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[574] The Séance – John Harwood

seance

” Speaking from my experience as a mesmerist, it is not difficult to believe that Heaven and Hell, goods, demons, ghosts and spirits are all contained within the mind—with the proviso that this does not make them any the less real or powerful than in the old dispensation. We think of the mind as enclosed within the narrow compass of the skull . . . ” (Eleanor Unwin’s Narrative, p.133)

The Séance is set in Victorian England, in particular in a mansion with a sinister history. The book is written in six long sections narrated by three people. Constance Langton is a young woman who has always felt disconnected from her family and is dealing with a mother who is in perpetual mourning of her toddler sister. Compelled to mollify her mother, Constance seeks out a spiritualist in hopes to invite her sister’s spirit. The supposed séance had a deadly consequence—her mother committed suicide. Then John Montague contributes to the narrative. A solicitor who works for the Wraxford family, he is an amateur artist who found himself suffused with artistic prowess he did not possess while committing Wraxford Hall to canvas. He informs Constance Langton she is the sole heir to the dilapidated, purportedly haunted mansion bequeathed to her by a family she never knew she had.

As with Grandmother’s appearance at my bedside, the apparition of my father was followed, after a particularly tranquil interval, by the onset of a blinding headache. I had not made any connection between the first visitation—the word that seemed the least unsatisfactory—and the fall. (Eleanor Unwin’s Narrative, p.107)

The link between Constance and the Wraxfords is revealed by way of the narrative and journal entries of Eleanor Unwin, a young woman with the “gift of the eye” who has experienced a series of unsettling visitations, or paranormal experiences, after falling and hitting her head. She eventually becomes a Wraxford through marriage. Her story is by far the most engrossing, but also the most complicated and delving into the Wraxford’s mystery. Her narrative shows how the mansion becomes a cachet: nearly everyone who went anywhere near the suit of armour in the gallery either disappeared, or died in some unnatural fashion.

Although the book does come in full circle as Harwood weaves all the elements together, it is overwrought. The shift from Constance Langton to John Montague and finally to Eleanor Unwin is unsettling for me. The narratives are heavily layered that by the time readers return to Constance’s time one has probably forgotten who she was. The story is humdrum, bogged down by many extraneous details, the plot overprocessed with a large finale fizzle. The Séance, as its name might have suggested, is supposed to spook, but it is not in the realm of Gothic horror. The names John Montague and Eleanor remind me of the characters with the same names in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and how superbly that book was done. It’s so much more direct and spooky than Harwood’s confusing structure.

328 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. I’m glad to know this, because all the elements here would have easily drawn me in.

  2. After I read your review, I went back and read mine. I didn’t write much about it, but I still agree with what I wrote. I enjoyed the sense of fear the author seemed to have instilled in everything the characters did or felt. I do think there were some serious characterization issues though, so while I like the atmosphere of the book, I wish the rest of it had been cleaner.

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