The Seance

By JOHN HARWOOD

John Harwood may have won the International Horror Guild Award for his debut novel, The Ghost Writer, but his sophomore effort, The Seance, sets a scene so resolutely gothic, so completely Victorian, it practically envelopes the reader in thick tendrils of an eerie London fog with each turn of the page. Harwood’s protagonist, Constance Langton, is literally shrouded — in a haze of social mores and tragedy. As a middle-class teenager in 1880s England, she cannot expect much else but marriage to relieve her current situation, which is rather desperate. Her mother is wracked with grief over the death of her first child, and her father is distant and cold. With the best intentions to restore her mother’s happiness, Constance seeks out a medium to connect with the spirit of her sibling. But navigating the fine line between the real and the spirit world is fraught with peril. It triggers her mother’s suicide and the abrupt departure, then death, of her father. Constance narrowly escapes the fate of an impoverished orphan by inheriting a country estate complete with crumbling walls and surrounded by ink-dark woods. Her solicitor instructs her, “Sell the hall unseen, burn it to the ground and plow the earth with salt,” but Constance persists in exploring the mysterious manse and the sinister rumors that have circulated around it for generations. At this point, The Seance becomes much more than the sum of its melodramatic parts. For with (or in spite of) a smooth-talking, wax-mustachioed villain, an honorable heroine, and a host of ghost whisperers, Harwood’s pitch-perfect dialogue, potent pacing, and skillfully intertwined narratives make for a good, old-fashioned, spine-tingling read. Just be sure to indulge during the light of day.