Review: The Seance by John Harwood

4 out of 5 spooky stars

First of all – look at this marvelous paperback. I mean, glory in it’s fabu-losity.

And the drop caps! Each one was different, too. Such a lovely thing.

This is part of my October TBR list (whoo hoo for spooky reads!) and it did not disappoint. I love nothing more than a gothic romance. It’s my favorite genre. I especially love when there is a house at the center of it, specially if it sounds good in an English accent: Wraxford Hall…. which sounds like Wrawksfurd Hawl if you don’t know what an English accent sounds like. But let me set the stage…

I would argue that a true gothic romance is innately feminine. They are either a vehicle for the author to discuss feminism, or to continue the age-old misogynist themes that show the woman as a fainting, useless object, only there to be used, violated, or an innocent vessel to be saved from depredation. It’s all about repressed sexuality, and who bears the weight of expressed sexuality? Women, especially when …. well, can you find a time period where women are allowed to freely express their sexuality? No. Men can go around bangin’ anything in a skirt, but a woman who is sexual is a broken object. This is set between 1866 and 1889 – right in the meat of the Victorian era, where society hemmed women in very tightly. You dare not show an ankle or any sign of mental illness or be troublesome to your husband. “Hysteria” or “nervousness” could get you put away faster than a good coachman can groom a horse. This book has a really good cast of smart women stuck in terrible circumstances, who work to save themselves. It does some great exploration of women’s issues.

Constance Langton is the daughter of a grieving mother, a neglectful father more interested in his book about morals than his wife and daughter (ironic much?), and the sister of a dead girl. Sadly, Constance’s mother has never gotten over the death of Alma who died of scarletina (I think that’s Scarlet Fever in American). It doesn’t matter to her that she has a daughter still living. As a result of this, Constance grows up feeling like an outsider. They live near a foundling hospital and Constance’s creative imagination leads her to wonder if she’s a foundling they took in. That might explain their lack of affection or even engagement.

As Constance grows, her mother’s melancholy doesn’t lift. In desperation, Constance enters the world of spiritualism to try and bring her out of it. Sadly, tragedy ensues, and Constance is left alone. She goes to live with her uncle, and comes across an advertisement, asking Constance Langdon, if she is the daughter of Hester Jane Langton (nee Price) to please contact such-and-such lawyer. Intrigued, she answers the ad, and meets John Montague. He is visibly shocked at her appearance, as if he recognizes her, but tries to play it off. He tells her she has inherited an estate from a distant relation. The name, Wraxford Hall, is faintly recognizable, related to some tragedy or scandal. As she has no idea who this mysterious relation is, she probes Mr. Montegue about why he is surprised by her appearance, and he grudgingly admits she looks like someone he knew. He’s not very forthcoming, and says all that matters is that she is on record as her mother’s daughter. When pressed for what he knows about the hall or her own past, he says he must think about it, and will get back to her. He urges her to sell the land and pay off the debt, then enjoy what money remains, never stepping foot in the Hall.

A few days later she receives a big package. Inside is the bulk of our story. Wraxford Hall has been the site of many mysterious disappearances and even murder. In it, Montegue relates his relation with the Hall through the various owners, until it came to Magnus Wraxford and the disappearance of his strange uncle, Cornelius. There is also a diary of a woman named Eleanor Unwin, a young woman on the outs with her family. She had a bad fall, and afterwords had strange experiences. Plagues by headaches and horrible nightmares, she starts to sleepwalk and then have what she calls “visitations”. She sees people who she knows are dead, and occasionally, people she doesn’t recognize. She tries to keep this secret, but everyone is acting like her behavior is a bid for attention, because her younger sister is getting married. Her hideous mother lets her go to her friend, Ada in the countrysdie, solely keep her from throwing shadows in her sister’s shine. She meets Montegue and Magnus Wraxford, and ends up embroiled in the mysteries of Wraxford Hall.

I really enjoyed this. It gave me what I want from a spooky gothic story. Lots of ambiance and mystery and discoveries – also betrayal and lies and intrigue! There  is one character said to be living a double life. I felt it should have been shown more in the earlier stages of the book. Also, at this time, no one but the worst libertine would think it ok for a woman, young and unmarried, to go off with a group of men to a deserted house. No respectable woman would even do it – knowing it would ruin her reputation. Also, there was public kissing in this. Just no. That didn’t happen and it rings such a false note for someone who reads a lot of historical, or actual period literature.

Other than that small complaint, I would recommend this. I also want to read his first novel. Can never get enough gothic romance!

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