Thursday, June 11, 2009

Book Report: The Yellow Mask

"Masterpieces of menace, mystery and terror by the world's greatest writer of romantic suspense."

"Here is the essence of gothic romance, menace and suspense by the master of the macabre -- Wilkie Collins."

Comments taken from the jacket of The Yellow Mask, these are pretty big promises for a collection of 3 short stories by the Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins, a writer who was a friend of Charles Dickens. In our day of CGI and special effects we may be too jaded to be terrified by this "chilling collection of sinister tales." In his day, however, Collins was a writer you didn't want to read alone in a big, dark, lonely house on a stormy night.

"The Yellow Mask" is a story of a sculptor, a hussy, a naive seamstress, a nobleman and a well-intentioned priest in 16th century Italy. The hussy is treacherous; the seamstress is "good and virtuous;" the sculptor is changeable and irresolute. At the quintessential masked ball a spectre of the dead wife appears. Hence, the mystery and suspense.

"Miss Bertha and the Yankee" reads as statements in a trial in the early 1800's. Opening for the defense is Miss Bertha Laroche of Nettlegrove Hall. The trial reveals the story of a pretty, rich, single woman and two handsome men -- an English captain and an American traveler. Both men love her and their schemes bring out the best and the worst of their characters.

"A Plot in Private Life" is a mystery told from the perspective of a man in service to a wealthy widow who marries a "hare-brained, headlong, penniless young gentleman of variable temper." This brief story of jealousy and infidelity involves a detective, a witchy woman from the tropics and a trek over the Scottish highlands. Does the dried blood on the nightgown point to foul play or misunderstanding?

I was introduced to Wilkie Collins in a college class on Victorian novels. He's written a number of novels, of which The Moonstone and The Woman in White are my favorites. His books are well-crafted and peopled with many interesting characters. Like all mysteries, the twists, turns and resolutions are carefully manipulated. That's why it's fiction!

I don't know if you can find this particular book of short stories. I picked it up at a used book store.