A haunting tale of apparitions, a cursed manor house, and two generations of women determined to discover the truth, by the author of The Ghost Writer.
"Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plow the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there . . ." Constance Langton grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for Constance’s sister, the child she lost. Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance takes her to a séance: perhaps she will find comfort from beyond the grave. But the meeting has tragic consequences. Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest that will blight her life.
So begins The Séance, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late-Victorian England.
It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains—and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house and a mystery. Years before, a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a decaying mansion in the English countryside with a sinister reputation. Now the Hall belongs to Constance. And she must descend into the darkness at the heart of theWraxford Mystery to find the truth, even at the cost of her life.
This is a modern "Victorianesque" gothic novel, and for what it is, I found it enjoyable. It had more of the feel of an older book than something published just a few years ago-- and coming from me, that is a true compliment. I like that old style of writing-- find it comfortable and pleasant to sink into. It's the coziest seat in your own home, while the slippery, straight-backed chair in the doctor's waiting-room is the typical modern style. However, if you want something faster-paced, this may leave you bored. (Even I thought it was a little slow getting started-- or at least, slow finding the real meat of the story and giving the impression that we were on the trail of the plot at last.)
The story is told in several parts, from the point of view of different characters (and during different periods of time). It's a method of story-telling that I like, sometimes, but when you start the section in Eleanor's voice-- with no warning and (at first) no context for where she fits into the story, it requires some faith in the author to keep reading. (Of course, by then you're already intrigued by Montague's first section of the book, so you're hooked.)
I found the middle of the book-- and the mysterious Wraxford Hall-- the most interesting part. The concluding section felt oddly rushed at times... Predictable and somehow unsatisfying in a few places, too. But when I had read the last page, I decided that, overall, I'd enjoyed the experience, and I'm certainly interested in reading similar books.
If you like Susan Hill, do give John Harwood a try!
More Fractured Observations:
-- I've read another person's review that suggests that if you like Victorian-style gothic thrillers, you should read the original classics that were actually written in Victorian times-- not these modern attempts to capture the same feeling-- because the originals are, well, original, and the modern books are mere copies, weak by comparison. Well, certainly, read the classics, but there's nothing wrong with a modern writer wanting to recapture that style. It gives fans of the genre new books to look forward to. (Living authors write new books; my favorite dead authors do not. (g) The end.)
-- There's a mention of "the story of Peter Grimes in 'The Borough'", so now I need to look that up and see if it sounds worth a read. (ETA: Hm. It's a poem, so probably not my thing. I'd thought it might be a short story.)
-- Recurring themes of marital discord... daughters kept veritable prisoners to an aging parent... older daughters mistreated while younger ones are coddled and cherished...
-- I knew I'd read something recently(ish) with a scary character named Magnus. Turns out it was a short story-- "Count Magnus", by M. R. James. Magnus is such an odd-sounding name (says the woman named Michael)...
-- I wondered briefly if the name "Nell" was intended to remind the savvy reader of The Haunting of Hill House, since both stories involve purportedly haunted houses. Whether intended or not, I was reminded-- and again, when Wraxford Hall was described as being mazelike and (due to sagging and bowing?) composed of "wrong" angles-- off-square, un-level, "not a straight line to be seen". Much was made of Hill House being built with odd angles, so much so that doors had to be propped open so that they wouldn't close themselves. But Hill House was designed to be thus, and was still in excellent repair, whereas Wraxford Hall's problems seem to be due to neglect...
-- Constance seems awfully swoony. I know I've heard that women from that era were more prone to fainting because the corsets they wore restricted their breathing, but still!
-- Toward the end, I was struck by The Villain's incredibly elaborate plans and felt that there must be easier ways to achieve the same results... but that's ok. The Villain is not exactly normal in other ways, so why should The Villain take the most pedestrian, typical mode of action?
And that's that!
I'm picking up another Susan Hill, next. Apparently I like this faux Victorian gothic thriller stuff, even if it's supposedly of inferior quality. ;o)