by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
The Seance turns out to be not the sort of novel one might expect from the title. Or, for that matter, from the preliminary extract purportedly taken from the 1891 Revelations of a Spirit Medium, which contains instructions on how to "manifest a spirit" from silk, luminous paint, benzine, lavender oil and varnish. This paragraph is actually loosely adapted from a passage in David P Abbott's 1907 Behind the Scenes with the Mediums, and the fakery is a warning, albeit an extremely subtle one, to take nothing that follows at face value. It and the title itself are misleading because there are séances certainly, but only in the first section, apart from a quasi-séance-cum-demonstration at the end, and this is not primarily a novel about spiritualism although spiritualism and clairvoyant abilities feature, along with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Rather, The Seance is the story of a mysterious house, and those unfortunate to come into contact with it and to whom bad things tend to happen, which gradually unfolds through a number of interlinked time-shifting narratives.
The first of these is a journal kept by Constance Langton in 1889, describing her troubled life in London with a (literally) distant father, and a disengaged mother who is inconsolable after the death of Constance's younger sister Alma. In an effort to help her mother come to terms with her grief, Constance becomes involved in spiritualism and delves into the world of phoney mediumship. She manages to convince her mother that Alma has returned, with unintended consequences, and this section ends with Constance's timely discovery that she has inherited from an unknown relative a large but essentially worthless property in Suffolk called Wraxford Hall.
Part two is the narrative of a Suffolk solicitor, John Montague, written in 1870, with his experiences both of the Hall and its owner, the Svengaliesque mesmerist and all-round 'superior intelligence' Magnus Wraxford. Montague details the house's troubled history, and how it finally came into Magnus's possession. The next two sections are by Eleanor Unwin, later Wraxford, dated 1866 and 1868 respectively, and describe her troublesome and unwanted supernatural 'visitations', how because of her abilities she becomes an object of Magnus's attention, and what happens as a result. After a brief interpolation by Montague there is a final section by Constance in 1889 which brings events to a thunderous climax, satisfyingly pulls together the various narratives, and signs off with a poignant denouement.
The language generally is a good pastiche of late Victorian prose though there are some suspect sentence constructions that belong to the modern era. The dialogue and manners seem authentic enough, and there is attention to period detail that bespeaks a great deal of background research and reading of Victorian novels to capture an authentic atmosphere. The journal structure is reminiscent of the multiple-narrative style of Wilkie Collins, particularly The Moonstone, and Harwood echoes Collins's interest in the unjust and disreputable lying just underneath the surface of conventional society. The female-in-peril aspect of The Woman in White is a particularly obvious reference.
After a brief early appearance unmasking a fraudulent medium, the SPR features prominently in the latter stages of the novel, when investigators under the flamboyant leadership of the fictional Vernon Raphael visit Wraxford Hall to try to get to the bottom of the curious goings-on (though it is unclear why some members considered there might be a paranormal element to the Wraxford Hall mystery). Some appreciation of psychical research in the 1880s helps here. A character says, "Professor Sidgwick remarked in a lecture the other day...", a reference to the first president (1882-4 and 1888-92) of the SPR. Raphael himself we are told had exposed a number of 'subtle frauds', including one that had foxed no less an investigator than Frank Podmore himself. Podmore, another real person, was the investigator who had examined a number of cases for the seminal SPR work Phantasms of the Living, and had a marked reputation for scepticism. Alas, for all his perspicacity, while Raphael's verdict on the Wraxford case is delivered with panache, it is largely wrong.
Classic gothic elements abound, in the depiction of the crumbling house, the melodrama of dastardly plotting husbands and vulnerable heroines one step from either the workhouse or the madhouse, a propensity for thunderstorms, the obligatory secret room, and the giant suit of armour that plays a pivotal role. The description of Wraxford Hall, that "there was not a straight line to be seen", evokes another famous creepy building, Shirley Jackson's Hill House, and there other oblique allusions to Jackson's story: one of the main characters in The Seance is called Eleanor, but is Nell to her intimates; the main character in The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor, referred to affectionately, if patronisingly, as Nell. The country solicitor to the estate in The Seance is John Montague; the man in charge at Hill House is another John Montague. Most strikingly, the John Montague in The Séance writes to Wraxford Hall's new owner that she should "burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt", while John Montague at Hill House says that a former tenant had told him it "ought to be burned down and the ground sowed with salt."
There are, too, hints of MR James's Count Magnus, not just in Magnus Wraxford's name but also in references in both stories to alchemy, a sarcophagus fastened with padlocks that opens, a mysterious and fearsome forest, and perhaps the similarity between the names of James's protagonist Mr Wraxall and The Seance's Wraxford Hall. And James himself provides yet another Montague, his first name.
Thus added to the largely successful attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the 19th century uncanny novel are knowing postmodern winks. Whether these touches add to the depth of the novel or are merely the author amusing himself is best left to the reader to decide. After all, although Wraxford Hall is a major character in The Seance, it is not, unlike Hill House, portrayed as a living entity, so the parallels are actually spurious. These connections are satisfying if spotted but not necessary to an appreciation of the story, which is played straight and does generate some genuine chills. The result is a twisting page-turner that could have been tired and derivative but instead is a worthy successor to all those works on which it has built its foundations.