As a Crime Writer, Agatha Christie may have been one of the finest of her time, but there is an argument in Literature, as in other areas, that people should stick to what they are good at.
Readers approaching her short stories might expect crisp writing, a fine plot, a suspenseful denouement, in short - a gripping tale. However, her “Collected Short Stories” could be something of a let-down if one particular story “The Hound of Death” is anything to go by. An arresting title certainly, full of rich potential material for the short story writer: horror, thrillers, the supernatural, crime – and of course human interest.
But does the Short Story live up to the promise of its spooky title? Or has an opportunity for rich story-weaving been lost in the mire of the mundane; dreary repetitive narrative leading down vacuous and uninspiring sidetracks to intellectually unchallenging dead-ends? It could be that this is a story that many editors today would shrink at, being full of unnecessary padding in the middle and rushed to an unsatisfactory conclusion at the end.
The title suggests other works of great horror interest - perhaps Conan Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” or “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe. The story opens with an everyday conversation between two acquaintances that could spark curiosity temporarily – revealing a common knowledge of an isolated hamlet and a veiled reference to “the affair.” The writing also displays a fair attempt at American dialogue which is, however, superfluous to the plot.
Then comes the writer’s first mistake in losing her readers interest: mentioning “the war.” This topic, by her own narrator’s admission, is already boring, and the boredom is doubled by the readers’ realisation that some lengthy wartime epic memories are about to follow. By the time she gets to the point about a weird hallucinating nun working a miracle in getting a Belgian convent blown up before the Germans could take it, many readers will be asleep. The American journalist’s interest in the story is superfluous and glaringly transparent as a cumbersome boring vehicle for introducing the tale to the narrator.
Even at a time when interest in the Supernatural in England was developing, the unconvincing and lazy writing could not surely have been enough to hook readers with an interest in the subject. There is little effort to “set the scene,” the romantically wild Cornish coast being described merely as “the big waves lashing against the black rocks.” Well! Many readers have kids who could do better than that. In fact, the story lacks credibility to such an extent that it almost becomes comical. The narrator travels down to the village to meet the hallucinating, miracle-working nun and the doctor who is conducting a study of her ‘powers.’ Readers then hear of her visions of a “City of Circles” and the “People of The Crystal” as she draws strange circular shapes on her forehead and recalls the voices and visions of her wartime memories
The action becomes less suspenseful and more comically melodramatic still, as she sways mysteriously, eyes closed, body rigid - slim wrists clasping a crystal. Can this melodramatic drama-queen of a nun get any worse, readers may smile ? The answer is yes, for then the evil doctor, sketchily described by Christie as “wolf-like” tries (in a failed attempt at a dramatic peak to the story) a Word Association psychotherapy treatment. “Hound!” he exclaims, “Death” replies the nun. Big deal! The hyped-up crescendo of the story appears to go down like a lead balloon.
Worse is to come as the reader becomes further detached from the story. A whole mini-chapter is given over to that most boring of story subjects, word-association. The doctor drearily explains his motives and techniques in trying this method on Sr. Marie Angelique (for such is her name.)
Almost as if the writer was racing towards some sort of looming deadline, the story breathlessly and sketchily races towards its loose ends. Feeling like an appendix to the story, further developments show the narrator receiving a letter from Sr. Marie. It accuses the doctor of being a power-crazed evil one who is out to steal her powers by abusing his position to get her to part with the last link in the chain of supernatural control – the Sixth Sign.
The narrator’s other letter tells of two implausible events. In the first, the nun’s cottage crashes over the cliffs in a landslide. In the second event, a simultaneous lightning- strike-which-has-no-storm kills the doctor’s uncle. Both events leave mysterious marks. Yes, understandably unmoved readers will guess it – in each case, the mark of a “Hound.” Dr Rose, of course, readers are told hurriedly, is the beneficiary of the uncle’s Will.
By this time they will care less, just wondering if Agatha ever met her deadline and wondering whether such a story should have been better attempted by an expert in the field and written in the Novel form.
This story may be for those who….
- like a good laugh and are looking for a dreadful hammed-up sketch to perform for a comedy show.
- want to see how not to write a gripping short story.