The story begins in 1880’s London with Constance Langton, a young woman whose life has been marked by death and abandonment. Living with her uncle and uncertain of her future (and even uncertain of her own history), Constance is informed that she has inherited Wraxford Hall–a centuries-old estate where an entire family disappeared twenty years before. The lawyer who brings her the news of her inheritance tells her that the Hall is an evil place with a very dark history, and that she should “sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plow the earth with salt…but never live there.” From there, Constance must delve into the dark mysteries surrounding the Wraxford family and the tragedies that have surrounded the family and the Hall.
The story is very intricately plotted, filled with dark family secrets, mysteries, and, of course, ghosts. Spiritualism plays a large role in the plot–a seance sets the novel’s events in motion, and the history of the Wraxfords has an enormous amount to do with mesmerism. The settings are extremely well-rendered, whether it’s a dark manor house in a thunderstorm or a busy London street. There’s an excellent sense of historical time and place, as well–you’re completely and believably drawn into 19th century England.
I also enjoyed Constance as a character–she’s a very strong protagonist, and one feels drawn to her need to make sense of her past and to create an identity for herself. Actually, all of the characters are very well-conceived. They are clearly “stock” characters of the Gothic tradition (the madwoman, the handsome artist, the mysterious nobleman, the orphaned heroine, etc.), but Harwood makes them seem real, new, and easy to feel for.
The Seance is atmospheric and creepy, and quite compelling! It’s the sort of story that pulls you in and keeps you reading as the suspense grows and the mysteries unravel. I ended up reading it in two sittings, I found it so difficult to put down. Readers who like Horror, Historical Fiction, and Suspense will all find something to enjoy in this novel.
For those who enjoy the details about spiritualism as well as the historical setting, Affinity by Sarah Waters might be a good choice. The Little Stranger, also by Waters, might also be good for those who like unreliable narrators, unresolved endings, and a truly creepy atmosphere. Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden has a lot in common with The Seance, like deep family secrets and Victorian period detail, but the tone is not quite as dark. Her more recent The Distant Hours might also be a good choice, with its castle setting, suspense, and a plot that revolves around unraveling deep family secrets. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is also a good Gothic read, as is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Peter Ackroyd’s The Trial of Elizabeth Cree might appeal to readers who enjoy intricate stories and the atmospheric detail of Victorian London–it’s more of a grisly historical murder mystery than it is a Gothic novel. Those after a real Victorian “sensation novel” might try Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.