At a taut 192 pages, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is perhaps the
classic example of a good ghost story's ability to suggest the terrifying
and let our imagination do the rest.
THE VISITANT: A VENETIAN GHOST STORY by Megan Chance is a classic
example of the exact opposite.
Elena Spira arrives in Venice from New York on a soggy November day
in 1884. The daughter of a physician, she is tasked with tending to the
wealthy and profligate Samuel Farber who, while suffering an epileptic
fit, has been robbed and beaten mercilessly.
Samuel must return soon to an arranged marriage in the States, but in
the meantime is convalescing in the crumbling ancestral palazzo of his
friend, Venetian bad boy Nero Basilio. Little does he know Nero's
reticent, mysterious aunt has put him in the very room from which her
daughter, Laura Basilio, leapt to her death in the canal bellow.
Compounding this tragic history, the characters all bring their own
secrets and schemes with them to Casa Basilio. Elena especially has a
compelling back story that would help to move the plot along if Ms.
Chance didn't insist on giving us only elliptical, italicized glimpses of it
until nearly halfway through this flabby book: "Just like before." "The
window. The latch." One imagines Elena clutching her pearls and
smelling salts during these moments.
Despite the novel's subtitle, THE VISITANT is neither particularly Venetian
nor ghostly. You will not find yourself touring St. Mark's Square in
these pages, nor drifting down the Grand Canal at sunset. Elena hardly
leaves her own bedroom, let alone the palazzo during the whole of the
novel, which may as well be taking place in suburban Scranton for the
entire local flavor we're blessed with.
As for the ghosts: 100 pages in and our spirit has manifested itself a
handful of times as the disturbing odor of...vanilla? By the same point
in the WOMAN IN BLACK I had all of the lights blazing and a chair
jammed under the doorknob.
But don't worry, cara (Chance's favorite morsel of Venetian dialect),
this story has a half-baked, Twilight-cribbed love story to keep you
When the spirit of Laura Basilio begins -- finally -- to pray on Samuel's
vulnerable, epileptic mind, causing him to go into trance-like violent
episodes, he tells Elena, "She's angry with you, and I'm afraid of what
I'll do about that. Is that madness enough for you?" Those tortured
hunks who just can't stop themselves from hurting women never cease
to be dreamy.
Meanwhile, Jacob -- I mean, Nero -- tries valiantly to protect Elena from
her own choices.
I could, however, forgive all of this -- the rapey love triangle, the gag-
inducing "Romance isn't real" dialogue -- if Ms. Chance made the chills
run up my spine like Ms. Hill managed so well.
Unfortunately, she displays no ear for the rhythms of scary stories: the
slow build, the sly suggestions, the sudden release of tension. Instead
we get un-scary non-sequiturs and several nights of Elena sleeping
unperturbed through the night.
In fact, Elena speaks for every reader of THE VISITANT when she
describes her response to The Nunnery Tales, a blue pulp given her by
Samuel: "It was poorly written, and I winced from the first sentences."
After she nearly ruins her family with a terrible misstep,
Elena Spira is sent to Venice to escape disgrace and to
atone by caring for the ailing Samuel Farber. But the
crumbling and decaying Ca’ Basilio palazzo, where Samuel is
ensconced, holds tragic secrets, and little does Elena know
how profoundly they will impact her. Soon she begins to
sense that she is being watched by something. And when
Samuel begins to have hallucinations that make him violent
and unpredictable, she can’t deny she’s in mortal danger.
Then impoverished nobleman Nero Basilio, Samuel’s closest
friend and the owner of the palazzo, arrives. Elena finds
herself entangled with both men in a world where the past
seeps into the present and nothing is as it seems. As Elena
struggles to discover the haunting truth before it destroys
her, a dark force seems to hold Samuel and the Basilio in
thrall—is it madness, or something more sinister?