Harrow may be among the most elite schools in the world, but Andrew Taylor is not happy to be going there. He’s been kicked out of his school back home in America, and Harrow is his last chance to make good with his dad. He intends to knuckle down and stay out of trouble, but it’s not easy to adjust to a new school in a new place where all the students already know each other. A difficult situation becomes impossible when Andrew begins to think that he’s being haunted by a malevolent ghost, who it turns out is a former lover of Lord Byron.
Justin Evans’s The White Devil is a wonderfully spooky, well-paced ghost story with a generous dose of literary history thrown in. To get free from the ghost, Andrew ends up having to research Lord Byron’s years at Harrow, with the help of Piers Fawkes—the alcoholic house master who is writing a play about Byron. It’s all very exciting, and the stakes are high. This ghost is angry, and those close to Andrew seem to be specifically targeted. Now I’m not entirely sure why researching and then telling the ghost’s story is supposed to stop the ghost, but this is the kind of book where you just sort of go with it. At least they did recruit a priest for back-up. (And he’s a likable priest, too!)
The story is great fun. It doesn’t drag, and the suspense builds nicely throughout. It is scary, but not so scary that it kept me up at night. The motivations of the ghost are specific enough and explained enough that it was easy to confine him to the world of the book. I find books with more generalized, undefined menace to be much scarier. Evans did, in my opinion, miss some opportunities to bring in some intriguing ambiguity regarding what is real or what Andrew himself wants, but he opted for a straightforward story. I’m not complaining about that, but a little push in a more ambiguous direction would have made an exciting story into a really haunting book.
My one complaint is with the characters, some of whom seemed oddly flat to me. Andrew himself is well-drawn, but the personalities of the supporting cast kept shifting. Evans seemed to be trying to create suspicion regarding the characters’ motivations, but he never stuck with it. Fawkes, for example, initially delays intervening with the ghost in hopes that he and Andrew can gather more information about Byron before sending the ghost away. However, he regrets that choice almost immediately. The internal conflict doesn’t last long enough to be convincing.
The ending is perhaps one of the most successful elements of the book, even though I have some mixed feelings about it. [Note: I’m going to do my best to be coy, but the rest of this paragraph will of necessity be a little spoilery.] I love it when authors aren’t afraid to take risks with their heroes, to make the peril into real peril. The ending is not tidy, and bravo to Evans for that! But the great character-building he does with Andrew raises some questions about why Andrew does what he does at the end, and Evans doesn’t really explore that adequately, in my opinion. The whole closing sequence reads as if we’re intended to think one thing about it (i.e., sacrifice), but there’s a whole other potential reading (i.e., release, escape, suicide) that doesn’t seem to enter into the narrative in the closing sequences. It’s another missed opportunity. Of course, the fact that I’m thinking about this possible alternate reading may indeed mean that Evans subtly planted the idea there, and I’d rather he be subtle than to smack me upside the head with it. So my feelings are mixed.
I do love a book that just tells a good story, and Evans does that. But what makes horror fiction truly great is the way it employs metaphor to give flesh to our inchoate fears. Evans never quite crosses that bridge, and so this very good horror story doesn’t quite live up to the best of the genre.