In 1890 Marie Corelli published her fifth novel, "Wormwood: A Drama of Paris". After moving considerably closer to Fantasy in "Ardath", Marie returns to her gothic/occult romance style with this book. The subject of the book is the degredation of society through the vice of drinking, and specifically drinking Absinthe (a.k.a. grande wormwood or la fée verte (the Green Fairy), a spirit which was thought to be addictive and a psychoactive drug and to cause madness over time. As a result, it was attacked by conservatives and prohibitionists and was eventually banned for a time in many countries. The person addicted, or the `absentheur' in this story is Gaston Beauvais, the narrator of the story.
I have read that this novel is broken into three parts, but the copy of it which I read did not do so. The narrative of the story is told by Gaston from a point after he has destroyed his life and the lives of those around him, looking back on the road which brought him to this point. Gaston starts the novel as a young man who has everything going for him. He is successful in business, working for his father for a bank. His father's close friend is the Comte de Charmilles, and Gaston courts the Comte's daughter Pauline. Gaston is completely taken in by Pauline's beauty, and barely notices Pauline's closest friend and relation Héloïse, who is her cousin. Gaston takes his time in courting Pauline, even after he is resolved to marry her. It is at the same time as he intends to propose that Silvion Guidél, the nephew of the Curé comes to live with the Curé's house. In a rather forced piece of foreshadowing, Gaston takes a dislike to Silvion at the instant he first hears the name. Gaston proposes and his proposal is accepted, and as time passes and the wedding grows closer, there are more and more signs that there is an issue arising between Pauline and Silvion, but in typical Corelli fashion Gaston fails to notice anything wrong despite a narrative which could only be told by someone who was incredibly observant. At last, Pauline confesses to Gaston and pleads that he will do nothing to Silvion for honor's sake. Gaston struggles with what to do and after finally deciding to step aside he is convinced by an artist friend, André Gessonex to try absinthe, an event which completely changes Gaston's mind and he decides that he must have revenge and destroy the lives of Silvion and Pauline. One can easily see how this would be the end of the first section of the book.
The second section would likely be the period in which Gaston keeps his new found obsession secret while he gets his revenge. He intends to immediately challenge Silvion, but finds that Silvion has run away back to his parents home away from Paris and that he has also decided to immediately become a priest. He keeps this information from Pauline and tells her that they should keep the situation secret for now and proceed as if they still intend to be married. Pauline trusts him but as the time passes and the wedding gets closer she becomes more and more distressed. Because of the dishonor it would bring on her, she has even kept the secret from Héloïse, though Héloïse is certain that something has gone wrong. The night before the wedding, Pauline confronts Gaston and tells him that though it appears they will get married, she will never love him, and Gaston reminds her that they are not married "yet". On the day of the wedding, in front of all the guests, Gaston declares that he will not marry Pauline, and reveals the reason in front of all. His father is furious for the way Gaston has purposely embarrassed his friend and been as cruel as possible and tells Gaston to leave Paris for a while. This would likely be the end of the second section.
The third section deals with Gaston destroying his life and all those who surround him. Everyone he knew is touched in a negative way by him. He commits horrendous crimes and shows little or no remorse, though at other times he seems aware of the monster he has become. I thought the writing in this section was well done, because it shifts from the narration glorifying the deeds to being ashamed of them over and over, as one would expect from someone suffering from the addition to this drug of madness.
Overall I enjoyed this book, though not quite as much as "Ardath". It has some issues with the writing in that Corelli seems to want to put an exclamation point at the end of every piece of dialog and even in much of the narration. I don't recall her doing this to such an extent in her previous books, but perhaps I should go back and take another look. I also miss the well done fantasy section of "Ardath" as this book is much more straight forward story, though I suppose one does get a feel for the fantastic with some of the hallucinations which haunt Gaston in the final section. Still, despite those problems this is easily my second favorite of Corelli's novels up to this point.