Collins
I anticipate that I will eventually read most, if not all, Collins works. He is a sensationalist, wrote one of the first modern detective novels, and he loves twists and turns. This may seem a lofty goal because he was prolific but I anticipate a long life and lots of public domain audiobooks. Sidebar: Librivox has upped their game. Love the app.
The Visitant, Megan Chance
This is my second book of Chance’s. I read Bone River and loved the twist at the end so I bought this and another book of hers, Inamorata. Like Collins, she is prolific. Historical mysteries featuring female protagonists who aren’t afraid to buck the establishment: yes please.
Both of these Gothic novels involve impoverished noble families falling into ruin along with their once fancy, crumbling Venice palazzos (rented or owned). Venice is cold and wet, a city of contradictions: Catholic but no stranger to a good bacchanal. I was so intrigued even looked up the why and how of a city emerging from water. Currently threatened by global warming, at risk of being swallowed by the rising sea levels to become a lost city. It is a setting with enough intrigue to be a character in its own right. Chance draws upon the details of the beautiful yet cold snow, a local dye factory polluting the water a different color on a daily basis, a combination of beauty with sadness and cold. An ideal atmosphere for a ghost story.
Apparently, if you’re a noble with a death in Venice that looks legit at first glance but really isn’t, you should consider coming back as a ghost to show the living what really happened. Avenge your death in the cold and wet ruins. Even after they remake the palazzo into a hotel years after, like in Collins’ Haunted Hotel (which incidentally is only haunted to the people who are sympathetic to the dead noble) you need to be sure that anyone who cares about you, or may have led to your untimely demise, is made aware of this fact.
Of course, the authors extend the exposition by exploring the tangled web of relationships involved. Collins’ Haunted Hotel is a more traditional Gothic novel in that there is a virtuous woman at the helm of the story, leading the story as a paragon of virtue, and of course, she ends up happy and rewarded. She pines after being dumped and only after the man dies and his death is solved does she move forward to realize her happiness. Despite my love of gothic novels, I struggle with women only being as good as their virginity in them. Women who are more cunning only win in the short term because virtue is the only great reward in the long run. Chance writes for a more modern audience, and I absolutely appreciate that. It would be incongruous for her heroines to follow their passions in other realms but be completely indifferent to/appalled by sex. And she is realistic about the fact that throughout time passion has existed independently of marriage and long term promises. The fact I constantly sweat the fact there was no reliable birth control back then is more my problem than hers.
I can see where this is not one of Collins’ more famous works, as it can be slow in places, and much of the conflict in the beginning happens with a serving woman whose husband mysteriously disappears. The more interesting characters’ actions and the hotel do not feature strongly until the second half of the novel, even though the novels begins with the sinister Countess coming to a doctor to discuss her engagement under questionable circumstances. The juicy takes some work to get there, but you get to it. And the opening makes a promise that there will be more juice later on.
Chance has a piece independently of Collins’in that her protagonist has had a career in caring for the mentally ill. Although she comes to Venice to care for a patient for redemption from a mistake, she is competent and smart and has her own mind. Caring for the mentally ill has its own sordid past and Chance adds to the darkness by talking about how her protagonist had wanted to heal these people and had her own conflicts about its efficacy. It was a nice way to give the protagonist an identity separately from a breakup/love gone awry, whereas Collins’ protagonist did have a job as a nanny that she loved, but her main torch was maintaining her virtue for a man who never deserved it.
Other Venice stories? They have to be out there. I wish I could visit before it sinks into the sea. I love old school NYC as a setting too, which this year’s read down will make obvious.