Messages from Beyond

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Sunday, February 15, 2009


By John Harwood

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 328 pp. $25

Many of the creepy late Victorian familiars abound in The Séance: the dark woods of the English countryside, the ruined mansion with secret passages and hidden chambers and fog on the moors. There's even a sarcophagus in a dead fireplace, a tricked-out suit of armor and some apparatus for collecting electricity when lightning strikes. Drafts blow out candles at the most inopportune times.

The literary conventions of the Victorian suspense novel are present as well: the nested narratives that arrive in mysterious packets, abandoned diaries and even a family tree -- complete with married cousins. Australian John Harwood, whose Ghost Writer won an International Horror Award in 2004, writes with Poe and Dickens peering over his shoulders, shaking their wizened heads perhaps over one modern twist: The strongest characters in The Séance are two women of action.

Constance Langton, the narrator of the story, has known little but grief in her young life. Her younger sister dies of scarlatina at the age of 2, and her mother goes into perpetual mourning. Poor Constance is ignored and abandoned by her distant father, and her only succor becomes the chance that a medium at a séance might provide a way for her mother to contact the dead child.

But the dead rarely answer our calls, and when Constance pretends that they do, she brings down even greater sorrow. Her salvation seems to come from a sudden bequest by a distant relative. She inherits the foreboding Wraxford Hall and with it a packet of papers that reveals some of the reasons behind the disappearance, 25 years earlier, of Eleanor Unwin, her infant daughter and her mesmerizing and villainous husband. Eleanor's secret journal hints at the truth, and the two stories -- Constance's and Eleanor's -- mesh in the thrilling conclusion, the result of happy coincidences that devotees of Victorian novels may relish. Indeed, the ways in which Harwood plays with the conventions of the form provide the main source of delight.

Curiously, however, the séances themselves undermine the witty fun. The novel's epigraph gives away the trick of making a luminous vapor appear, and the séances to which Constance brings her mother are exposed as frauds. The final séance in the book hoodwinks us as well, elaborately revealing the man inside the monster, the spooks made out of fine gauze and suspended disbelief.

-- Keith Donohue is the author of "The Stolen Child" and the forthcoming novel "Angels of Destruction."

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