The Seance
John Harwood
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Buy *The Seance* by John Harwood online

The Seance
John Harwood
Mariner BOoks
336 pages
October 2009
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Seance.

With his tale awash in paranormal and sinister apparitions, much of John Harwood’s Victorian novel is seized with a creeping, mortal dread that coils around the black clouds boiling far above Wraxford Hall. The vast ramshackle estate has a dark history - lightening bolts unexpectedly strike, a ghostly suit of armor towers among the shadows, the dark and sinister powers of mesmerism reign, and the Hall’s reclusive owners, Cornelius Wraxford and his nephew, Magnus, seem to have died in mysterious circumstances.

Down-on-her-luck Constance Langton is intrigued to learn from John Montague, the family solicitor for the Wraxford estate, that she is the principal beneficiary and sole heir to Wraxford Hall. Montague’s initial surprise that Constance is a distant relative is tempered by the Hall’s evil reputation, centering on the sudden disappearance of Magnus’s wife, Eleanor Unwin, and her baby daughter, Clara, on the night that Magnus reportedly planned some kind of bizarre experiment to bring forth the disturbed spirits of the dead.

As John tells Constance to give the Hall “a wide berth, especially after dark,” the bitter cold wind howls around his house as though it will never cease and John Montague’s ominous narrative begins. It is indeed a baleful tale of Magnus, a Svengali-like warrior who has an initially charming personally and at first is quite agreeable. In reality, he is a self-serving, manipulative monster who believes in supernatural powers and seeks to harness them for his own ends. Magnus who seeks to trap the unsuspecting Eleanor Unwin into a soulless marriage, endeavoring to exploit her visions of the death of fiancé Edward Ravenscroft before she has even met him, and then of her own disappearance and that of Clara.

A triptych of narratives, The Seance moves between Constance, Eleanor, and the terrifying account of John Montague’s own experiences at Wraxford Hall. Restless and unhappy, separated by time but not necessarily by circumstance, Eleanor and Constance's lives parallel Magnus’s. The center of the story is Eleanor's slow desperation as she starts out in thrall, coming under the spell of Magnus, who seeks to mesmerize her, and then her descent into unhappiness as he subdues her will and shrouds her perception so that it becomes almost impossible for her to escape.

Meanwhile, Constance battles with her desires that she may well be Eleanor’s lost daughter, Clara, drawing on the affinity she feels from reading the first pages of Eleanor’s narrative: “It’s as if the voice I heard from those pages is already familiar to me.” Positive and resolute, Constance is determined to discover the truth behind Eleanor’s bizarre disappearance and the circumstances leading up to that horrific night when the grey mist swirled and the darkness of Wraxford Hall suddenly became absolute.

Neither Eleanor or Constance are able to control their own destinies as their stories gradually interlock and a portrait unfurls of two women often at odds with the rigid morality of Victorian society. In the end, Constance unlocks the key when at Wraxford Manor she becomes caught up in a terrifying frenzy of ghostly goings-on as the armor’s sword  glitters beneath its gloved hand. In the shifting light, the sword seems alert, alive and watchful. Then there’s the giant tomb of the original owner of the Hall, Sir Henry Wraxford, and its massive chest of dark metal that seems to billow a dark and spectral shape.

As this sensational mystery novel moves from the smoky, claustrophobic drawing rooms of London where séances trap the innocent to the wild surrounds of Sussex and the ever-present darkness of Wraxford Hall, the pages are saturated with murder and betrayal, the evil machinations of Magnus Wraxford and the spirits of the dead, the candle flame reflecting beneath a blurred image of faces, and the lives of Constance and Eleanor, separated by only the thinnest and most translucent of veils.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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