With my deepest apologies for those who know anything about wrestling rules, my (twisted) imagination had Sheridan Le Fanu and Wilkie Collins both stepping up for a Victorian mystery competition, with a parallel reading of The Evil Guest (Le Fanu, 1851) and The Dead Secret (Collins, 1857). This was my Halloween October reading project, so my little report is now overdue!
The best title: Le Fanu. I still can’t decide really who the evil guest is: the scheming aristocrat cousin who invites himself out of the blue to the Gray Forest estate, the treacherous French governess (French are treacherous by nature, right?) or possibly evil itself that invaded the mind of the father and lord of the house? This is obviously more troubling than the “Dead secret” which actually means nothing more than a deathbed secret, that is not so difficult to guess. You could have done better, Wilkie!
The best for creepy atmosphere: Le Fanu – The few first lines already give a very Halloween-esque setting:
About sixty years ago, and somewhat more than twenty miles from the ancient town of Chester, in a southward direction, there stood a large, and, even then, an old-fashioned mansion-house. […]A certain air of neglect and decay, and an indescribable gloom and melancholy, hung over it. In darkness, it seemed darker than any other tract; when the moonlight fell upon its glades and hollows, they looked spectral and awful, with a sort of churchyard loneliness; and even when the blush of the morning kissed its broad woodlands, there was a melancholy in the salute that saddened rather than cheered the heart of the beholder.
The best for description of gory murders: ditto. Maybe Le Fanu is the grandfather of the slasher movie, who knows?
The best for heroes: Collins. The couple of newly-weds are suitably endearing (just to make you cry a little harder, the husband is blind and the generous heroin has recently lost her father in a shipwreck). The nervous lady’s maid who received the deathbed secret from the heroin’s dying mother is truly desperate and weak. The good guys in Le Fanu are just bland.
The best for evil enemies: Le Fanu. The cleverest thing about The Evil Guest is that the reader is left to guess the deepest treacheries that the bad guys have done in the past. Present characters allude to it, but nothing is for certain. Some may find it annoying, but I expected the worse! Collins’ bad guys are ridiculous and slightly pitiable, not downright evil. [Spoiler alert] In Le Fanu, bad guys get their comeuppance, but quite late and not by law. At the end of The Evil Guest, the bad governess who ran away with the master meets a terrible death during the French revolution. Here again the worst is only alluded to, to tease the reader:
But a day of reckoning was to come. A few years later France was involved in the uproar and conflagration of revolution. Noble families were scattered, beggared, decimated; and their dependants, often dragged along with them into the flaming abyss, in many instances suffered the last dire extremities of human ill. It was at this awful period that a retribution so frightful and extraordinary overtook Madame Marston, that we may hereafter venture to make it the subject of a separate narrative. Until then the reader will rest satisfied with what he already knows of her history; and meanwhile bid a long, and as it may possibly turn out, an eternal farewell to that beautiful embodiment of an evil and disastrous influence.
The best for mysteries: Actually, it depends how you like mysteries. If you want a clearly-cut rational explanation for everything, then it would be Collins. If you enjoy the titillation just for the sake of it, then Le Fanu is the best. It’s basically a locked room murder mystery, but in terms of police investigation it fails to be realistic.
The best for secondary characters: hands down for Collins. As The Dead Secret was published in weekly installments, there are quite a crowd of secondary characters with a voice and a full description, many of them comical or ridiculous [think Dickens, but less wry].
The best for location: a close call for Collins (Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall, with an abandonned wing full of mysterious rooms)
The best for time-line: Collins. Le Fanu’s notion of time is completely suspended, characters are stuck in limbo. Collins’ mystery spans over 2 generations, so there’s a good notion of how guilt (from the secret) expands over time and has implications over children as well as parents.
The best for Halloween thrill: Le Fanu. Somehow I felt the strong influence of Ann Radcliffe’s gothic mysteries, and I failed to see any influence of Le Fanu on Collins.
The best for plausibility and realism: no prize given. Both novels are completely far-fetched when you come down to the facts. Le Fanu borders to fantastic, so it may be an excuse, but Collins’ twists and turns are complete Victorian clichés, obsessing on status and relative ranks in society.
I felt that The Dead Secret was really not Collins’ best. As a matter of fact, I later read that the reception was rather cool; readers must have guessed the secret just like me! I’ll probably get back to a Collins’ novel I started before the Summer holidays: The Law and The Lady, which was a lot more intriguing.