Thursday, October 18, 2012

THE SEANCE by John Harwood

I read Harwood's first book The Ghost Writer a number of years ago, and just ate it up. It was horrific and eerie and had some devilish twists, including a truly fiendish murder scheme. I'm not sure how I missed this until now, but when I happened on it at the library I snatched it up.

The Seance opens in 1889 with narrator Constance Langton giving some of her life story; her sister died as a young child, and her mother never recovered and spends her life grieving. Her father grows ever more distant as the mother's mental health declines, eventually leaving the family altogether. Constance hears of spiritualists, and takes her mother to a seance, hoping that even faked contact with her dead daughter will give her comfort and help her out of her horrible depression. However, things take an unexpected twist and her mother dies.

Constance (who has become convinced he was adopted, feeling like an outsider in her own family) moves in with an uncle, and sleepwalks through her life, feeling numb and uninvolved in anything. (Perhaps her mother's depression has rubbed off on her? Harwood may be hinting at a family tendency toward clinical depression...) However, she is contacted by a solicitor, and it turns out she's had an unexpected inheritance: brooding Wraxford Hall, a crumbling mansion with a dire history of mysterious deaths and disappearances.

The narrative is taken up by other people at this point, as Constance reviews a packet of papers given to her. First up is solicitor John Montague, a frustrated artist who created an amazing painting of Wraxford Hall but then found his talent had deserted him. Through him we learn of some of the house's history, and how young Felix Wraxford died in a fall from the gallery in 1795, and his father Thomas mysteriously disappeared thirty years later. Another owner, Cornelius Wraxford, disappears himself in 1858, and the house is inherited by his nephew, doctor and mesmerist Magnus Wraxford. And through it all are tales of a ghostly monk haunting the woods around the house, alchemical experiments in the house, and a bizarre steampunk-y apparatus hooked up to a strange suit of armor that may or may not be some sort of eternal-youth machine.

Next up is Eleanor Unwin, an unfortunate young lady being raised in a toxic household by an unloving mother and self-absorbed sister, but who may have mediumistic abilities after a fall down the stairs in 1866. (Or are they just the aftermath of head trauma?) Through a series of events, she ends up the bride of Magnus Wraxford, although an unhappy one. And then one night in Wraxford Hall, she seems to be set up to play the role of a medium in some sort of experimental seance...but by the time the sun rises, one person is dead, Eleanor and her child have vanished, and before a week is over, Magnus himself disappears as well.

When Constance picks up the narrative again, she is determined to solve the mystery, and wonders all the time if she's not really Eleanor's daughter Clara, now grown. Is Eleanor dead? If not, where is she? What about Magnus? Was the charred body found in the armor really his? What of the other disappearances?

The answers to most of the questions is provided (annoyingly, a few minor ones are left dangling, but not to the extent that it ruins the book) in some pretty harrowing scenes in the old house, including a hair-raising seance. It was a brisk, exciting read, reminiscent of Wilkie Collins but with definite modern sensibilities. Harwood sticks close to the social conventions of the period, to the point that he's obviously being rather critical of them.

The characters are pretty well-drawn; the female ones may be annoying in that they're much less self-determined than modern ladies, but naturally they're products of their time and also struggle against the constraints placed on them. A character introduced late in the book is all too obviously the Love Interest but at least Harwood fleshes him out enough to keep him from being too annoying.

Published in 2008, The Seance is highly recommended, a fun read dripping with atmosphere and menace, and a great read for October.

No comments: