Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: The Seance

As I stated in my The Crimson Petal and the White review, I will be reviewing neo-Victorian novels that were written within the past 10 to 15 years.  I am interested in learning: (1) what aspects of the Victorian Era they incorporate; (2) what "modern" elements they bring; (3) what works and does not work; (4) how well they conform to expectations of "what will sell"; and (5) whether it's a good story.

John Harwood's The Seance (2008) was never a big best seller like The Crimson Petal and the White, but it was well received.  It is quiet in all of the ways that Crimson is flashy, never trying to be about a big idea or a shocking premise.  Yet it still manages to be bittersweet and effective.

The Seance is characterized as a "horror" novel, but I never read it as such.  Instead, I saw it as a novel interested in the supernatural, and in certain fads of that time period.  It uses that angle to explore the hopes and fears of the main characters.

Plot Synopsis

Spoilers to follow.

Set mainly in the 1880s, The Seance focuses on a young English woman named Constance Langton.  When she was a child, her little sister died, and her mother transformed almost overnight into a depressed recluse.  Constance tries to bring her mother out of her depression after learning how to perform seances.  "Perform" being the key word, because Constance does not actually speak to the dead.  Yet she does a convincing enough job of "calling" to her sister to fool her mother, who then commits suicide in order to be with her.

Sometime later, Constance learns that she has inherited Wraxford Hall, a house with a malevolent past.  Wraxford Hall was once owned by Magnus Wraxford, an egomaniacal mesmerist long presumed dead.  As Constance learns more about him and his miserable wife, Eleanor, she wonders if their story could help her understand who she really is.

Victorian Elements

In terms of tone, The Seance feels more like a Victorian novel than The Crimson Petal and the White.  There are some very identifiable Victorian elements, specifically the obsession with mourning.  Losing one or more children to illness was not uncommon back then and the Victorians allegedly responded with more pomp and ritual than any social group before or since.  This mourning fetish can definitely be seen here with Constance's mother: she clings to her dead child and refuses to change her room, much the way Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert by having his water basin filled every day decades after his death.

The cadence of the writing, with its lightly stilted formality, also feels very Victorian.  But what marks this as a truly "Victorian" novel, in a way that Crimson is not, is the complete lack of sex.  Constance and Eleanor are both proper ladies who might have suitors or fiances, but never sexual thoughts or actions.  This accurately reflects an era where many writers thought it improper to even mention that a married couple slept in the same bed.

As for modern elements, those are difficult to delineate.  The most modern element might be the story structure: it is essentially a story inside a story inside a story, all told in first person, largely through journal accounts.

The Good

Plot and Pacing. The Seance is a suspense novel that turns left when you expect it to turn right, managing to surprise even when you think you know exactly where it is headed.  Harwood does a skillful job deepening the mystery throughout the course of the novel, before springing a series of reveals at the very end.

Characterization. Harwood also excels at creating strong, interesting female characters.  Constance never stops yearning for a real family, yet still manages to be resilient and resourceful.  Eleanor has a unique gift that makes her an outcast in her own family, yet draws the unwavering attention of her future husband.  Her plans to escape him form the bulk of the novel.

Atmosphere. Finally, The Seance maintains a moody, tense atmosphere appropriate to the storyline.  Upon learning that Constance inherited Wraxford Hall, another character advises her to burn it down and salt the earth.  The Hall, built on the ruins of a monastery torn down by Henry VIII, is surrounded by a "monks wood" filled with their ghosts.  At one point, two of the characters are stranded at Wraxford Hall alone in the dark, and though you've seen this sort of thing before, you still hold your breath.  There are all sorts of fascinating objects at the Hall, from a suit of armor to a tomb to a hidden staircase.

The Less Good

Story Structure. The story-within-a-story aspect confused me when I first encountered it, when Constance starts reading accounts by Magnus Wraxford's lawyer, John Montague.  Because his account is first person as well, and his manner of speaking is similar to Constance's, for a while I was confused as to who was the narrator.  It also doesn't help that Montague's section is the slowest of the novel.  Fortunately, things pick back up again once Eleanor's first-person narrative begins, and keep going when the narrative switches back to Constance.

Visuals.  I'm not one to harp on someone's failure to provide enough description (it would be too hypocritical), but in this case, some more concrete details of Wraxford Hall's interior would have helped.  Or maybe it was just that I could not quite visualize the details that Harwood laid out.  During certain pivotal scenes, I had a really hard time understanding some of the action because I just could not see it.    

The Ending.  The final reveals come in a burst, and some are disappointingly pat.  But the resolution to Constance's story line feels like a punch in the gut.  All the poor girl ever wanted was to have a family that loved her, and she is cruelly denied.  While it's true that she seems about to find happiness in a different way, for heaven's sake, the girl needs a mother!  I felt so bad for her in the end, and the reason she is denied her closure, while understandable, seems petty.  It is an ending meant to be bittersweet, but the "bitter" is much stronger, and somewhat diminished my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.


Nonetheless, The Seance is well worth your time, being a good, moody, suspenseful ride that has you guessing until the end.  It is also satisfying as a neo-Victorian novel, with Harwood's writing very much in the style of the period without ever feeling like an imitation.  Since moody, well-paced books have always sold well, how The Seance became well received is the one thing that is not a mystery. 

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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