Review 1598: The Haunting of L.

In 1927, Peter Duvette accepts a job as a photographer’s assistant in Churchill, Manitoba. The day he reaches the remote town, he meets his boss, Vienna Linn, and Linn’s fianceé, Kala Murie. Kala is in the middle of a lecture about spirit photography, in which the spirit of the deceased person appears in photographs of family or friends. After the lecture, Linn and Murie are getting married.

So, Peter is surprised when that night he ends up in bed with the bride. It’s not too long before Kala tells him that Linn makes money by causing disasters that he photographs for a rich client. So far, these disasters have mostly been train wrecks.

Quirky isn’t exactly the word for this novel, because it is about a truly evil person. But it is certainly hard to predict where it will go. It’s eerie and atmospheric while still presenting a moving love story. This is the third book I’ve read by Howard Norman, and I’ve greatly enjoyed them all.

Related Posts

The Northern Lights

My Darling Detective

Barometer Rising

Day 421: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Cover for The Ghost of the Mary CelesteI haven’t read anything by Valerie Martin since her creepy Mary Reilly, which of course was a reworking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I understand her novel Property won the Orange Prize, however, and The Ghost of the Mary Celeste was certainly worth reading, so I will look for some of her others.

This novel is based on the mysterious history of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship that is famous for having been discovered in 1872 completely abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain, Benjamin Briggs, had his wife Sarah and two-year-old daughter Sophie aboard the ship, which had no other passengers, just the crew. No explanation has ever been found for the disappearance of everyone on board.

Martin’s book doesn’t so much attempt to offer us an explanation as add to the mystery surrounding this event.

The novel begins, though, with an earlier maritime tragedy. Captain Joseph Gibbs and his wife Maria go overboard in 1859 during a fearsome storm while she is trying to board a lifeboat.

Back at home after their deaths, Sallie Cobb is concerned about her younger sister Hannah, who claims their cousin Maria wants to take away her son Nathan, the little boy Hannah has been caring for since his parents were lost at sea. Maria’s family, the Gibbs, have been very unlucky at sea. Many of them having died there, including, of course, Maria. Sallie is worried about Hannah’s well-being, as she also claims that their mother, who died when Hannah was young, has been coming to talk to her.

Nathan only lives another few months, and Sallie is concerned about Hannah’s sorrow and her insistence that she has talked to both Maria and their mother. Sallie thinks that Hannah, who has always been fanciful, may be deranged from grief. Sallie is self-absorbed, however, for she is being courted by her childhood friend and cousin, Benjamin Briggs, Maria’s brother and also a sea captain, with whom she is in love.

The next section of the book leaps ahead in time to 1881 to follow Arthur Conan Doyle on a trip to Africa, where he is working as a ship’s doctor. It is during this trip that he decides to write a story about the Mary Celeste. Unfortunately, the story, which proposes a lurid explanation for the mystery, is understood by many to be true, even though he didn’t bother to research it and has almost all the facts wrong. Although he is taken aback by the response, especially of the victim’s families (whom he never considered), this story begins his writing career. Later he meets a spiritualist who has a connection with the Mary Celeste.

http://www.netgalley.comThrough such meanderings, including documents, newspaper clippings, journals, a journalist’s memoir, and visits with spiritualists, we eventually find ourselves back on the Mary Celeste by means of Sallie’s journal. This journal has found its way into the hands of Conan Doyle.

This story is haunting and melancholy, and Martin is not so much interested in what exactly happened aboard the Mary Celeste as in the event’s repercussions. Evocatively written, this novel will carry you along with it.

Day 315: Beyond Black

Cover for Beyond BlackI have liked almost everything I have read by Hilary Mantel but could not finish Beyond Black. It is supposed to be extremely black humor, which I usually enjoy, and the idea is certainly an entertaining one, but somehow I felt it went too far, at least for me.

Alison is a medium who travels the rounds of the psychic “fayres.” She actually does see and hear the dead. Alison meets Colette, an event planner, who she hires as her personal assistant. Soon, the two women are sharing a house in a suburban wasteland, where apparently all hell breaks loose. (I did not get this far in the novel.)

Mantel’s skewering of the “fayres” is amusing. Another clever idea in the novel is that the dead are a bunch of seedy characters obsessed with trivial things, just as are many people in life. However, after awhile the sheer bulk of the trivialities becomes overwhelming.

