Webb’s compelling gothic thriller set in the vast house of Havenwood is fueled by a séance gone horribly wrong: that of infamous medium Seraphina, a young woman who in 1875 was making a considerable reputation luring the dark spirits into a world inhabited by the wealthy and the elite. Filled with things that go bump in the night, The Vanishing’s opening chapter has Seraphina’s séance suddenly clouded by a rumbling whisper. Something dark and evil, even monstrous, has been unleashed, becoming a force that Seraphina has never before encountered.
For Julia Bishop (whose first-person narrative unfolds in present-day Havenwood), the story that a world-famous medium had once loosed some kind of supernatural evil only compounds her feelings of unease. Prone to blackouts and forgotten conversations and events, whole days seem to have been blanked out since Julia’s scandal and its horrible aftermath took hold of her life. Just three months after the funeral of her husband, enigmatic Adrian Sinclair offers Julia a way of escaping her circumstances with an offer to live in Havenwood and look after his aging mother, the famous horror writer Amaris Sinclair.
Abandoned by her friends and her family and with her prospects rather bleak, Julia sees Adrian’s invitation as a chance to finally leave the nightmare of her life behind. She is a longtime fan of Amaris’s work, her books composed of short stories that culminate in frightening gothic tales of “madness, murder and monstrosities.” Sometimes called “the female Edgar Allan Poe,” bubbly, auburn-haired Amaris seems to fit in perfectly well at Havenwood with its vaguely musty smell and ghostly memories of other lifetimes.
Julia finds herself in this magnificent old house with “a fascinating if a little odd lady” and a housekeeper by the name of Marion who appears as if by magic and attends to her every need. With Julia’s memories always “vague and watery,” she soon learns about the life of Andrew McCullough, the man who originally built the house. Handsome and debonair, Andrew bears a startling resemblance to Drew, the good-looking stable manager who seems to want to sweep vulnerable Julia off her feet at every turn.
The novel's chain of events follows a sometimes haphazard ghostly spiral of dark and frightening occurrences. We aren’t sure whether the events are real or occur only in the deep recesses of Julia’s fractured, deluded mind. Unable to sleep, Julia walks the shadowy hallways of Havenwood, illuminated here and there with the soft glow of a wall sconce. Feeling as though she were in “a strange and magical labyrinth,” Julia sees the rooms folding in on each another, positive they’re filled with spirits and specters from the past. Amaris has warned her not to be surprised that something more sinister is at work, and Julia wonders why.
Adding an unexpected twist, Webb unfurls dark secrets, doomed love, and a mystery that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Soon enough the seeds of suspicion take root in Julia’s mind. Amaris, Adrian, and Drew are far too warm. Webb’s embattled heroine finds herself caught up in Havenwood’s strange and subversive dichotomy. What was once a safe and welcoming haven seethes with an undercurrent of malice and danger. Fear bubbles just below the surface while the real danger perhaps lies just beyond the snowed-in estate. Here in the wilds of the forest lurks something so much darker.
Webb’s sense of place and time is superb, despite utilizing some clichés typical of this genre. Her sequences depicting Julia’s neurotic encounters and Seraphina’s embattled séance are atmospheric and thoroughly chilling. The real danger here—beyond the eccentricities of a strange and potentially insane old lady—are paintings that seem to come to life, the giggling ghosts of taffeta-adorned society girls, apparitions that appear to float, and an evil presence with possibly murderous intent that lurks among the stacks of an ages-old library filled with first editions of famous authors. Webb does a great job of creating this ambiance, writing an atmospheric tale that is quintessentially Gothic in which the reader can only guess at her heroine’s emotional state of mind as reality crumbles and shatters around her.