I don’t usually read horror fiction (if I want horror, I can read the newspapers), but I recently borrowed a huge pile of books, plucked pretty much at random off the shelves of my library because it was about to close down for SIX WEEKS1, and two of these books turned out to be Tales of Terror.
The first is probably more speculative fiction than straight horror. Slade House by David Mitchell was an engrossing, if fairly silly, novel about a mysterious house in London. Once every nine years, a carefully selected person is lured to this house and provided with all he or she has ever desired – until these ‘guests’ realise they can never leave. It is probably not giving away too much to reveal that the story involves vampires, although not the sort who wear black capes and drink blood. The first ‘guest’ we meet is a sweet, awkward teenager who arrives at the house in 1979 and his fate is heartbreaking. He’s followed nine years later by a policeman investigating the boy’s disappearance, then some university students who belong to a paranormal society, then a grief-stricken relative of one of the university students, and finally, a psychiatrist researching patients who claim to have had paranormal experiences. Each of the ‘guests’ is beautifully portrayed and their emotional experiences felt very real. It was heartening to see them begin to fight back and the conclusion to the story was very satisfying. However, if the author was trying to create a deepening sense of dread, he probably shouldn’t have had the villains explain their fiendish plot in great detail to their supposedly helpless victims. The plot becomes more and more ludicrous with each passing chapter until even one of the characters says, “This is all sounding a bit Da Vinci Code to me.” Apparently Slade House also contains a lot of references to previous David Mitchell novels, particularly The Bone Clocks. I didn’t pick up on any of this as I’d only read Black Swan Green, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story at all. Recommended for those who want a fast, engrossing read that’s mysterious but not too spooky.
I also read a more traditional horror tale, The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. This 1889 novel is what Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey would approvingly call “an amazing horrid book”. The summary on the back of the Penguin Classics paperback that I read says it all:
“A sinister Countess is driven mad by a dark secret. An innocent woman is made the instrument of retribution. A murdered man’s fury reaches beyond the grave.”
No wait, there’s even more! There’s a decaying Venetian palace with a hidden chamber, an evil foreigner obsessed with discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, a play written to reveal the Countess’s “dark secret”, a floating disembodied head … Go on, you know you want to read this. It’s great. Maybe not quite as horrid as The Mysteries of Udolpho, but it’s a very quick and entertaining read. I hadn’t read any Wilkie Collins before, and now I’m interested in trying The Woman in White.
- Of course, I devoured half of my pile of library books in the first week. Fortunately, the library staff have set up a little pop-up library in my neighbouring suburb. ↩