The Dead Secret

(This column was first published in the June 7, 2000 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

I read so many contemporary books that I sometimes feel that I am losing perspective on the full range of writing. For that reason I like to turn back occasionally to those who developed the genres that have become so firmly established today.

Victorian novelist and sometime co-author with Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins was one of those progenitors, in his case of the gothic novel. My dictionary defines gothic fiction as writing that focuses on "the grotesque, mysterious, and desolate." Horace Walpole's earlier novel, The Castle Of Otranto published in 1765, is usually credited with originating gothic fiction, but that story was focused on a medieval rather than a contemporary setting. Collins redefined gothic to include his own times much as these novels do today.

In any case I turned to Collins' 1857 novel, The Dead Secret, which had been recommended to me -- by whom, I no longer recall. And gothic it is. Hidden in one of the rooms of a decaying rural mansion is a letter containing a dark secret that has been kept from a young woman by her mother's servant. The twisted paths that lead the daughter and her blind husband, the servant, a wicked uncle and the secret to a final confrontation are what carry the plot.

I especially admired Collins' descriptions of minor characters. Here is one:

"Miss Sturch, the governess, may be briefly and accurately described as a young lady who had never been troubled with an idea or a sensation since the day when she was born. She was a little, plump, quiet, white skinned, smiling, neatly-dressed girl, wound up accurately to the performance of certain duties at certain times; and possessed of an inexhaustible vocabulary of commonplace talk, which dribbled placidly out of her lips whenever it was called for, always in the same quantity, and always of the same quality, at every hour in the day, and through every change in the seasons. Miss Starch never laughed, and never cried, but took the safe middle course of smiling perpetually. She smiled when she came down on a morning in January, and said it was very cold. She smiled when she came down on a morning in July, and said it was very hot. She smiled when the bishop came once a year to see the vicar; she smiled when the butcher's boy came every morning for orders. Let what might happen at the vicarage, nothing ever jerked Miss Sturch out of the one smooth groove in which she ran perpetually, always at the same pace. If she had lived in a royalist family, daring the civil wars in England, she would have rung for the cook, to order dinner, on the morning of the execution of Charles the First. If Shakespeare had come back to life again, and had called at the vicarage at six o'clock on Saturday evening, to explain to Miss Starch exactly what his views were in composing the tragedy of Hamlet, she would have smiled and said it was extremely interesting, until the striking of seven o'clock; at which time she would have left him in the middle of a sentence, to superintend the housemaid in the verification of the washing-book. A very estimable young person, Miss Sturch (as the ladies of Long Beckley were accustomed to say); so judicious with the children, and so attached to her household duties; such a well-regulated mind, and such a crisp touch on the piano; just nice looking enough, just well-dressed enough, just talkative enough; not quite old enough, perhaps, and a little too much inclined to be embraceably plump about the region of the waist -- but, on the whole, a most estimable young person -- very much so, indeed....


"'Do you approve, sir, of Amelia having a second helping of bread and marmalade?' asked Miss Sturch, appealing to Doctor Chennery, with the most perfect unconsciousness of interrupting him. Having no spare room in her mind for putting things away in until the appropriate time came for bringing them out, Miss Sturch always asked questions and made remarks the moment they occurred to her, without waiting for the beginning, middle, or end of any conversations that might be proceeding in her presence. She invariably looked the part of a listener to perfection, but she never acted it except in the case of talk that was aimed point-blank at her own ears."

And Collins can indeed build the suspense and fear in a scene without recourse to the supernatural -- one of the failings of much contemporary literature. Here is the servant trying to retrieve the letter from its initial hiding place in the Myrtle Room in order to protect it from discovery:

"Sarah listened, keeping her face still set toward the hall -- listened, and heard a faint sound behind her. Was it outside the door on which her back was turned? Or was it inside -- in the Myrtle Room.

"Inside. With the first conviction of that, all thought, all sensation left her. She forgot the suspicious numbering of the doors; she became insensible to the lapse of time, unconscious of the risk of discovery. All exercise of her other faculties was now merged in the exercise of the one faculty of listening.

