Thursday, January 31, 2013

THE HOUND OF DEATH by Agatha Christie

"Oh jeez, is he going to start reviewing Christie? Is this turning into another Poirot-worship blog?" I hear you screaming.

Well, I like Poirot, but there's enough about him on the 'net to let other people pick up the slack. I'm not wild for Miss Marple. However, there's some less-known Christie that I'll tackle from time to time.

The Hound of Death is very atypical Christie. It's a short story collection, and while some of it is the usual Christie mystery plotting, mostly it's a departure as it deals with ghosts and psychic phenomena. This is Christie taking a stab at horror writing!

The title story is a very interesting tale of a man's encounter with a traumatized nun from Belgium, a refugee from WWI under the care of a psychologist. The nun has strange memories and appears to have psychic powers. She is telepathic and has visions of a remote "city of circles" which far too many critics maintain is supposed to be a city in the far future, but is very, very, very obviously supposed to be Atlantis. The psychologist wants to tap her hidden power, an ability to call down immense destruction, which she apparently used on a German battalion that attacked her convent; the battalion was destroyed, but so was the convent, leaving her the only survivor...and the wreckage is in the odd shape of a hound...

"The Hound of Death" is odd, somewhat unsatisfying, but at the same time very bloody intriguing.

"The Red Signal" is a tale of twisted emotions and semipsychic warnings. "The Fourth Man" tells of possession...or is it madness? Is a young girl the victim of multiple personalities, or has she been possessed? "The Gipsy" is a very standard tale of love denied and true lovers being united in death.

"The Lamp" is also a rather standard ghost story, but with an added element of a person's deliberate self-sacrifice to bring aid to a lost soul. "Wireless" is a nasty twist tale of a murder plot that ends up going hideously awry, and I found rather reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. "The Witness for the Prosecution" is obviously the basis of the famous play and movie, and little needs to be said about it other than the ending is a bit different. "The Mystery of the Blue Jar" starts off as a rather eerie ghost story...but ends up something else entirely. "The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael" is more supernatural hijinx with hints of witchcraft, as a man suddenly seems to develop the personality of a cat.

"The Call of Wings" isn't mystery or supernatural, just a tale of spiritual awakening and self-sacrifice. "The Last Seance" is a harrowing tale of spiritualism, in which a desperate women confronts a medium...whose powers may be real, and may be someone's undoing. The final story, "SOS," is a cute little mystery with overtones of the eerie but all rather mundane at the core.

How is it overall? As with any anthology, it has ups and downs. Some stories left me cold, like "SOS" and "The Call of Wings." Nobody can argue that "The Witness for the Prosecution" is a classic; it is. "The Hound of Death" is an intriguing tale with elements I may incorporate into a role-playing game, perhaps. (Yes, I said it.) And I truly loved "The Mystery of the Blue Jar" and "The Last Seance."

Christie was a great technician when it came to plots, but she wasn't always a great stylist. (Exception: The Hollow. Look for it.) She wasn't always great at creating atmosphere, at least in her earlier work. Sometimes in her later years she was good at it. (The stories were written mostly in the '20s, and the collection published in 1933. I found a reference claiming that "The Call of Wings" was one of the first things Christie ever wrote.)

It's actually a little difficult to get this in a physical edition; most of the stories here were republished in other anthologies, but a straight reprint with the stories in original order is hard to find. But it is available electronically; I got the ebook edition from Amazon and it's probably not horribly long until it's in public domain as some of Christie's early work already is.

Worth reading for Christie fans; general fans of supernatural and gothicism might be interested.

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