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Entries in Collins (5)


Nine O'Clock

I die at a time when the people have lost their reason; you will die on the day when they recover it.

Since earliest childhood I have heard plenty about the event that would change all events, the first wave of tyrants destroyed (to be replaced by an even greater despot, a dull subject permanently banished from these pages), the first mass uprising that would have made Spartacus proud. If my tone smacks of irreverence, it is because I have never been an admirer of revolution, bloodhot or otherwise; changes in my universe occur slowly and precisely without recourse to upheaval or war chants. But for the more callow among those of Romantic bent, the last eleven years of eighteenth-century French history represent a watershed in our view of the world and its dividends. Gone are the remorseless monarchs, the meddling clergy, the fiefdoms frozen in eternal hardscrabble stasis; in their stead have come happy, peaceful democracies whose main aim has been to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. Alas, while a narrow handful of such nations do exist, the majority are still mired in that grim morass of greed and power that has plagued every community since scribes and their cuneiform contrived a record of human drama. The French Revolution has come and gone, but we may still detect our proclivity for its success, our wish to see the rich choke on the cakes they so preferred to plainest rye. Which brings us to a quiet tale of injustice.

Our heroes are none; instead, we will have twenty-one martyrs for a cause that remains unestablished, the removal of one government unstinting in its waste for another government unstinting in its vengeance. The year and month, you see, are 1793 and June, and the time has come for something more than theoretical freedoms. The victims will be damned because "they were not, as a party, true to their own convictions"; and they will fall "before worse men, because those men were in earnest." Of course, when your solution to four out of every five problems are mayhem and murder, it becomes quite easy to be earnest about them. Much more difficult is the nuanced detection of human or national desires, which incites one of the condemned men to the magnificent pronouncement that begins this review. As the twenty-one face their last terrestrial night with the conviviality of the plague-ridden in this film, one pale soul withdraws from the commotion, a Girondist by the name of Duprat:

He was a younger man than the majority of his brethren, and was personally remarkable by his pale, handsome, melancholy face, and his reserved yet gentle manners. Throughout the evening, he had spoken but rarely; there was something of the silence and serenity of a martyr in his demeanour. That he feared death as little as any of his companions was plainly visible in his bright, steady eye; in his unchanging complexion; in his firm, calm voice, when he occasionally addressed those who happened to be near him. But he was evidently out of place at the banquet; his temperament was reflective, his disposition serious; feasts were at no time a sphere in which he was calculated to shine.

Soon Duprat finds a willing interlocutor, one of the partisans who will endure the most unfortunate punishment of witnessing his friends' demise on the mill of silence, and answers the only lingering question among the carousers: the exact time of their deaths. Duprat makes the incredible claim that he knows precisely when his time will come (he does not speak for others), and bases that prognosis on an odd family history which cannot be provided at length. It involves his widower father and a gentle youth, his younger brother Alfred, both of whom no longer walk among the living.  

Unlike Duprat, Alfred had not seen much success in school and had accordingly diminished his father's expectations. When, in his teenage years, Alfred finally exhibited an interest in a subject, his father was more than a little disappointed to learn the object of his scholarship: astrology, "the most obsolete of obsolete sciences, the old, abandoned delusion of divination by stars!" Content at least that his younger son would not be utterly idle, the father had left him to his own devices. Until one day when Duprat came upon his sibling in their father's den:

One day – my brother being then sixteen years of age – I happened to go into my father's study, during his absence, and found Alfred there, standing close to a window, which looked into the garden. I walked up to him, and observed a curious expression of vacancy and rigidity in his face, especially in his eyes. Although I knew him to be subject to what are called fits of absence, I still thought it rather extraordinary that he never moved, and never noticed me when I was close to him. I took his hand, and asked if he was unwell. His flesh felt quite cold; neither my touch nor my voice produced the smallest sensation in him. Almost at the same moment when I noticed this, I happened to be looking accidentally towards the garden. There was my father walking along one of the paths, and there, by his side, walking with him, was another Alfred! – Another, yet exactly the same as the Alfred by whose side I was standing, whose hand I still held in mine!

Bilocation not ranking among the virtues of human existence, we may wonder long and hard at this scene, disordered in mind as it may appear, and retreat to logic's dark little corner and swinging overhead bulb. Then again, we may consider the apparition of one and another Alfred as some index of calamity. That this end shall come at a certain hour should surprise us as much as it now surprises the condemned Duprat.     

