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The Haunting of L

The Haunting of L

by Howard Norman

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The final book in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy is a tremendous accomplishment: a novel about spirit photographs, adultery and greed that moves from Halifax to the Far North and back again.

It is 1927. When young Peter Duvett accepts a job as an assistant to the esteemed portraitist Vienna Linn, in the remote town of Churchill, Manitoba, his life


The final book in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy is a tremendous accomplishment: a novel about spirit photographs, adultery and greed that moves from Halifax to the Far North and back again.

It is 1927. When young Peter Duvett accepts a job as an assistant to the esteemed portraitist Vienna Linn, in the remote town of Churchill, Manitoba, his life changes in more ways than he could possibly have imagined. Across Canada, Linn has been arranging and photographing “gruesome accidents” for the private collection, in London, of a Mr. Radin Heur — theirs is a macabre duet of violence and art.

After a strenuous journey, Peter arrives in Churchill on the very night of his employer’s wedding — only to be seduced by Vienna’s brilliant and beautiful new wife, Kala Murie. In the months that follow, shuttling between Vienna’s makeshift darkroom and Kala Murie’s bed, Peter is drawn more and more deeply to Kala, as he comes to share her obsession with “spirit pictures,” photographs in which the faces of the dead, deeply missed or altogether forgotten, mysteriously appear during the process of development.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Haunting of L is aptly named, for it is a remarkably haunting and evocative book, a story about passions of all species — adulterous, murderous and artistic — that grip not merely the living but even the dead. This is a memorable and gripping book by one of our most significant novelists." — Scott Turow

“Howard Norman’s The Haunting of L. is his best work yet, a novel of romantic suspense which grips our attention and touches our hearts. Through Mr. Norman’s extraordinary gift of listening to the past, these voices speak again, photographs light up and move, lives driven by spiritual as much as by earthly passions are recovered and redeemed.” — Thomas Pynchon

“Mr. Norman writes, as always, with an insistent otherness — he most certainly is observing a world, in the words of Kipling, ‘beside the one you know.’ His vision is beautiful, disquieting, and cumulatively quite shockingly persuasive.” — David Mamet

“As with The Bird Artist, Howard Norman here makes brilliant metaphoric use of the portrait-maker’s compulsion. Mysterious, morally complex, and erotically charged, The Haunting of L. is compelling on every level.” — Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever

Visionary writer Howard Norman completes his acclaimed Canadian trilogy -- which began with The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard -- with this chilling fable about a scheming photographer who arranges fatal accidents so he can be on hand to photograph the dead and fake images of spirits emerging from their bodies.
Richard Bernstein
Howard Norman's The Haunting of L. is a chilling fable of moral blindness and artistic ambition, from a writer of complexly tragic vision.
New York Times
Vienna Linn is one nasty piece of work. He's a photographer cashing in on disaster—bloody train wrecks, airplane crashes. Worse yet, he engineers his grisly tableaux, planning the "accidents" for the priciest shot. A twist on the paparazzi who cram today's tabloids with horrors, he's working in the 1920s in remote Canada, the bleak turf Norman previously staked out in two fine novels (The Museum Guard and The Bird Artist). Linn isn't the only wonder in this Gothic spellbinder. His wife is a hybrid mystic/ seductress who takes as her lover Linn's protégé, the novel's keenly observant narrator. Norman is a laconic stylist, and his characters' very curious doings seem even more peculiar when delivered in a deadpan tone. Part thriller, part meditation on appearance and reality, fakery and art, the book is a very strange, entertaining read.
—Paul Evans

