Mrs Zant has recently lost her beloved husband, and while walking in the Kensington Gardens, the spot where she and her deceased husband declared their love for each other, she feels his presence trying to warn her of some coming danger. Mr Rayburn witnesses it all, and he'll have to fight his own incredulity regarding the supernatural and his gut feeling that the disturbed young woman is telling the truth. Brought to life by Golden Globe Award-winning actress Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Mrs Zant is the perfect Victorian ghost story.
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Ever since I listened, mesmerized, to The Woman in White I’ve been intrigued by Wilkie Collins. A protégé of none other than Charles Dickens, he’s the sort of writer who, at his very best, makes you wish he had written a great deal more. He did, but he seems, at least according to my slender knowledge, to have failed to live up to the full promise of his talent. Though the flow of work continued to his death, the consistent excellence achieved in the 1860’s (The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale and The Moonstone) was not sustained through the last two decades of his life.
The death of his mentor in 1870 and an addiction to laudanum, which Collins first took to relieve severe gout, are usually blamed for the decline in the quality of his work. As sad as all that is, it leaves the person who wants to hear more of Collins in something of a quandary. I have The Moonstone and I can’t wait to hear it. But after Moonstone I will have run through Collins’ best-of hit parade. As far as I can tell, no recordings have been made of No Name or Armadale. So I hesitate to embark on the last of the best, knowing there’s nothing after that. Silly? I know, I know.
Plan B? I dither with lesser works, hoping that when the critics call his output “uneven” that implies there are still a few high spots. The good news is, there are. And Mrs. Zant and the Ghost is one of them.
I didn’t know the trajectory of Collins’ career when I picked up his “The Haunted Hotel” (1879) on sale late last year. My disappointment with that novella lead me to seek the explanation of how the author of The Woman in White could turn out something so muddled. Grabbing Mrs. Zant and the Ghost—a story that I assume, since I can find no bibliography that includes it, is part of the collection “The Ghost’s Touch and Other Stories” (1885)—was taking another risk, of course. But at an hour and 38 minutes the time commitment was minimal and at “free” (to Audible members and non-members alike) the price was right.
Like Woman in White, our protagonist is drawn into a strange situation quite accidentally. The unsettling weirdness that pervades the story is generated, as in Woman in White, by an inability on the part of the characters—and the reader/listener—to determine if the threat they sense is real or simply imagined. If real, something should be done and done quickly. But if imagined, acting would mean throwing outrageous charges at innocent people, making our protagonist look ridiculous or worse. The essential elements that make a “sensational” work by Collins so sensational are here. Added goose: unlike The Haunted Hotel, in this story he manages to make a ghostly visit feel authentic. By comparison, the floating head in Haunted Hotel looks like something strung up in a suburban front yard to startle the kids on Halloween night. Finally, if this story belongs to that 1885 collection, then Collins was also resisting an impulse to serious social commentary that harmed the popularity of his later output. I enjoy authors with a point of view. I avoid those who wave an agenda.
Gillian Anderson, does a fine job with all this. My only criticism may be rooted not in her performance but in my circumstances; I usually listen on the train to and from work. Especially on the way home, what with the gentle swaying of the cars and the 8 or 9 hours of work that just wound up, her soft, gentle, insinuating delivery threw a soporific veil over me more than a few times. I don’t think that, ensconced in an easy chair with something to drink at one’s elbow, that delivery, so perfectly modulated to the tenor of the writing, would pose the same problem.