Those of us who still patronize this author's works know something good when we've found it. I am no Collins completist, yet his books resemble the finest of gourmet dishes: one only needs a few bites to determine their succulence. Beneath lesser hands, the structure and inevitability of Nine O'Clock might feel contrived and unsuspenseful, although as we know from many a thriller, great tension need not lie in the outcome, but in the choices that spell a tragic character's doom. Collins has a talent that cannot be learned or inherited: the gift of atmosphere, of so empathizing with a reader's whims as to predict his turns before the reader himself has pathed them. Even if the reader may not want to know the very last page he will enjoy.


The Devil's Spectacles

If you think ... that a clergyman will come to a man who has got the Devil's Spectacles here, under his pillow, and who has only to put those Spectacles on to see through that clergyman's clothes, flesh and whatnot, and read everything that's written in his secret mind as plain as print, fetch him, Master Alfred, fetch him!

                                                                                                                         Septimus Notman

Readers of these pages know that I have a fondness – not a weakness, mind you – for the letters of Victorian England that cannot be explained away so easily. What does that glorious period offer the reader that he cannot obtain now? It stands to reason that there has been pulp cramming every bookstore as long as there have been books in that same establishment, and the worldwide literacy boom of the last hundred years has done nothing to better that situation. But something persists about that period, the twilight of the British Empire and its global achievements of culture and learning ironically coinciding with its highest opinion of itself, which unlocks endless labyrinths in the mind. It was the age of Holmes and Watson, Jekyll and Hyde, Drood, and Scrooge; it was also the heyday of this writer, whose fame while alive has obscured an appreciation of his talents. And few stories of his are more entertaining than this bizarre tale.

Our protagonist and narrator is a young and moneyed nobleman by the name of Alfred, who cannot be expected to be capable of anything beyond his class. Since he is a blooming bachelor and very eligible, his main concern is the acquisition of a wife. He announces this somewhat obvious preoccupation to us in passing because his initial interest, as our tale unfolds, is in a fellow called Septimus Notman, "a lodge-keeper at the second of our two park gates," and "the only survivor of our head gamekeeper's family of seven children" (hence, we suppose, his name). What Notman is and, well, is not, should be clear without much reflection:

Everybody disliked Septimus Notman. He was said to be mad; to be a liar, a hypocrite, a vicious wretch, and a disagreeable brute. There were some people who even reported that he had been a pirate during the time when we lost sight of him and who declared, when they were asked for their proof, that his crimes were written on his face.

When had Alfred's family lost sight of him? Oh, that was several years ago now; but his good father, for reasons that escape us at first then become more likely as our story progresses, could not turn Notman away after the latter's prolonged and wholly inexplicable absence. Now, of course, Notman straddles his deathbed – his response to Alfred's inquiry about summoning a priest begins this review – and we know that deathbeds have a certain effect on the mind besieged as life's light wanes by prior calamities and passions. Notman wishes to confess, not for the purposes of expiation, but simply to delay his inevitable descent into a fiery pit. More specifically, to confess the crime by which Notman was bestowed the mysterious article he now conceals beneath his pillow. And where did this crime take place? The same that concludes this much ballyhooed novel, when he and a "boatswain's mate" from an unsuccessful icebreaker take it upon themselves to find the North Pole even when their captain prohibits their disembarkation. Alfred is predictably intrigued, especially when informed that the confession "will take long and ... make your flesh creep" – and that quote may have given away too much as it is. In the end, Notman will die, but not before gifting those spectacles to his master, along with brief instructions on their use.   

Here I will permit myself an aside. Although folklore and the history of fictional narratives surely welcome extraneous prefaces so as to introduce an object or character that would otherwise prove difficult to integrate, the opening pages of The Devil's Spectacles outdo themselves (somehow I recur to a film that I cannot spoil, into which a serial killer is written merely to abet a minor plot point). Doubtless, the conceit of the spectacles could have been handled much more easily, viz. with Alfred's passing a pawnbroker's shop and espying them in the window, or some chance encounter with a stranger who abandons them in a train compartment (reminiscent of the uncut version of this film). If we elect to grant Collins full credit for this arrangement, then the handoff of these glasses – which apparently allow you to read people's thoughts by peering into their hearts – has greater significance than first imagined. Given the alleged origin of the appurtenance, one may reasonably expect that the thoughts which will be 'read' will not necessarily rank among that person's happiest or most flattering. Once Alfred has the glasses in his possession he returns to his mission: choosing between Cecilia, "handsome, well-born, and poor" and the "companion and reader" of Alfred's mother, and his mother's niece and his first cousin, Zilla, "the Angel of the school." Without unfurling the numerous intrigues that ensue, we may enjoy the following gems: "If her eye had not been on me at the moment, I believe that I should have taken my Spectacles out of my pocket"; "My Spectacles informed me that she deliberately declined to face that question, even in her thoughts"; "For the first week I never even got the chance of looking at her through the Devil's Spectacles." And as Alfred no longer bothers to try to ascertain a person's true intentions through normal methods – listening, observation, and what the Germans call Menschenkenntnis, and what we can only lamely render as "a knowledge of human nature" – he becomes increasingly distrustful of everyone from his mother, to his butler, to the two young women in invisible competition for a sumptuous estate. A very sumptuous estate, in fact, as he begins to realize.