Publishers Weekly
The stark, unforgiving climate and landscape of Manitoba and Halifax, the symbiotic relationship of art and violence and the unlimited vagaries of human behavior are the idiosyncratic obsessions of this haunting novel, the final book in Norman's Canadian trilogy. Like its predecessors (The Bird Artist; The Museum Guard), it offers a potent mix of eccentric characters, mixed moral motives and love story. In 1926, Peter Duvett meets and sleeps with Kala Murie on her wedding day in Churchill, an isolated village on the shores of the Hudson Bay. Kala's husband is Vienna Linn, the photographer Peter has come to assist. He has traveled from Halifax, escaping painful memories of his mother's suicide or, as he is convinced, her murder. Soon Peter becomes the repository of the emotions and secrets of Kala and Vienna's hazardous partnership. Vienna takes money from an English millionaire, Radin Heur, to arrange and then photograph gory disasters. Unfortunately, the most recent job was botched, so the couple is on the run from the millionaire. Vienna, who eventually discovers Kala's adultery, combines revenge and business when he arranges for a plane with Kala aboard to crash. Kala, however, is merely injured, while the other passengers are killed. Vienna coolly draws on his wife's belief in "spirit photographs" to doctor the pictures of the victims so they seem to show the souls of the dead rising from the bodies, and Heur sends a British verification expert to Canada to authenticate the photos. The wary threesome of Kala, Vienna and Peter are to meet him in Halifax, where a sense of menace rises to a crescendo. The progressive intrusion of the alien and repressed into the familiar what Freud calls the "uncanny" provides the rich base of Norman's art, in which he is becoming a practitioner of uncommon subtlety. (Apr.) Forecast: Norman's steadily growing reputation should ensure a solid audience for this beautifully crafted novel. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Talk about trouble. In this wrap-up to Norman's Canadian trilogy, set in the 1920s, Peter works for a man who photographs accidents he has set up for a deranged client and whose beautiful wife believes in spirit pictures. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A very promising idea-the phenomenon of "spirit photographs" (in which "uninvited guests" may be seen)-is somewhat clumsily developed in this disappointing final volume of Norman's Canadian Trilogy (The Bird Artist, 1994; The Museum Guard, 1998). Narrator Peter Duvett is a young photographer's assistant whom we first meet in 1927 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as he lies in bed with his employer Vienna Linn's wife Kala Murie, herself an artist of sorts, who offers "dramatic performances" attesting to the veracity of photographs in which dead people inexplicably appear alongside living ones. Peter's narrative ranges backward and forward, focusing on the amoral Linn's fraudulent doctoring of disaster photographs (disasters that he also "arranges") created for godlike multimillionaire Englishman Radu Heur, a jaded connoisseur of catastrophes (who never appears). Another narrative strand reaches back to Peter's childhood, and layers in (in distractingly rapid succession) his father's accidental death, his mother's unhappy second marriage and probable murder (still unsolved), and Peter's frustrated retreat to Manitoba (where he encounters Vienna and Kala, falls in love with the latter, and reluctantly learns their several secrets). Following the failure of another planned disaster, a "verificationist" arrives from London to determine whether Heur will order the duplicitous Linn's murder, more disasters occur, and the characters who survive them are last seen on shipboard en route to England, just before a final twist that readers will have long since foreseen. Does this sound like Iris Murdoch after a few too many Molsons? Norman doesn't seem to have decided what he wanted to do with his novel'srich theme, and fills its pages with often illogically related bizarre incidents. The best things here are the tales of ghostly photographic appearances attributed to the book that's the slinky Kala's "bible": spiritualist Georgiana Houghton's The Unclad Spirit. Norman is a lively and imaginative writer, but too much of The Haunting of L. consists, so to speak, of a story that really isn't there.

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 7.64(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt


In the four-poster bed, my employer's wife, Kala Murie, lying beside me, the world seemed in perfect order. It was four o'clock in the morning, March 13, 1927. I almost drifted off to sleep. But then I felt a jolt of unease. This was natural to my character. It occurred to me that hidden deep inside my sense of the world in perfect order was the fear that the worst was on its way.
It was snowing. The room had light only from the coals in the fireplace and the streetlamp outside the window.

The world in perfect order. My room at least. I was living in room 28 of the Haliburton House Inn on Morris Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Herald for March 12 carried the headline: TEMP. DROPS TO COLDEST IN 50 YEARS. There was a photograph of a man wearing a thick overcoat, face invisible under a knit cap, leaning into the terrible blizzard that took the city nearly a week to dig out from under. The caption of that particular photograph was Postal Employee Dirk Macomb heads home — the right direction? A little humor in the bleakness.

Also on page 1: the British ambassador to Canada would stay in Halifax until the weather cleared. The Shipping Page announced that a Danish steamer, the Lifland, after delivering sugar for the Woodside Refinery and lying in harbor for a week, was locked in ice and couldn't set out for Glasgow via London. Also on the Shipping Page: "The schooner Annabel Cameron was at first waterlogged but within a day ice-logged, and the entire crew finally rescued by heroic dorymen navigating a barrage of needle ice and fog." I remember thinking that that sentence had a nice ring to it.

More important to my immediate situation, though, was the brief article on page 11: Expert to Lecture on Spirit Photographs. That expert was Kala Murie.