Alison’s spirit guide, Morris, instead of being the traditional Indian chief or swami, is the ghost of an actual hoodlum Alison knew when she was young. I could deal with the spirits constantly talking about minutia, but Morris was incredibly repulsive and disgusting. With the mundanity going over the top combined with my disgust at Morris, I stopped reading.

Day 305: The Dark Enquiry

Cover for The Dark EnquirySome elements of Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey romantic mystery series sometimes get old, such as the debate between Lady Julia and her husband Brisbane about how involved she is allowed to get in his investigations. This debate begins The Dark Enquiry, and eventually Brisbane reluctantly agrees that she can be a partner in his investigations, but not before she discovers for herself that her own proper, conservative brother, Lord Belmont, is being blackmailed. As a government official, he should have known better than to get involved with a lady, but especially to send her love letters. The lady turns out to be working for a foreign government.

In following up her investigation into her brother’s difficulties, Lady Julia disguises herself as a man to go to the Ghost Club, where Madame Séraphine holds nightly séances. There she is discovered by Brisbane. As they sneak back into the club together later in the evening, they are just in time to see Madame Séraphine be murdered by poison.

This novel is peopled with Lady Julia’s eccentric family, but it also features blackmail, gypsies, and spies. Raybourn’s novels are lively, and the dialog is entertaining. If we can just get over the endless debate about Julia’s part in the investigations, the series will continue to be fun to read.

Day 290: The House of Velvet and Glass

Cover for The House of Velvet and GlassThe House of Velvet and Glass is a slow starter, which I don’t usually complain about, because if I’m enjoying a book enough, it can move as slowly as it wants. Nevertheless, considering how much I enjoyed Howe’s first book, I was surprised at how impatient I became with this one.

The novel begins with Helen and Eulah Allston, two entirely trivial women, mother and daughter, journeying back from a European husband-hunting expedition–on the Titanic. Although we’re told which ship they are on only at the very end of the first chapter, as if it were an ironic or surprising fact, the ship’s identity was very clear from early in the chapter.

Three years later, Sybil Allston is comforting her grief and anger at the death of her mother and sister on the Titanic by visiting a psychic. She is wholly convinced that she is receiving messages from the afterlife. On one of her visits, the psychic gives her a piece of crystal called a scrying stone.

Sybil’s father Lan Allston is a wealthy man who made his money through shipping, but he seems to spend all his time in his dark back parlor. Her brother Lanny looks as if he may be entering the life of a ne’er-do-well gambler and womanizer.

Not everything is as it seems, but I became extremely impatient waiting for the novel to go somewhere while we occasionally skipped backward in time to Lan as a young man in Shanghai or to Helen and Eulah on the Titanic.

Eventually, the novel becomes about a woman discovering her own powers, and the second half of the novel is much better than the first. But I did rebel against one thing. I particularly dislike it when characters in historical novels behave like modern people. I felt it would be extremely unlikely that Sybil would urge her father to bring home a woman they both think is a prostitute (and by their lights, is one) just because she has her brother’s blood on her dress. And I certainly don’t believe that her father would encourage Sybil to get to know her, although there turns out to be a reason for that. Completely unbelievable is the scene where Sybil takes her to her club or the scene where she goes, however, unwittingly, with her to an opium den.

So, a very mixed reaction to this novel. Ultimately, it became interesting, although the much-vaunted twists at the end were largely foreseeable.

Day 211: Affinity

Cover for AffinitySarah Waters is great at constructing compelling plots and characters who fascinate even if you dislike them. In Affinity, Margaret Prior begins visiting the woman’s ward of Millbank Prison as a volunteer in an effort to become more active after a year of depression. As with many Victorian charities, the point of this volunteer work is to set the inmates the example of a proper upper-class woman and to make sure they have religious training. Margaret is despondent because her father treated her like an equal and employed her as his assistant, but with her father’s death, she is left with a mother who apparently despises her and with no work or purpose.

Margaret becomes fascinated with a prisoner named Selina Dawes, a spiritualist found guilty of complicity in her sponsor’s death as well as fraud and assault. Although initially skeptical of Selina’s abilities, Margaret begins to experience strange, unexplainable events. Not only does she become convinced of Selina’s powers, but she believes she is innocent.

As Margaret’s obsession grows, she devises a daring escape plan for Selina.

Waters’ depiction of London in Victorian times is convincing, and the atmosphere of the novel is grim and foreboding. Although I was not at all sympathetic to Margaret, I was engrossed by the story and particularly interested in the explanation, if there was any, for the apparently psychic phenomena in the novel.

Day 136: The Séance

Cover for The SeanceThe 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.