Were the name of Alfred's beloved Cordelia, not Cecilia, we might be reminded more immediately of this masterpiece, also featuring a ratiocinating, affluent nobleman with an eye for pretty women. The difference between Kierkegaard's alter ego and Alfred is that the latter does not really consider the possibility that what he discerns may not be true at all, and nothing more than the projection of his own worries. Only towards the end of his narrative does he perceive the contradiction:

I made no further use of the Spectacles that morning; my purpose was to keep them in my pocket until the interview in the shrubbery was over. Shall I own the motive? It was simply fear fear of making further discoveries, and of losing the masterly self-control on which the whole success of my project depended.

We will not mention the shrubbery; suffice it to say that a critical conversation takes place literally sub rosa. But what then of the implication that one may know too much about one's fellow man to take effective action? That matter is addressed in the very last section of the story when Alfred – actually, it may not be Alfred at all who is telling us all this. At least not he of the sumptuous estate.


The Dream Woman

Anyone who bothers to remember his nightly peregrinations will assure you, even if he knows not why, that our dreams may prefigure our lives. More than occasionally we are stopped by reality's eerie coincidences, feelings of having experienced a particular moment at least once before, and odd bends and breaks in logic that seem reasonable to us because reason knows no greater bugbear than the megrims of the sleeping human mind. I often begin to write down pieces of my other existence, but my thoughts are betrayed by captions of waking notions. These are two separate lives, and when they begin to merge we may get something akin to the events of this story.

Our protagonist is Isaac Scatchard, a plain man of middling education and no luck in any field. Events have conspired time and again to relegate him to menial work that never pans out into a more permanent station, and while he is diligent and true, he always seems to be too late for the job. As might be expected of a man nearing the middle of life's generosity, he resides with his mother who makes a point of celebrating her son's birthday as if he were still a child. This whole setup is intended neither as farce nor an opportunity for psychobabble and mindless theories about the familial structure. Its distinct purpose is not to paint the picture of a soul howling in the caverns of the night to a God who has forsaken him, but of an average man who has little recourse but to accept his lot. Two days before his birthday, Isaac sets out on a day's journey for another possible job at a stable. Even before he takes a step in that direction, we know two things: the job will be gone when he arrives and his return home will be complicated by an obstacle, if true tragedy is meant, then a self-imposed one. Sure enough, after yet another disappointment in what is turning into a hideous pattern, Isaac makes inquiries and learns that "he might save a few miles on his return by following a new road." All good works of horror append a scene in which the character is allowed the option of retreat or of following sage and time-tested advice, advice he will invariably reject out of hubris or personal convenience, thus making him deserving of his gruesome fate. That Isaac seeks out an alternative to his long hike simply because he wishes to be home in time for his birthday meal can only bode poorly.

As it turns out, poorly would have been far more pleasant. Losing his way on this new road – the symbolism is blunt but appropriate – Isaac is obliged to spend the night as the solitary guest at a family inn. Usually an early sleeper, he stays up well past his normal hour; and when he retires to the humble guest room he notices "with surprise the strength of the bolts and bars, and iron-sheathed shutters." Why would any simple innkeeper have such an outlay in home protection? An explanation is given that cannot be true, but which suggests that our Isaac has, by his own will naturally, stepped into a realm of which he should want no part. What happens to him that night will not be revealed here; suffice it to say the sequence remains one of the most terrifying you will ever encounter in a text of this caliber. Isaac beats a hasty path homeward from these premises and soon enjoys what must be considered for him exceptionally good luck. This little streak lasts, we are told, seven years, and consists of steady work for one master and a "comfortable annuity bequeathed to him as a reward for saving his mistress's life in a carriage accident." If all this strikes you as more than a little curious, you will not be greatly astounded by what ensues shortly before another of Isaac's birthdays: 

