Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Hound of Death (1933)

Plot: Exploding nuns! Possessed cats! Ghostly children! It's all in The Hound Of Death!

Just when you think "Agatha Christie, blah blah blah" along comes The Hound of Death, a collection that wouldn't be out of home in Wordsworth's marvellous "Tales of the Supernatural" range. It shows what a diverse range Christie has, sometimes maddeningly so. Here's a few notable appearances:

The Hound of Death
A disappointingly brilliant Lovecraftian tale of horror in which a nun summons up one of the Great Old Ones and a sinister death cult is thwarted. This story is "disappointing" in that it's all over far too quickly - Christie (in bonkers Big Four/Passenger To Frankfurt mode) could easily have pulled off an entire book stuff with nuns, fireballs and supernatural horrors. Instead we get thirty pages almost as a teaser for something utterly, utterly different.

The Red Signal
A murder mystery, but one featuring a seance and the idea of madness as a creeping hidden horror (a feeling that crops up in the scenes with the mad villain of Towards Zero). It's a smart exercise, as the entire story can be read one way as a pitiless tragedy, and then, as soon as the unmasking takes place, I immediately found myself going back to the start and realising how almost every line has a double-meaning. Like Hound Of Death there's a similar feeling of compressed narrative, with a whole John Buchan "hero pursued" narrative squeezed into two pages.

The Fourth Man
A creepy tale of possession and malevolence that includes sinister schoolgirls and even a spirit that deliberately assumes false personalities to make itself even more interesting. Again, blimey. The "finishing school" is a setting that Christie flirts with but never settles on - in The Secret Adversary we think that Tuppence is about to go undercover in one, in At Bertram's Hotel much mention is made of the finishing school, but it's like a big setting that Christie was saving for a rainy day. Again, the telling of this tale is much more complicated, being recollected in fine Victorian Horror fashion by four strangers in a railway carriage.

The Lamp
Kind of like a pocket Henry James in which a living child is seduced by a dead one. Utterly creepy and manages to pull off a tragic and a happy ending.

Another unusual story in which an old lady is killed off by a vicious practical joke involving the voices of the dead possessing a radio. Cleverly, Christie turns the tables on the perpetrator very smartly and absolutely - but the story is also notable for the narrative shift. Once the lovable old woman is disposed of, we spend the next half of the story in the hapless company of her killer as their plans are totally confounded.

Witness For The Prosecution
Not at all supernatural - this is a Christie standard that we'll come back to later in play form, but it's striking how beat-for-beat perfect the story is in this early incarnation.

The Blue Jar
Another shaggy dog story about the supernatural. This is a remarkable Hustle tale, featuring one of Christie's dim young blokes who play golf and are altogether a good sort. The ending is not happy, but funny.

The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael
Possibly unique as a story about a possessed cat thwarting a murder plot, this is utterly bonkers. The story does suffer from about two characters too many (who are all of you? who did it again?), but manages to pull off something quite remarkably bizarre while keeping a commendably straight face. And it features a cat. I like cats.

The Call of Wings
A businessman realises that money does not bring happiness and gradually ascends to a higher plane. Um. Is it a morality tale, or a story of a haunting? Or is this one just a bit odd?

The Last Seance
A horrible story about a doomed medium and her obsessed client. It's set up for tragedy right from the start. Curiously it takes the supernatural as a given, and builds on it a small story of domestic greed and murder.

A story about poisoning which is prevented through almost supernatural means. It's a very odd tale - quite tricksy to follow, and the literary device of a stranger breaking in from outside looks to be a set-up but turns out to be sheer lucky coincidence (a broken down car is almost never coincidental  in Christie, from Spider's Web through to Three Act Tragedy, The Mysterious Mister Quinn and Why Didn't They Ask Evans).

Anyway, corking collection but really very very odd indeed.


  1. Loved it. Especially 'The Call of Wings' which was baffling but terrifying. 'The Lamp' was fantastic as was 'The Fourth Man'. I didn't get 'The Last Seance' which seemed to be all foreboding and... yes, what we foreboded has occurred but with no twist or anything. And I was disappointed with SOS as I was figuring out that 'Oh! The family is being possessed by the old ghost family and the boy and one of the girls are fine because they don't have counterparts and oh... oh. It's just a simple poisoning.' Seemed an odd one to end the book on.

    Some of them would make for great Tales of The Unexpected-style TV mysteries though.