When Constance Langton’s little sister Alma dies, she takes her grieving mother to a séance. She has her doubts as to whether it’s really possible to summon spirits, but she hopes it might offer her mother some comfort. Unfortunately though, Constance’s decision has tragic consequences that she couldn’t have foreseen. Alone in the world, Constance is contacted by solicitor John Montague and learns of an inheritance connecting her with Wraxford Hall, a crumbling manor house surrounded by gloomy woods. The dark secrets of the Hall’s sinister past are revealed to the reader through the narratives of Constance, Montague and another young woman, Eleanor Unwin, whose fate also becomes linked with the house. It’s not surprising that Constance is advised to “sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt if you will; but never live there…”
The Séance is a wonderfully atmospheric gothic mystery set in Victorian England. The book was published in 2008 but has everything you’d expect to find in a Victorian ghost story or sensation novel: a derelict mansion said to be haunted, bad weather (complete with thick fog, heavy rain, howling winds and dramatic thunderstorms), wills and inheritances, dangerous scientific experiments, mesmerism, spiritualism, mysterious disappearances, ghostly apparitions and family secrets. There’s even a haunted suit of armour! The story is told in the form of the various characters’ narratives, letters and journal entries – a style reminiscent of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, for example. I would be very surprised if Collins is not one of John Harwood’s influences, but there are shades of other Victorian gothic/sensation fiction writers too. Harwood’s writing is not as flowery and descriptive as a typical Victorian author but at the same time he perfectly captures the mood and tone of a piece of 19th century writing.
The plot does start to become very complicated – much more complicated than it needed to be, in my opinion – but it does keep the reader guessing and wondering what the next plot twist will be. The villain was very easy to identify though! The changing viewpoints were handled well, and the author chose the right points to end one character’s narrative and move onto the next – although there was such a long gap between Constance’s two narratives that by the time I came to the second one I’d almost forgotten about her. This made Constance feel slightly disconnected from the other two narrators and she didn’t seem such a vital part of the novel as Montague and Eleanor. I also thought the voices of the different narrators could have been more distinctive (this is an area where Wilkie Collins really excels but where so many other authors seem to have difficulties). But although the characters could have been stronger, the real heart of the novel is the house, Wraxford Hall, which is almost a character in itself.
About thirty yards from the house I stumbled over the remnant of a low stone wall, where I settled myself with my tablet and pencils. The air was still and cold; somewhere in the distance a fox barked, but no answering cry arose from the blackness opposite. Minute by minute, the clearing brightened; the Hall seemed to be inching its way upward out of darkness. As the moon rose higher, the proportions of the house appeared to alter until it loomed above me like a precipice. I reached down for my tablet and, as I straightened, saw a light spring up in the window immediately above the main entrance
The Séance is the second book I’ve read by John Harwood; the first was The Ghost Writer, which I read almost exactly a year ago. Of the two, I enjoyed The Ghost Writer more (I loved the ghost stories in that one) but both are very creepy, very gothic and perfect books to read at this time of year.