February 2009

Classic inspiration for spine-tingling chills

By John Harwood
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John Harwood's second novel ought to be read aloud, through the reek of cigar smoke, port wine, yuletide logs and leather bindings. The Seance, like its predecessor The Ghost Writer, takes up the bookish thread of classic British supernatural fiction as if it had never been cut by modernity. Fortunately, Harwood writes so well that an uninitiated reader can perfectly enjoy his tale of atmospheric mystery and dread without catching all the gothic and Victorian allusions. With the right key, however, The Seance offers a first-rate passport into the strange and chilling realm of literature where Harwood plays and with such postmodern abandon.

And so, dear reader, here is a brief inventory of The Seance's sources—a whirlwind tour of the book's ingenious exploitation of the genre's traditional plot devices. If you decide to investigate the original works, please proceed with care. Once you cross this threshold, any possibility of real ghosts will pale by comparison to the genuine terrors of these imagined ones:

1.) An uncanny piece of armor inspires mortal fear (Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto).

2.) A young woman is threatened in an isolated house by an evil tormentor (Matthew Lewis' The Monk, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho).

3.) A bizarre and blasphemous electrical experiment wreaks havoc (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).

4.) A man deranged by love for his wife exploits her special condition to explore the permeable boundary between life and death (Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher).

5.) The legal matter of a strange bequest leads our heroine on a dangerous path of self-discovery (Mrs. Riddell, passim).

6.) A dark and charming man of great intelligence and cruelty seduces a beautiful woman in order to feed his desire for immortality (Bram Stoker, Dracula).

The catalogue of references could continue with a social history of spiritualism in the late Victorian period and arrive at last at the great ghost stories of Montague Rhodes James, the point from which Harwood launched his debut novel. It is a scary and joyful ride. Hold on tight. The horses are about to run wild through the dark wood.

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The Seance

The Seance

By John Harwood
ISBN 9780151012039

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