This book hit me right at the nexus of my interest in both Victorian sensation fiction and horror. I knew I was going to like it from page one: Harwood’s prose is observant of 19th century conventions, but not priggishly so. It sets an atmosphere without creating a barrier for the modern day casual reader. This deftness in balancing old and new told me straight away that I was reading the work of an author who understood what he was working with and who he was working for.
Make no mistake: this is not an attempt at writing a perfectly faithful Victorian novel. If you’re looking for that, The Quincunx does a pretty incredible job (though I suppose I can’t say there’s no modern-day twist in that book as well). I suppose I liked The Séance so much because it seemed that Harwood, like me, loves Victorian gothic and sensation fiction so much that he knows how silly and over-the-top it can be, and loves it none the less for all of that. And the book is over-the-top: there are not one, but two young women estranged from their families and cast out on the world; there’s a case of suspected mistaken parentage; mysterious deaths; murder; strange disappearances; a haunted house; an unhappy marriage; and possible ghosts. But Harwood understands that to keep our interest, he needs to play it straight, and he is skillful enough to put the reader in the frame of mind to take his story seriously, at least in the moment.
The book begins when Constance Langton’s younger sister dies, and her father abandons the family, leaving Constance alone to care for her grief-stricken mother. Hoping to console her mother by any means at her disposal, Constance becomes drawn into the world of spiritualism, attending séances and trying herself to enter trance states in order to channel her sister. This makes for an immediately intriguing beginning, though I was confused when what seemed like a budding plotline was set aside in favor of the story of Wraxford Hall, the manor house Constance inherits from a distant aunt. Though the story of Wraxford Hall and its former inhabitants is absorbing and by turns truly creepy and suspenseful, it did seem as if much of what had come before could simply have been culled from the book.
Constance, like the other characters in the novel, is fairly two-dimensional. In fact, the two main women in the novel are almost indistinct from one another, which was perhaps deliberate. But the character of Magnus Wraxford, one of the Hall’s former owners, cuts a deliciously menacing figure, and the stock sensation novel roles the other characters fill are well-written enough to render them functionally interesting.
Harwood gives a hearty nod to Wilkie Collins in his use of multiple narrators. He references both The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret by using the madhouse as a peripheral threat to the women in the story. Times being what they are, Harwood’s novel does not scandalize in the way it might have 150 years ago, but anyone capable of enjoying “Downton Abbey” or any Merchant Ivory job will be able to contextually situate himself.
The ending disappoints a bit. A somewhat forced romantic liaison and a clumsily handled denouement don’t clinch the fibers of this tale together as satisfyingly as one could hope. What can I say? There will never be another Wilkie Collins, but while reading The Séance, I felt that John Harwood and I were in the same room on a dark, rainy afternoon, giggling over the melodrama that such fiction generally presents, and enjoying the intrigue and eeriness that it nevertheless provides.