The Seance, by John Harwood

The disputed borderland between Victorian science and the paranormal

Reviewed,Andrew Taylor
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:14

With his first novel, The Ghost Writer, John Harwood took the conventions of the 19th-century ghost story and used them to underpin a contemporary story about a blighted family inheritance. Some of these conventions reappear in The Seance. But Harwood adds other ingredients as well, not least a superbly realised Victorian setting.

Constance Langton is young, recently orphaned and almost friendless. Since childhood, she has had a nagging suspicion that she may be a foundling. She is also unsettled by glimpses of an elusive substratum of truth in the fake spiritualist activities she explored on behalf of her deeply disturbed mother, who never recovered from the death of a younger daughter and eventually committed suicide.

In 1889, Constance learns that a distant cousin has left her a crumbling and heavily mortgaged mansion in Suffolk. John Montague, the family lawyer, advises her bluntly to "sell the Hall unseen; or burn it to the ground... but never live there".

Montague gives her a packet containing an account of events that reached a dreadful climax at Wraxford nearly 20 years before. This takes up more than half the novel and is in four parts – two by Montague, and two by Eleanor Unwin, a young woman whose story has uncanny correspondences with Constance's. Of the last four owners of the Hall, two have vanished and one was horribly incinerated. The foul influence of the place has permeated the lives of those who survived. Scientists from the Society of Psychical Research are keen to investigate the validity of the alleged ghostly phenomena.

Harwood manipulates his characters' – and readers' – emotions. Even when he appears to provide a comfortably mundane explanation, he has a nasty habit of revealing the terrifying uncertainties that lurk in the shadows. Its publishers compare The Seance to the work of MR James and Sarah Waters; true, Harwood has an unerring feel for the mores and language of late-Victorian England. But there are closer parallels in the fiction of Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, both of whom were fascinated by the disputed borderland between the claims of the paranormal and the techniques of Victorian science. In the hands of a lesser writer, these elements might have seemed stagey and trite. But Harwood reinvests them with novelty and makes them genuinely spooky. In the end, The Seance reminds us that the real horrors lurk within the reader's mind.

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