A man who believes in supernatural powers and seeks to harness them for his own ends lies at the core of The Séance, a beautifully plotted Victorian ghost story where the craving of power and revenge fuel much of the action. When the poverty-stricken Constance Langton inherits the vast ramshackle Wraxford Hall, the very large but quite uninhabitable manor house that lies on several hundred acres of woodland near the Suffolk coast, she cannot believe that all of the reported terror and cruelty could have taken place there. The house indeed has a dark history, where lightening bolts unexpectedly strike, where a ghostly suit of amour towers among the shadows, where the dark and sinister powers of mesmerism reign, and where the Hall's reclusive owners, Cornelius Wraxford and his only heir, his nephew Magnus, seem to have died in mysterious circumstances.
John Montague, the family solicitor for the Wraxford estate, has sought Constance out to tell her that she is indeed the principal beneficiary and the sole heir to Wraxford Hall. The property is heavily encumbered with debt, the news forcing Constance to reflect on her own difficult circumstances, her estrangement from her uncaring father, her mother dead from heartbreak, and her sister Alma's sudden death. Only through Constance's encounter with the local spiritualist society and the comforts that the séances can bring can Constance lift the burden of guilt and self-reproach. Now living with her Uncle and plagued by an increasing restlessness of spirit, it is not surprising that she is attracted to Montague's strange and sinister tales of Wraxford Hall and that of Eleanor Unwin who was once married to Magnus, but had inexplicably disappeared with her baby daughter Clara on the night Magnus was planning to hold some kind of bizarre experiment.
As the bitter cold and the wind howls around his house as though it would never cease, the narrative of John Montague begins with the tale of a haunted of Monks' Wood: " give the Hall a wide berth, especially after dark," and also of Magnus who has an initially charming personally and at first quite agreeable, but which only compounds the suspicion against him. And then there's Wraxford Hall itself, like a character that lives and breathes within the pages, with its faded tapestries, and its compounding air of desolation, " a cold bleak, echoing place, constantly smelling of damp and decay." The grey mist swirls and the focus changes to Eleanor Unwin whose frightening visions foretell death, particularly that of her fiancé Edward Ravenscroft, "the slender young man in his dark suit of mourning," and her visions of his death before she had even met him, and then her own disappearance and that of Clara.
Restless and unhappy, and separated by time but not necessarily by circumstance Eleanor and Constance's lives steadily parallel as the mystery of Magnus and his strange attachment to Wraxford Hall is steadily revealed. Both women are down on their luck and stifled by the moral strictures of Victorian society. Certainly Eleanor starts out in thrall, coming under the spell of Magnus who seeks to mesmerize her, but he eventually subdues her will and shrouds her perception so that it becomes almost impossible for her to escape from his Machiavellian delights. Meanwhile Constance battles her desire that she may well be Eleanor's lost daughter Clara, drawing on the affinity she feels from the first pages of Eleanor's narrative: "It's as if the voice she heard from those pages was already familiar to me."
With his tale awash with the paranormal and also sinister apparitions, much of John Harwood's novel is seized with a creeping, mortal dread that coils around the black clouds that constantly boil up above Wraxford Hall." Neither Eleanor or Constance are able to control their own destinies as their stories gradually interlock and Constance ends up finding herself at Wraxford Manor, caught up in a terrifying frenzy of ghostly goings-on. As this fine psychological novel moves from the claustrophobic and smoky 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 awash with murder and betrayal, the evil machinations of Magnus Wraxford and the spirits of the dead always around, eventually separating Constance from Eleanor "by only the thinnest of veils." Mike Leonard January 09.