Written by John Harwood
Houghton Mifflin, 2008; 350 pages
In Part One of John Harwood's brilliantly creepy second novel The Seance, we meet Constance Langton who grew up in a house marked by the death of her young sister, her father's indifference and eventual estrangement, and her mother's perpetual mourning for her lost child. In an attempt to help her mother overcome her grief, Constance becomes involved in the world of Spiritualism. But after persuading her mother to attend a seance, hoping it might provide some comfort, Constance is devastated by the tragic results.
Soon afterward, she learns that (through rather complicated family connections) she's inherited Wraxford Hall, a decaying mansion in the English countryside, with a very dark reputation -- several members of the family who owned the house have disappeared mysteriously. Constance learns the sinister history of the house through diaries and journals (some dependable, some not); and, with the help of the family's solicitor John Montague, must deal with the consequences of this eerie bequest.
The Seance is a wonderful take on the classic Victorian gothic tale. Spiritualism, Mesmerism, ghosts, clues in diaries, unexplained disappearances, lost loves and penniless spinsters, mistaken identity, orphans -- all the bells and whistles. The story is told from different points of view, by several characters, both male and female; and the language and tone are always spot-on, in every instance. There are also a couple of love stories involved, as well as bit of a surprise ending. Great stuff!
I was a little wary of The Seance because Harwood's first book, The Ghost Writer, got such mixed reviews. But I'm so glad I took a chance on the book -- it's turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year.