After Dark

After Dark - Wilkie Collins

I read the edition provided free from Kindle under the anthology title "Greatest Mystery Collection". This is a collection of six short stories and novellas, of varying length and quality, all of which had previously appeared in periodical form except for "The Lady of Glenworth Grange". The stories are embedded in a fairly extended apparatus, consisting of formal introductions to each story, including character sketches of the supposed narrators, by a fictitious portrait artist taking a rest for his ill eyes, and diary entries from the artist's wife, giving the human touch and telling the story of her husband's illness and her own inspiration that he could sell said stories to make ends meet.

Collins is a decent writer and he gets away with this hodge-podge quite convincingly. Here's a quick rundown of the embedded stories.

(1) A Terribly Strange Bed. A short but nice piece of gruesome urban Gothic, tapping into a fear that would have occurred far oftener to Collins' readers: being suffocated by a four-poster bed! (In a gambling den, of course!)

(2) A Stolen Letter. This is a forgettable story, told in a rather arch tone by a lawyer who clearly aspires to be a detective, about his adventures finding a blackmailing letter under a carpet, using an obscure clue about the carpet pattern.

(3) Sister Rose. This is a French Revolution novella - long and fairly gripping - centred around a brother and a sister who makes a bad marriage to a man who rises to some power within the first years of the Terror. The husband ends up denouncing (deliberately) the brother and (accidentally) the sister, but there is a character, not a conventionally attractive one, who gets them out of their situation and becomes a close friend. I was going to say there were definite influences of Tale of Two Cities here, both in the milieu and in the characterization, but I see that this novella predates Dickens' novel by several years. Given that the novella first appeared in a Dickens periodical, I don't think you could deny there was likely some cross-fertilization going on. For this story more than some of the others, by the way, the connection to the embedding narrative is tenuous in the extreme.

(4) The Lady of Glenwith Grange. A solitary woman in a large house - therefore odd by definition - proves to have a traumatic past, having lost her purpose in life, which was looking after her spoiled younger sister Rosamond. Rosamond married an impostor aristocrat, and then died giving birth to his brain-damaged daughter. She is, however, civil and sociable to her occasional visitors, and benevolent in her works, and therefore not quite in the league of solitary damaged women in big houses like Miss Havisham or Rochester's mad wife.

(5) The Nun's Story of Gabriel's Marriage. Set in France, this is again rather Gothic. Gabriel, the middle generation in a fishing family, finds out that his father Francois once attempted murder of a young visitor, and dumped his body in a local smuggling cache. What neither Gabriel nor Francois knows is that young man survived, became a notable priest, and returned to make his peace with Francois. He tells his story to first to Gabriel, whose conscience is plaguing him about going ahead with his marriage to Perrine, while being the son of a murderer. The priest's virtue (and he eventually wins Francois over to confession and repentance, off stage) therefore solves Gabriel's problem as well as the one of a generation before. The Gothic aspect is in the tone, the violent storms which herald major events, and superstitions driving people's actions.

(6) The Yellow Mask. This is another story that is long enough to deserve the description of novella. It is set (mostly) in good society in France, and again told in a rather arch tone. A sculptor has three sitters: his daughter, who is attractive; Brigida, a mercenary millliner who is none too scrupulous; and Nannina, a young and good girl, beloved of the young aristocrat at whom they all set their caps. The sculptor has a priest for a brother, and the priest schemes to manage the marriage by arranging for his brother's daughter to marry the aristocrat and getting the young Nannina out of the way. His motive is to gain (or, in his mind, regain) money that he believes the aristocrat owes to the Church. However, his influence wanes when the sculptor's daughter dies young. At this point, the priest, who is also a sculptor on the side, creates an elaborate plot to play on the young man's superstitions and prevent his remarriage for love to Nannina. Hence the yellow mask, worn by Brigida, but created by the priest by taking a cast from the statue of the daughter. The climax of the plot, with the young man being chased from room to room in a big society masked ball by a woman he believes to be the ghost of his dead wife, is delightfully silly. I felt Collins extended the explanations and denouement of this one rather too long; perhaps he had a word count to meet!

Good fun, and I look forward to attacking more of the lesser-known Wilkie Collins in this collection.