"It was a still, faint, stealthily rustling sound; and it moved to and fro at intervals, to and fro softly, now at one end, now at the other of the Myrtle Boom. There were moments when it grew suddenly distinct -- other moments when it died away in gradations too light to follow. Sometimes it seemed to sweep over the floor at a bound -- sometimes it crept with slow, continuous rustlings that just wavered on the verge of absolute silence.

"Her feet still rooted to the spot on which she stood, Sarah turned her head slowly, inch by inch, toward the door of the Myrtle Room. A moment before, while she was as yet unconscious of the faint sound moving to and fro within it, she had been drawing her breath heavily and quickly. She might have been dead now, her bosom was so still, her breathing so noiseless. The same mysterious change came over her face which had altered it when the darkness began to gather in the little parlor at Truro. The same fearful look of inquiry which she had then fixed on the vacant corner of the room was in her eyes now, as they slowly turned on the door.

'Mistress!' she whispered. 'Am I too late? Are you there before me?'

"The stealthily rustling sound inside paused -- renewed itself -- died away again faintly; away at the lower end of the room.

"Her eyes still remained fixed on the Myrtle Room, strained, and opened wider and wider -- opened as if they would look through the very door itself -- opened as if they were watching for the opaque wood to turn transparent and show what was behind it.

"'Over the lonesome floor, over the lonesome floor -- how light it moves!' she whispered again. 'Mistress! does the black dress I made for you rustle no louder than that?'

"The sound stopped again -- then suddenly advanced at one stealthy sweep close to the inside of the door.

"If she could have moved at that moment; if she could have looked down to the line of open space between the bottom of the door and the flooring below, when the faintly rustling sound came nearest to her, she might have seen the insignificant cause that produced it lying self-betrayed under the door, partly outside, partly inside, in the shape of a fragment of faded red paper from the wall of the Myrtle Room. Time and damp had loosened the paper all round the apartment. Two or three yards of it had been torn off by the builder while he was examining the walls -- sometimes in large pieces, sometimes in small pieces, just as it happened to come away -- and had been thrown down by him on the bare, boarded floor, to become the sport of the wind, whenever it happened to blow through the broken panes of glass in the window. If she had only moved! If she had only looked down for one little second of time!

"She was past moving and past looking: the paroxysm of superstitious horror that possessed her held her still in every limb and every feature. She never started, she uttered no cry, when the rustling noise came nearest. The one outward sign which showed how the terror of its approach shook her to the very soul expressed itself only in the changed action of her right hand, in which she still held the keys. At the instant when the wind wafted the fragment of paper closest to the door, her fingers lost their power of contraction, and became as nerveless and helpless as if she had fainted. The heavy bunch of keys slipped from her suddenly loosened grasp, dropped at her side on the outer edge of the landing, rolled off through a gap in the broken banister, and fell on the stone pavement below, with a crash which made the sleeping echoes shriek again, as if they were sentient beings writhing under the torture of sound.

"The crash of the falling keys, ringing and ringing again through the stillness, woke her, as it were, to instant consciousness of present events and present perils. She started, staggered backward, and raised both her hands wildly to her head -- paused so for a few seconds -- then made for the top of the stairs with the purpose of descending into the hall to recover the keys.

"Before she had advanced three paces the shrill sound of a woman's scream came from the door of communication at the opposite end of the hall. The scream was twice repeated at a greater distance off, and was followed by a confused noise of rapidly advancing voices and footsteps.

"She staggered desperately a few paces further, and reached the first of the row of doors that opened on the landing. There nature sank exhausted; her knees gave way under her -- her breath, her sight, her hearing all seemed to fail her together at the same instant -- and she dropped down senseless on the floor at the head of the stairs."

Wilkie Collins may not be the equal of Dickens but he stands at the head of the class when compared to recent writers of gothic fiction like Stephen King and Daphne DuMaurier and he nearly measures up to our most famous American writer of such tales, Edgar Allan Poe.