Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Haunted Hotel (in Venice)

One assumes that Kenneth Branagh moved the setting of his new Agatha Christie adaptation from England to Venice for the city's atmospheric potential. With its canals and alleyways and beauty, it has served that function well numerous times. There's the great Don't Look Now (both the story and film) and right there with it for suspense and creepiness is Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, adapted so well into a film by Paul Schrader. The Aldo Lado film  Who Saw Her Die, from 1972, starring George Lazenby, is a distinctive and effective giallo set in Venice, and, of course, you've got the entire Donna Leon Commisssario Brunetti series that uses the city as its central locale. The list could go on, and that's just limiting ourselves to crime or horror-oriented works, though I can't talk about Venice stories without mentioning Death in Venice and Henry James' great The Aspern Papers, both of which, though they have nothing to do with criminal activity, have lots of tension and suspense.

One book set in Venice that I read years ago and enjoyed is from Wilkie Collins and called The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice. Serialized in 1878, this is a short work -- less than 200 pages -- and a relatively minor one for Collins. It's not nearly as complex in plot or rich in character as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it's still fun. The plot involves a decaying Venetian palace that gets refurbished as a luxury hotel, characters having nightmarish visions, a floating disembodied head, and a real head discovered decomposing in the hotel. Important too is a set of false teeth one character finds and that might prove a murder has occurred. Also, the hotel of the title may or may not be haunted (I don't want to give this away). It's a slightly overwrought and melodramatic concoction done in vintage Wilkie Collins fashion, though by this point in his career, he was not up to creating books as finely calibrated as his earlier classics. Maybe his years of taking laudanum had something to do with this? Nevertheless, if you're looking for a quick and diverting "sensational" read, with plenty of twists and turns and Victorian coincidences, all set against the watery and eerie backdrop of Venice, you could do much worse than this combination of mystery and (perhaps) ghost story. It's a book to add to that section of the library devoted to books set in a city that evokes the ominous and the uncanny like none other.

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