Tue
Jun 23 2009 5:02pm

John Harwood’s The Séance

It’s no secret that I love Victorian detective novels, especially of the psychic or supernatural kind. So recently when I heard about John Harwood’s novel The Séance, I figured it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. Well, thanks to a June cold that time occurred sooner than I expected.

The Séance is Harwood’s second novel and the follow-up to his International Horror Guild award-winning debut The Ghost Writer. It won last year’s Aurealis Award for Best Horror novel, and Harwood deftly manipulates the conventions of the genre, yet The Séance is more than simply an homage.

At its heart, The Séance is a novel about one woman’s search for identity in a world where any great show of independence, or even self-preservation, would be enough to earn her the label of “moral insanity” and the threat of incarceration in an insane asylum.

Constance Langton has lived all her life in a house overshadowed by the death of her sister Alma, who died while still an infant. Her mother has never recovered from this child’s death, remaining in mourning for much of Constance’s life. When her father abandons her and her mother, Constance begins to investigate the Spiritualist movement as a possible means of alleviating her mother’s depression. Unfortunately, their methods work too well and her mother soon needs more “proof” that Alma is in Heaven. Events quickly grow beyond Constance’s control, and tragedy occurs, leaving her alone with few prospects. However, after the death of a distant aunt, she inherits Wraxford Hall, and so begins her involvement with the Wraxford Tragedy.

The first advice the family lawyer recommends is that she sell the Hall sight unseen or burn it to the ground and salt the earth afterwards. As all old houses should, Wraxford Hall has a history involving death and insanity. Most recently it was the site of an entire family’s disappearance, an event society is all too eager to blame on the mental derangement of a woman, Nell Wraxford.

Throughout The Séance, Harwood pays homage to the detective tradition as set down by Doyle, Dickens, Blackwood, and Collins. He provides all the trappings expected from the Victorian detective tradition: the “haunted house”: the locked room murder, mesmerism, and the linked narratives within narratives. That Harwood manipulates these elements in an accessible and modern style without resorting to sensationalism is an added pleasure.

There’s no jazzing up of the material by throwing in sex, explosions, and pit-fighting. (Not that I am thinking of any soon-to-be released movie that may or may not star Robert Downey Jr.)

Instead, Harwood creates a series of narratives that echo and mirror each other, while featuring characters we can sympathize with and respect. Constance proves to be an engaging character, and her relationship to the mystery of Nell Wraxford takes on an interesting aspect. Best of all, Harwood provides not just one, but two heroines that we can root for and admire as they challenge the preconceptions of the world around them.

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