Back in 2008, I read John Harwood’s debut novel The Ghost Writer. I mostly enjoyed it, though I thought the ending was wildly improbable, and I made plans to read his second novel, The Seance. It wasn’t until now that my library bought a copy, so I snapped it up.
The novel’s premise is that young Constance Langton has been left a bequest after the devastating death of her mother: the mysterious Wraxford Hall. When she reads the documents in the case, she finds out more about the mystery, but by no means all, and she becomes determined to get to the bottom of the terrible secrets there, even if it means danger and death.
The Seance begins well, with some genuinely eerie Victorian-era otherworldliness. The book is structured a little like The Moonstone, with Constance telling her part of the story, then opening a packet of documents in which various other characters join their voices to hers, sometimes telling about events that happened thirty years ago. (I am sorry to say that the collection of documents is all the resemblance this book bears The Moonstone, however; Harwood isn’t so clever at revealing secrets piecemeal as Collins was.)
Harwood pulls out all the stops for Victorian spookery: a haunted house, mesmerism, seances (of course), a courteously nassssty husband, visions of ghosts, untimely deaths, possessed paintings, disappearances, ghostly monks, ghostly suits of armor, madness, and threats of the asylum. There’s nothing missing except incest and twins. Honestly, he goes all out. I ought to have loved it.
But… do you remember that part in Gaudy Night when Harriet Vane is working on her monograph about Sheridan Le Fanu? She tells us that Wilkie Collins was hampered by the lawyer’s fatal habit of explaining everything. “His dream-phantasies and apparitions are too careful to tuck their shrouds neatly about them and leave no loose ends to trouble us.” And if I’ve compared The Seance to The Moonstone, well, it seems that Harwood has also adopted that lawyer’s fatal habit. One by one, all the shrouds tuck themselves neatly away; all is explained, and there’s a dismal sense of anticlimax.
This book wasn’t terrible. It was reasonably-written Victorian pastiche, which can be fun. But I said that Harwood had pulled out all the stops, and at the end, it was as if the organ’s bellows had collapsed. This makes two books of Harwood’s that I thought were all right, up until the end: I doubt I’ll try another.