Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Seance.
As a desperately lonely child, Constance Langton imagines the Underworld beneath the kitchen floorboards in her austere home. Only her books and their stories allow the girl to transcend the misery of her daily existence, offering occasional respite from the reality of daily life. After the untimely death of her younger sister, Alma, Constance’s mother goes into a decline, withdrawing to her room, her husband living as though alone.
In the late 19th century, Constance is growing up in an England of scientific advances and the public’s obsession with the spiritual life. Mediums hold séances to reconnect the grieving with their lost loved ones. Soon after her father abandons the family to Constance’s caretaking of an increasingly depressed mother, the girl avails herself of a local medium.
Even though she understands the false promises of communicating with the dead, somewhat complicit with the spiritualist giving the séance, Constance hopes to bring her mother some little peace of mind, a comfort she has never been able to provide despite her best intentions. But subsequent séances only hasten her mother’s desire to join the dead Alma.
After the tragic results of the séance, Constance finds herself alone, dreading a future life with her father and his sister, one of restrictions and restraints. She secures a temporary home with her mother’s bachelor brother, a man Constance never knew existed during her mother’s lifetime. Shockingly, Constance also inherits some property at this time - Wraxford Hall, a crumbling estate with a troubled history.
This unexpected inheritance yields two other tales, those of solicitor John Montague and Eleanor Wraxford, harrowing stories of disappearance and mesmerism, of family secrets and perhaps insanity. Constance, determined to learn the true history of Wraxford Hall, is herself at the center of a mystery, the haunted estate rife with stories of murder and superstition, blackmail and betrayal: “Sell the Hall unseen… burn it if you will. But never live there.”
Gullible and lonely, Constance is not unlike Nell Wraxford, a helpless woman in a man’s world, subject to accusations of fanciful ideas and questionable reason. Ponderous and dark, Harwood’s novel accurately portrays an era defined by superstition and the occult, a difficult read with little to lift the novel from its weighty premise of a charlatan and a murderer.