Book Review: The Last Séance by Agatha Christie
From Queen of Suspense, Agatha Christie, The Last Séance is an all-new collection of her spookiest and most sinister stories, including the never-before-published in the USA, “The Wife of Kenite!”
With Halloween just around the corner, what better time to delve into a collection of spooky and mysterious tales written by the Queen of Suspense herself? Agatha Christie may have passed away in 1976, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t fresh material for American readers to discover still. The Last Séance, in addition to collecting some of her finest scary short fiction, includes the never-before-published on this side of the Atlantic “The Wife Of The Kenite.” It’s a brief tale that references the Biblical story of its namesake, with Dame Christie’s own trademark twist on the proceedings. While it isn’t the strongest of the twenty presented here, it is certainly of greater substance than a mere curiosity to the completist would be.
Granted, one’s consideration of “strength” would likely depend on whether, like me, your preference is for mysterious proceedings that merely seem inexplicable but have a rational explanation, or whether you prefer tales of unmitigated horror. Each type of story is represented in good number, and make for excellent bedfellows: I’ve long believed that horror stories are oftentimes crime stories exaggerated to grotesque proportions, with the supernatural and uncanny occasionally standing in for the unsolvable.
Of course, there is no such thing as unsolvable when Dame Christie’s famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is around. He features in three of these tales, debunking flim-flam and saving lives in the process. He’s not a complete skeptic, however, to the surprise of his constant companion (and the occasional narrator of his stories,) Arthur Hastings, as here where they’re conversing with a distraught widow who’s concerned that an ancient Egyptian curse might carry away her son after already claiming his father:
[‘] You may think me a foolish, credulous woman, but, Monsieur Poirot, I am afraid. Supposing that the spirit of the dead king is not yet appeased? Perhaps to you I seem to be talking nonsense—’
‘No, indeed, Lady Willard,’ said Poirot quickly. ‘I, too, believe in the force of superstition, one of the greatest forces the world has ever known.’
I looked at him in surprise. I should never have credited Poirot with being superstitious. But the little man was obviously in earnest.
Poirot is not the only one of Dame Christie’s famous sleuths to appear in these pages: Miss Marple features in two tales as well. Their stories, as well as several more with one-off detectives, contain clever, entirely rational solutions. For the rest, however, justice lies in the hands of far greater powers than available to mere mortals.
Of these outright tales of terror, my favorite was “The Hound Of Death,” a scarily satisfying account of mysticism in the World War II era. It is also, perhaps, one of the least impressionistic of the tales of horror included here. Stories such as the title piece as well as the afore-mentioned “The Wife Of The Kenite” work primarily because of Dame Christie’s manipulation of atmosphere, with the clever plotting that is her hallmark left to play second fiddle for a change.
Which isn’t at all a criticism. The same could be said, after all, of the terrific ending of one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels, Endless Night, a study in psychological horror that still makes me shiver to think of to this day. Maybe it was because I was an impressionable 13-year-old when I read it, but those last few pages left a lasting mark. The plot till then was compelling, of course, and clever, but the sheer madness of those final pages left me gasping for air.
That balance of intelligence and the macabre inform another of my favorites here, “The Mystery Of The Blue Jar,” where a young man, Jack Hartington, hears spectral screams of terror that everyone else is oblivious to. When he confides in an older acquaintance, a psychiatrist by the name of Ambrose Lavington, the doctor has a theory as to why Jack is the subject of this haunting:
‘But why me?’ murmured Jack rebelliously. ‘Why not someone who could do some good?’
‘You are regarding the force as intelligent and purposeful, instead of blind and mechanical. I do not believe myself in earthbound spirits, haunting a spot for one particular purpose. But the thing I have seen, again and again, until I can hardly believe it to be pure coincidence, is a kind of blind groping towards justice–a subterranean moving of blind forces, always working obscurely towards that end…’
The most satisfying horror stories, to me, share that impetus towards justice that is a hallmark of the mystery genre, even when said justice is thwarted or subverted. This collection overall gets that balance between horror and mystery exactly right, though several of the more supernatural tales—and particularly the ones involving children—do not conclude happily for all involved. But it wouldn’t be a truly representative collection of scary stories if justice was always served in the end. That’s part of Dame Christie’s spooky brilliance, knowing when to satisfy readers with the mundane monstrosity of a human murderer and when to leave us with the chilling touch of the unknowable.
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