Mrs. Scatchard discovered that a bottle of tonic medicine which she was accustomed to take, and in which she had fancied that a dose or more was still left, happened to be empty. Isaac immediately volunteered to go to the chemist's and get it filled again. It was as rainy and bleak an autumn night as on the memorable past occasion when he lost his way and slept at the road-side inn. On going into the chemist's shop he was passed hurriedly by a poorly-dressed woman coming out of it. The glimpse he had of her face struck him, and he looked back after her as she descended the doorsteps. "You're noticing that woman?" said the chemist's apprentice behind the counter. "It's my opinion there's something wrong with her. She's been asking for laudanum to put to a bad tooth. Master's out for half an hour, and I told her I wasn't allowed to sell poison to strangers in his absence. She laughed in a queer way, and said she would come back in half an hour. If she expects master to serve her, I think she'll be disappointed. It's a case of suicide, sir, if ever there was one yet."

This fantastic passage precipitates yet another choice, namely to accost a woman who seems to have been on the verge of committing that most cardinal of Catholic sins. Although our poor Isaac has finally gained in luck and finances after almost four decades of hardscrabble denigration, he has yet to learn much about the fairer sex for his own purposes. That may account for, we suppose, his gallantry towards a wounded soul. And yet in an interview the woman reveals nothing that would require his intervention:

He asked if she was in any distress. She pointed to her torn shawl, her scanty dress, her crushed, dirty bonnet; then moved under a lamp so as to let the light fall on her stern, pale, but still most beautiful face. "I look like a comfortable, happy woman, don't I?" she said, with a bitter laugh. She spoke with a purity of intonation which Isaac had never heard before from other than ladies' lips. Her slightest actions seemed to have the easy, negligent grace of a thorough-bred woman. Her skin, for all its poverty-stricken paleness, was as delicate as if her life had been passed in the enjoyment of every social comfort that wealth can purchase. Even her small, finely-shaped hands, gloveless as they were, had not lost their whiteness.

Has Isaac found beauty pure and unblemished or something much more malevolent? Is it telling that the young woman, whose name is Rebecca Murdoch, asks Isaac to a meadow for their first private meeting? And what then of the editorial insert about "a man previously insensible to the influence of women" – and it is best to end our interrogation right here.

While the profundity of Collins's contributions to English literature could be questioned, his style and ability to enthrall are glorious. I fear that only his two most famous novels are read with any regularity, as much a testament to our unlearnedness as to the fleeting caress of literary enamourment. This much-adapted work concludes disappointingly because the evildoers are revealed somewhat too early along, and the value of this magnificent novel lies more in its innovation than its perspicacity. Nevertheless, the reading of even one of them should assure the student of literature that he is dealing with a heavyweight. What is particularly superb about The Dream Woman is how neither of the main characters' actions require any explanation or motive. Skeptics may claim that short stories necessarily predicate a single decision, gesture, or even a word, because there is little time for anything else. But in the hands of first-rate writers even short stories may make their ensembles live. And why then did our dream woman not bother to complete her sin? There is only one plausible reason, but I will leave that discovery to the curious among us who are still not afraid of turning on the light in the wee hours just to take a look around the room. Sometimes ignorance is both bliss and salvation.


The Dead Hand

We may not recall the first ghost story we heard as children, but we will certainly remember the first time we realized a fear more complex than hunger, darkness, or separation from our parents (mine was at the age of seven or so, when I learned the word "dusk" in a story about, bizarrely, a train station and the ghost of a werewolf).  And what form this fear will assume predicates what we might have come to understand.  Do children comprehend death?  Regret and atonement?  The immortality of the human soul?  Considering that a large percentage of adults reflect little on such subjects, the answer must probably be no.  But a subtler answer would claim that children understand the everlasting soul as a natural extension of a near-endless terrestrial existence, because to a child life never seems quite complete.  Some children, however, do not have the luxury of sustained curiosity and innocence, which brings us to this famous tale.

Disliking a protagonist may detract from a story's enjoyment as much as overidentifying with him, and we cannot confess to liking Arthur Holliday.  Arthur is one of those lucky fellows who have nothing to say of any profundity because they have always floated atop the lapsing waves under the approval of the almighty sun.  They are rich, comely, and carefree, which makes them ideal for indulging in most of what our earth may offer:

Thus far, his life had been the common, trifling, prosaic surface-life of a prosperous young man, with no troubles to conquer, and no trials to face.  He had lost no relation whom he loved, no friend whom he treasured.  Till this night, what share he had of the immortal inheritance that is divided amongst us all, had lain dormant with him.  Till this night, Death and he had not once met, even in thought.

