The Séance is a modern novel that is written like a Victorian gothic mystery. It features narrations by several different characters–a typical Victorian device that was used successfully in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.
John Harwood’s novel is difficult to describe without going too far into the plot, because some important characters do not appear until later in the book. It begins with the story of Constance Langdon’s dreary childhood and young adulthood. Her mother has been depressed and nonfunctional since her sister died, and her father behaves as if he lives alone in the house. When Constance reaches the age of 11, her father withdraws her from school and abandons her and her mother to go live with his sister. Later, a disastrous experiment with spiritualism (very popular in Victorian times) in an attempt to help her mother results in her mother’s suicide.
Constance accepts her uncle’s invitation to live with him in order to avoid being thrust upon a father who doesn’t want her. But shortly after moving in with him, she finds she has inherited Wraxford Hall, an infamous house, old and crumbling, where two boys died; an old man mysteriously disappeared; and Magnus Wraxford was apparently murdered by his wife, Eleanor, who has also disappeared.
The next section of the novel is narrated by John Montague, a lawyer who visits Constance. He was involved in the experiment at Wraxford Hall that ended in the murder of Magnus Wraxford, and he tells the story of the experiment. This visit and Constance’s subsequent agreement to take part in a séance at Wraxford Hall lead us to Eleanor’s story, which is taken up by a diary that Eleanor wrote. Finally, we return to Constance. When she arrives at Wraxford Hall, she finds the experiment is to take place in a spooky gallery occupied by an odd-looking set of armor and a sarcophagus.
The novel is successfully creepy and mysterious. However, by the time of the séance I had figured out one character’s crucial secret identity, which made several other plot points clearer. Some readers may find it takes a long time to get to the crux of the novel, but I enjoyed the journey.