Category Archives: John Harwood

The Seance – John Harwood

You may remember a few weeks ago that I asked for your thoughts on great books based in big creepy houses. This was partly inspired by being a tiny bit disappointed by Sarah Water’s ‘The Little Stranger’ initially and also because I was off to stay in a big stately home. Just a quick additional note though; the more time I have had away from ‘The Little Stranger’ the cleverer and better I think it is and I thought it was good to begin with, I just wanted to update you all one that. I then read ‘The House At Midnight’ which had the stately home and was a good book again but wasn’t creepy. Would ‘The Séance’ by John Harwood succeed with my mission… with a title like that and not one but two big spooky stately homes it did exactly what I wanted it to. 

‘The Séance’ already had me from the fabulous cover, which I know you shouldn’t judge a book on but sometimes how can you not, and also from its subtitle ‘A Victorian Mystery’ which instantly in my mind makes me think of the ‘sensationalist’ books from those times which prove to be some of my favourite fiction books ever. Now though I wouldn’t say that this book could be compared to such iconic books as ‘The Woman In White’ it has a damn good stab at it and on many levels succeeds in fitting into that genre only written a hundred years late.

The book is told through three narrators, the opening and closing voice of the novel is Constance Langton opens the book for us as she tells of growing up in a manor, her father often away and so is left with a mother who is in constant mourning for the loss of her other daughter Alma. Constance tries to lift her mothers ‘spirits’ she pretends to evoke the spirit of her sister taking her on a very dark journey that changes her life and circumstances forever. Yet this isn’t actually the main story, it’s the events that inspire afterwards that make the rest of the tale – though this early opening storyline does lay some clues and some big red herrings for what’s to come as Constance finds she is the inheritor or Wraxford Hall which holds dark secrets itself and the mystery of the vanishing of many of its family and the darkest deceptions. Chills hit you when Constance is told ‘sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’

I won’t say anymore than that in case I accidentally give anything away. I will say that I thought that writing the book through these differing accounts was a brilliant idea of Harwood’s and really worked into adding even more twists and various dead ends to the plot. You also, until the end of course, never quite knew which narrator you could trust and that added to the suspense and mystery. The fact that there was a slightly supernatural element added even more to the book and in two parts I actually jumped and had the chills several times. What more can you ask from a dark tale of a spooky old house than that?

Harwood’s other strength is plotting which reminded me very much of the sensationalist novels, which I love, without actually ripping any of them off. How he managed to come up with all the twists and turns at the end is beyond me. The fact that he manages to incorporate them all and still makes it all clear and unconfused to the reader is remarkable. I lost count of all the twists in the end. This is genuinely is a superb book, whether you love a good creepy Victorian tale or not this is great fiction writing.

If I had one small gripe it would be at myself for the timing of reading it. This isn’t really a book to read when you have lots on, like moving house for instance. We have had just the right weather for this book in London though in the last week with some cracking storms which is the ideal setting to curl up and read this in one sitting. Maybe next time as I am sure I will be reading this again and will also be tracking down John Harwood’s debut ‘The Ghost Writer’ very soon.

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Filed under Books of 2009, John Harwood, Review, Vintage Books