The Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins was one of the great storytellers, excelling in presenting narratives that both disturbed and engrossed his readers. He is of course best known for the masterpieces The Woman in White and The Moonstone, which between them created the genres of the Victorian sensation novel and modern detective fiction. Less well known is the impressive corpus of supernatural fiction that Collins was responsible for – stories of ghosts, corpses that move, family curses, and perhaps the most unusual of all, the Devil’s spectacles, which bring the wearer a clarity of vision that can lead to madness. In many ways the man behind these strange tales was even more interesting, for Wilkie Collins was no ordinary writer.
Although Collins was a member of the respected literati of the Victorian era, a contemporary and close friend of Charles Dickens, his own personal and social life was somewhat more bohemian and daring. He lived in sin with the woman he loved rather than marrying her – despite fathering several children by her – a move which shocked society at the time. He was a visionary as well as a writer – it was Collins who predicted the deterrence concept of mutually assured destruction that defined the Cold War nuclear era. Later in life Collins suffered from a form of arthritis known as ‘rheumatic gout’ and became severely addicted to the opium he took (in the form of laudanum) to relieve the pain. As a result, he experienced paranoid delusions, including a conviction that he was constantly accompanied by a subjective doppelgänger he dubbed ‘Ghost Wilkie’.
Perhaps it was Wilkie Collins’ own ‘Ghost’ that made him so intrigued by the paranormal. In this he was not alone, for the Victorians were known for their fascination with the afterlife. It was during the latter part of the nineteenth century that the clairvoyant, the spiritualist and others who claimed they could commune with the dead first rose to prominence. Seances became fashionable and the eager, gullible public flocked to these meetings to receive messages from beyond the grave. Collins was only one among many of the great writers of the age to be swept along in this trend and to explore in his writing the idea of the dead interfering for good or ill in the affairs of the living. He contributed several classic ghost stories to the growing body of Victorian supernatural fiction, which have perhaps been understandably overshadowed by his two great masterworks, but which deserve attention nevertheless. These include The Dream Woman, The Dead Hand, A Terribly Strange Bed, Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman and the superbly written Mrs Zant and the Ghost (click to read!).
Perhaps the greatest contribution Collins made to the horror genre, however, was his final novel The Haunted Hotel, which effectively combined his talents and interests since it was a clever synthesis of detective drama and ghost story. Set in Venice, a city of grim waterways, dark shadows and death, the main action of the novel takes place in an ancient palazzo converted into a modern hotel that houses a grisly secret. What distinguishes this powerful tale is the relentless pace, tight narrative and doomed heroine, as well as the supernatural horror. Collins’ final novel never received the same acclaim as his earlier works and has generally been regarded as being not quite up to the same exceptional standard. In my view this is a somewhat short-sighted appraisal, perhaps coloured by the supernatural theme that has tended to alienate many mainstream critics. I am sure, if you seek out The Haunted Hotel, that you will be as impressed as I was by Collins’ enduring power to entertain and disturb in equal measure, which perhaps bears the hallmarks of personal experience!