Over time, of course, these types are confronted with decrepitude and stare back only to find that their corpses look remarkably like all the wizened blighters they have spent their lives walking quickly past, not inspecting them too closely out of guilt.  Right now, however, Holliday is more concerned with the annual horse race in Doncaster.  He arrives in this small town and finds, to no one's surprise except his, not a single available room for the night.  Yet he is far from discouraged:

To a young fellow of Arthur's temperament, the novelty of being turned away into the street like a penniless vagabond, at every house where he asked for a lodging, presented itself in the light of a new and highly amusing piece of experience.  He went on with his carpet-bag in his hand, applying for a bed at every place of entertainment for travellers that he could find in Doncaster, until he wandered into the outskirts of the town. 

Holliday's spirits will soon decline.  But for the time being, he is content with his incognito gandering through a rustic province, since such experiences are usually alloyed with fictional details to make them even more appealing to his dinner party commensals (Holliday remains, by nature, a smarmy raconteur who adjusts his lies to his audience).  After losing more hope than he could reasonably be expected to nurture in his narrow breast, he comes upon a large sign in the shape of a hand and follows its index finger to an inn where one customer just so happens to be checking out in no small haste.  Why that man wishes to vacate such a precious berth on such a stormy night will not be discussed here.  Suffice it to say that Arthur overpays a conniving innkeeper for a shared room and does not bother to ask himself the question in our last sentence.  Surely, as an old French film terribly tells us, everyone has his reasons, with the implication being it is neither ours to know or to understand even if we did. 

Ghost stories have often functioned as a warning to children and young adults who may not take the consequences of their actions as seriously as they should – but these tales, with very few exceptions, now appear woefully pedantic.  As we have become more liberal in print, so have modern spooks engaged in far too much bloodletting to be considered nothing if not disgusting.  Somewhere in between these extremes lie the wonderful compositions of James, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen, and Doyle – atmospheric, elegant, and yet ghastly in their own wicked way.  Unlike subsequent horror writers, Collins did not possess a fascination with the macabre as much an incomparable eye for human frailty.  As such, the pleasure of reading him cannot be understated: his is a subtle craft made enthralling by an inborn ability to extricate intrigue from the mildest of subjects.  That he was once the most popular writer in England shows good taste occasionally even runs in whole countries.  We may think we understand the twists in his tales; but then it turns out that his twists have twists, and his tales have tails.  The secret he knows we are instinctively looking for is often mentioned very early on, almost as an aside.  Yet when we come to it at last it is revealed to have been a simple plot detail made somewhat more significant by the fact that what we thought would happen did indeed.  Ghost stories, after all, may not necessarily be explained by earthly logic.  And you may ask yourself why there can be no better name for our lonely inn than The Two Robins.


Miss Jéromette

The advent of the sexual revolution, or whatever it chooses to call itself, has brought with it the promise of equal rights in equal endeavours – a noble aim, regardless of its feasibility.  It is not so much that men and women cannot or should not be equal; in intellectual matters there is no distinction apart from what detractors will impose.  Rather, we face the age-old question of the physical equality that cannot be, simply because man will always carry an advantage of violence that cannot be reciprocated by his female counterpart.  As a result, two unbalanced sides will necessarily obtain, as in this story

The initial conceit involves two brothers sitting together one lonely night after dinner and poring over "a collection of famous Trials, published in a new edition and in a popular form."  True crime has always fascinated us because our repulsion contains some elements of attraction and curiosity, as much the case one hundred thirty-five years ago as it is today.  It is the second brother, the non-reader in this case and a clergyman, who turns pale upon beholding the book as it reminds him of a famous trial from his youth, a trial in which the accused was ultimately acquitted.  And what does the clergyman aver about this wicked time?  "I know this," he said, "the prisoner was guilty."  They speak no more about what happened, although the clergyman also indicates that there were "circumstances connected with that trial which were never communicated to the judge or the jury."  Only on his deathbed does he become more voluble and reveal what he had concealed within his heart for almost an entire adult life.    

