McOmber takes full advantage of Victorian sensibilities in fashioning his novel, protagonists romanticizing what they cannot understand, imbuing the world beyond death with near mystical qualities. After her mother’s traumatic death when Jane Silverlake was five, her father withdrew into sheltered place as a collector of arcane curiosities, their secluded home becoming a repository of despair and funereal gloom. The private awareness of unusual “gifts” has set the solitary girl apart from her peers. Though her dead mother was never affectionate, Jane clings to final desperate whispers she barely remembers, the woman’s urgency to beware the other world, the one that will sap your unwitting soul. Jane has appropriated the special “gifts” she became conscious of after the death—objects animated by vibration as though from a life force, physical emanations that can even transfer to those Jane touches: “Where my mother had just been poisoned, I thrived.”
A close relationship with Madeline Lee, come to Hampstead Heath from London when the girls are near fifteen, gives the shy Jane an opportunity to experience friendship for the first time. The addition to their charmed circle of handsome Nathan Ashe, son of an important man in Parliament, makes the group complete. The girls are nearing twenty-two when Nathan returns from the Crimean War even more moody and withdrawn than before. The girls’ major concern for Nathan is the influence of cult leader and “charismatic mystic” Ariston Day, leader of the Temple of the Lamb that proves irresistible to the young scions of London’s wealthy elite. Nathan’s sudden disappearance has all of London astir, even the famed Inspector Vidoq, who has come out of retirement to lead the investigation.
Alluding to events that disturbed the harmony of the three friends just before Nathan’s disappearance, Jane holds her secrets close to her heart, her worries exacerbated by the otherworldly experiences she has shared with Nathan (and that he has then shared with Ariston Day), experiences that may lead the uninitiated into grave danger when they seek to recreate the true Garden of Eden, bridging two worlds. The depth of Jane’s realizations, the form her powers take, is revealed slowly, simultaneously with the faltering friendship with Maddy, stress dividing the girls in opinion and intention.
Jane remembers younger days, when their elegant friendship was not yet fettered by petty jealousies and thoughts of “unnatural forces.” Jane, however, is no longer the lonesome girl lurking in the shadows. As she recalls the restorative walks on the Heath and the discussions in her father’s garden, a sort of grotto resembling the baths of Emperor Diocletian and the broken gods of Rome, she has visions of the red-hooded “Lady of the Flowers” who blooms in the darkness, silent and waiting. She also dreams of a white forest inhabited by strange creatures, perhaps an "unseen force" concealed within the Stoke Morrow.
Writing in the breathless manner of a young Victorian treading on the murky ground of the netherworld gives the tale an aura of doom in the face of the unknown, but the frivolous sentiments of spoiled young women put off by dirt-stained newsboys and the grubby public is off-putting. While some may immerse themselves in the Victorian ambiance of females romancing the occult and giving life to inanimate objects, I find McOmber’s demands on me as a reader excessive, given the actual substance of the novel. One can easily imagine the public’s fascination with the possibility of breaching the wall between life and death in an era when spiritualists thrive, but the facts of this case are embellished by fantastical conceits that invest powers in a deluded female with too much time on her hands. It goes without saying that Ariston Day is the incarnation of evil—at the very least a murderer—who embodies society’s fears of homosexuality. For fantasy, I find vampire fare more inspirational and decidedly more tasty.