The much-heralded ITW project Thrillers: 100 Must Reads is scheduled to be published by Oceanview this July during ThrillerFest. To whet your appetite for this essential book, The Big Thrill is going to feature a series of short interviews with various essayists in upcoming issues. In our first interview, Hank Wagner, co-editor of the collection, chats with Douglas Preston, who contributed a fascinating essay on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, hailed by many in 1860 as the first “novel of sensation.”
Doug, you wrote about Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Was it your first choice? If so, why? Does the novel fulfill your personal definition of a “must read”?
It was my first choice. It is a stupendous novel, rich, complex, and archetypal in its power. The characters are extraordinarily vivid. A sense of growing menace, claustrophobia and tension towers above it all like a building storm, overspreading the book and casting a pall until the atmosphere in the novel becomes almost unbearable. Terrible things happen; Collins pulls no punches.
I am astonished the author managed to keep track of the many plot threads and the exquisite timing involved to pull it all off. Count Fosco is a character for the ages. So much so that Lincoln Child and I purloined him, in all his corpulent glory, for our novelBrimstone.
In particular, the contrasts between the idyllic, lovely English countryside and the dark machinations being plotted therein add an additional level of horror.
I believe every thriller writer ought to be familiar with the canon, so to speak, and The Woman in White, as the first “novel of sensation,” qualifies in my mind as a must read.
It’s obvious that you’ve read this novel several times. About how old were you when you first read it? What immediate impact did that first reading have on you? What influence did the book have on your career or your writing?
I first read the novel when I was nineteen. I’ll never forget reading the opening sequence, with the spectral vision of the woman in white floating in the darkness like a ghost. It is one of the most striking opening scenes in all of English literature. It pulled me into the story with a vengeance, and I didn’t emerge until a few days later, dazed and shaken. I remember being terribly depressed, thinking that I could never hope to write a novel as good as The Woman in White. And, alas, I haven’t.
What was it like re-reading the book this time? Was it as good as you remembered? Did the novel age well? Were you able to step back and read it like a reader, rather than a professional writer?
Nothing is quite like reading a book in your youth, when you are impressionable, enthusiastic, full of heart and open to the world. You remember best the books you read between, say, the ages of 12 and 23. Now I am far more critical, and it takes a great deal more to impress me.
But on re-reading The Woman in White, as a seasoned author instead of a callow youth, I was even more impressed by the stupendously complex architecture of the book. The novel aged very well, and I adore Collins’s 19th century English idiom. He was not quite as accomplished a wordsmith as his friend Dickens, but his plots were better and his pacing far superior. From a narrative point of view, Collins was far more radical and experimental than Dickens. Both created unforgettable, eccentric characters, but Collins’s real people were more real than Dickens’s.
It was easy once again to lose myself in it as a reader. It is not an easy novel, with a sweeping cast of characters, complex language, an intricately braided plot, and many varying points of view and narrative devices, but it is well worth the read, a novel to be savored rather than wolfed down.
To see what Doug had to say about The Woman in White, be sure to pick up a copy ofThrillers: 100 Must Reads when it debuts in July during ThrillerFest V. One hundred of your favorite thriller authors writing about one hundred classic thrillers make this book “must” reading.
Hank Wagner is a prolific and respected critic and interviewer. His work regularly appears in such publications as Mystery Scene, Cemetery Dance, Nova Express, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.