It is many summers ago when his brother "was on [his] way to India" that the preacher, from whose perspective the tale is now recounted, has completed his studies at this university.  He chose law instead of his father's preference, which would have been for his son to join the clergy, and with this familial disappointment hanging as a black cloud over his everyday existence, he regales himself on what he can of the urban and urbane existence his choice permits ("I had no serious intention of following any special vocation.  I simply wanted an excuse for enjoying the pleasures of a London life").  One fine evening, walking through the public gardens that can only be properly enjoyed at high summer, he hears a foreign female voice warning an unseen male to take his leave.  He steps in and averts further confrontation (the perpetrator, in any case, is drunk and quickly accompanied off the grounds by a policeman), and then turns his attention to the voice and the shape from which it emanates:

Her figure was slight and small: she was a well-made miniature of a woman from head to foot.  Her hair and her eyes were both dark.  The hair curled naturally; the expression of the eyes was quiet, and rather sad; the complexion, as I then saw it, very pale; the little mouth perfectly charming.  I was especially attracted, I remembered, by the carriage of her head; it was strikingly graceful and spirited; it distinguished her, little as she was and quiet as she was, among the thousands of other women in the Gardens, as a creature apart.     

Other colors are added to her portrait: she is impoverished, "resigned to her lonely life among strangers," and without her parents for many years now.  She is French, of course, and yet, particularly in one cruel instance, "her temperament had little of the liveliness which we associate in England with the French nature."  They begin what could loosely be termed a courtship, although their relationship at every moment becomes more and more tenuous owing to the presence of another man in her life.  Our narrator asks as timid lovers tend to ask while being very afraid to know, and learns next to nothing: "He might be living, or he might be dead.  There came no word of him, or from him."  It is only when the narrator's mother, on her own deathbed, presses him to change his vocation that he quits Jéromette, abetted by the fact that she has just received a letter confirming that her love will soon return.

Unless you rank among the most ingenuous of readers what happens next cannot really be spoiled by commentary.  Our narrator, now indeed a man of the cloth, is appointed to a benefice in the West of England.  His steady income does not satisfy him, so he takes on a few students in need of help to gain entrance into the prestigious universities whose names their families covet.  The first two students are harmless teenagers, but then our narrator gives a sermon at his church about "the discovery of a terrible crime" which has held England in its thrall.  After this passionate lecture, of which, alas, we are given but a quoteless summary, the narrator receives a note written in pencil from a young man, "a member of my congregation, a gentleman," who wishes to see him as soon as the preacher has an opportunity.  The man leaves his own father's name as a reference, and it is verified as belonging to "a man of some celebrity and influence in the world of London" – the world, we remember, that our narrator wishes he had never left.   They meet and the narrator tells us all we need to know:

The women, especially, admired his beautiful light hair, his crisply-curling beard, his delicate complexion, his clear blue eyes, and his finely shaped hands and feet.  Even the inveterate reserve in his manner, and the downcast, almost sullen, look which had prejudiced me against him, aroused a common feeling of romantic enthusiasm in my servants' hall.  It was decided, on the high authority of the housekeeper herself, that 'the new gentleman' was in love and more interesting still, that he was the victim of an unhappy attachment which had driven him away from his friends and his home.

The man in question is in his late twenties and yet has never been a college student.  And how could this be?  A dissolute life of excess is the hardly contrite explanation.  But our clergyman has been trained to detect human motivations in the depths of our being, and we can say without fear of perjury that, with this fellow, he does not like what he sees. 

Without going further, it is remarkable how the narrator is presented with both sides of an equation, but at different times and from the perspective of different professions, so that the fabulous structure of an otherwise simple tale becomes more involving without becoming more intricate.  Collins is most famously the author of two other works, a superb if overly long novel of suspense and one of the great literary mysteries of the nineteenth century, both of which can be recommended without reservation.  To Collins's great credit, there is little difference in style between the passages that develop his characters and the passages that develop his plots.  The same sure, curious hand instructs all forces to act and obey his whims.  I have always told myself that my predilection for Victorian storytelling has to do with the comity of its personages, who act with full acknowledgment of the laws of both beauty and morality, even if at certain times they choose to transgress them.  There is a gallantry to our clergyman narrator, an odd adherence to basic human goodness that should not strike us as odd at all.  But in our times of cynicism and vulgarity, little space is allotted to the simple virtues that we have not only taken for granted, but cast by the wayside with no small contempt.  That is not the reason, mind you, that I have omitted the story title's second half – the reason for that was its sounding a bit too quaint for my taste.  Far more quaint, however, than the notion of falling in love with a woman whose soul is hopelessly and dangerously possessed by another.  That tale, I think, we all know far too well.