Kala and her husband — my employer, Vienna Linn — and I had arrived at the Haliburton House Inn on January 8. Our train journey had originated in Churchill, Manitoba, and had taken a total of nine days, the last leg of which, Winnipeg-Halifax, was all fits and starts. The blizzard hit mercilessly hard on that stretch. Half a dozen times the engineers had to stop the train and with the help of porters hack away at ice. "You get a thousand miles of snow on a roof," a porter said — he was clutching a cup of hot tea, his boots caked with frozen slush — "I've witnessed it cave that roof in."
Vienna and Kala at first occupied room 5 together in the main building. My room was number 28 in the annex, a building with a separate entrance next door. But by early March Kala had moved to room 20. As Kala put it, their marriage was "a loveless sham — always had been, I suppose." She could be quite blunt. To describe it in the simplest of terms, Vienna was a photographer and I was his assistant. He had persuaded the proprietor of the Haliburton House Inn, Mrs. Bettina Sorrel, to rent him use of one of the pantries directly off the kitchen as a darkroom. Ten dollars a month.

I had been away from Halifax since September 1926. When I returned, I never once walked past the house where my mother, aunt, and I lived together, at 127 Robie Street. It was as if the past would judge me. The house would judge me. That merely looking at it would somehow cause me to calibrate my life, and in all aspects of usefulness I would come up short.

Next to the bed in my room was a square oak table. On the table was a round doily, a heavy iron candleholder, a white candle in it. The housekeeper always put a new candle in, if need be. Otherwise, there were oil lamps set about. The armoire was nearly six feet in height, a few inches taller than I am. It was situated across from the bed in the left-hand corner of the room, next to a window overlooking Morris Street. For Halifax, Morris Street was steeply inclined. One late afternoon I looked out and saw a daredevil boy ice-skate down. The street was glazed in ice. The boy disappeared into the fog extending up from the harbor.

Also in room 28 was a thickly braided, oval rug stretched partly under the bed. And a writing desk, with a blotter, inkwell, drawer full of Haliburton House stationery.

On the evening of March 12 it had taken me half an hour to get the room's temperature at a comfortable level. That is, pleasing to Kala. We were talking all along. I finally took the the Bible from its drawer, propped the window open using the upright Bible, and that did the trick. "Just enough cold air let in." Kala said. "Thank you. Now the bedcovers have a purpose."

I was not a photographer. I didn't have much talent for that, or ambition. But all the time I was inventing captions and thinking hard about captions. On any given day — long before I ever met Kala and Vienna — I might be, how to put it, preoccupied by captions. The habit could some days nearly wear me out; it was pitiable, like talking to myself in captions. So that, for instance, if I left my raincoat inside on a rainy day, I would immediately think, Man Who Forgot Raincoat Standing on Street. Now and then I would startle myself. One time I stepped up to the counter in an apothecary and said, "Man with Headache Asking for Help" Stepping back a few cautious paces, the pharmacist said, "Are you asking for headache powder, son?" He looked as if he might call the police at any moment. "Yes — yes," I finally said. "That's exactly what I meant."

After we'd made love on the night of March 12, I slipped from the bed and stood by the window and watched Kala sleep. At one point deep in the night, I held my arms outstretched, pointed my thumbs upward as if framing a scene that I was about to photograph, and thought: View of My Employer's Wife. Why I didn't think something more intimate, such as View of Kala Murie Sleeping, I don't know. She slept on her stomach, her dark red hair fanned out on the pillow, her face all but hidden. She had turned the bed-clothes down to her knees. More than once she'd told me that the only part of her that ever got cold was her feet and legs up to her knees, and that it had been that way since childhood. "I always thought — when I was six or seven — that my knees were full of ice or something like that. Strange what a child will think. That my knees kept everything below them cold. I may have dreamt it, I don't remember." Though she kept a nightshirt close at hand, Kala slept with nothing on except for woolen fisherman's socks, sometimes two pairs. In fact, just before dinner on March 12 I'd accompanied her through the blizzard to Springs All-Purpose, a store at the bottom of Morris Street, where Kala purchased three new pairs of socks. I often took a walk with her. During one, she asked to see the house I'd lived in, and I quickly said, "It burnt down. It burnt to the ground." It was a lie that caused me such remorse that the following week I visited my mother's snow-covered grave in the Robie Street cemetery and apologized out loud.

Meet the Author

The Haunting of L. is Howard Norman’s third novel in his Canadian trilogy. The previous two are The Bird Artist, a National Book Award finalist, and The Museum Guard, available in Vintage Canada. Howard Norman is a recipient of the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Washington, D.C. and Vermont.

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