The Seance, John Harwood

I read this book mostly in bed over several nights, while the weather outside was obligingly turning into fall.  Although there are things about the cold weather that are miserable (mainly miserable for my hands and feet, which get very poor circulation as my blood is too busy keeping the rest of me warm like a furnace), they are all outweighed by the snuggly loveliness of cuddling down into your bed when it’s cold outside.

(It’s not cold outside yet, by the way – just coolish and lovely – but I am anticipating the necessity of getting out my cache of spare blankets and piling them on top of me at night.  I enjoy doing this, you know, the two nights a year it’s really cold in Louisiana.)

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The Séance is a perfect book for the fall, and for the RIP Challenge.  Constance Langton inherits a state home from a distant relation, but the lawyer in charge of giving her the inheritance advises her to sell it straightaway and never go inside it.  As support for this bold claim (which would get me on the next train to see the place), he sends her a packet of papers relating to the house.  They tell the strange history of the house – riddled with tragedy and disappearances, the latest of which is the mysterious disappearance of an entire family from Wraxford Hall.

John Harwood succeeds brilliantly at creating the atmosphere of the spooky Gothic manor house.  The two characters, John Montague and Eleanor Unwin, who tell the history of Wraxford Hall, are initially outsiders to the Hall, looking in on it and wondering about its secrets.  As the story goes in, they (and we) are drawn more deeply into it and its frightening secrets.  It gets claustrophobic eventually, knowing all that you know about its past – you jump when the characters hear a noise.

The frame story, which follows Constance Langton as she tries to work out the secrets of the manor house, works less well.  It’s by far the least interesting thing about the book, but it takes up an unfortunate number of pages. I found Constance dull, and her backstory doesn’t play into the rest of the book, and all the time she was onscreen as it were with her half-hearted underdeveloped love interest subplot, I was going, Where’s Eleanor Unwin?  Why can’t she come back?  Less time with Constance would have meant more time with Eleanor Unwin and John Montague.  That would have been better.

I remember reading The Ghost Writer in England and thinking, Yes, okay, that was good, but think how much better it could have been.  And my response to The Séance is much the same.  They both had me on the edge of my seat while I was reading, but when they were done, the plots did not satisfy me.

Do you have this problem with very atmospheric books?  Too much build-up, and not enough pay-off, so you feel let-down when it’s all over?

On a slightly different note, when you read a ghost story, do you insist upon its being an actual ghost (ghost/poltergeist/other occult event), in the end?  Or do you prefer there to have been a human being orchestrating everything?

  • Oooo, I liked THE GHOST WRITER, so I wonder if I’d like this, too. I agree that the plot in TGW felt a little unfinished, but the atmosphere was done so well that I forgot about my problems with the plot until after I was done reading it, lol.

    As for your discussion question: it depends on the story. In some of them, like THE GHOST WRITER, I think it would have been even more terrifying if it WAS a ghost instead of a person. (Whoops, that was a spoiler.) In other books, like the Kindaichi Case Files graphic novels, it’s more satisfying if it’s a person. So I suppose it depends on whether I want to be scared or whether I want the answer to be mundane because it’d be too scary not to be. If that makes sense?

    • Makes total sense – but I still tend to prefer a ghost. 😛 I like ghost stories because they could never happen, and the only way they could never happen is if it’s really a ghost. Then I get all the creepy fun, without really having to worry about it.

      • lol, I think my problem is that I only 99.9% don’t believe in ghosts. There’s about 0.1% belief that makes me hide my head under the covers after reading a ghost story.

        Scary stalker murder guy? Not scary. Supernatural killer ghost that pops out of TVs and strangles you? TERRIFYING.

      • I’m exactly the reverse. I don’t believe in supernatural ghosty things at all, so when I read those stories, I get the thrill but not the actual fear. There was a serial killer wandering around my state when I was a young teenager, so scary stalker murder guy? Distinct possibility & thus incredibly scary.

  • I just finished TGW and had mixed feelings about it. The good outweighed the bad but the ending felt so frenzied that it distracted from the story, which didn’t end up as original as it could have been. Could have been better describes it just right.

    As with all books, I like the ending to fit the book. With TGW I felt cheated. The little ghost stories within were so great that the main story paled in comparison. So if a ghost is appropriate to the story then go for it.

    • I can’t really remember the plot of The Ghost Writer – which just goes to show, it was the atmosphere that was so good in that book! I can still remember lying curled up on my bed in England, totally unable to put the book down.

  • I enjoyed this book, but agree it had a few flaws.

    As to the ending – I don’t mind what happens as long as I am surprised! I hate it when I predict exactly what happens.

    • I don’t like it when a book’s too predictable either – but I’m never sure if I’ve legitimately predicted it. Since I always read the end.

  • Teresa Rolfe Kravtin

    I have this on my TBR pile for a spooky October read. I’m glad someone else did, too!

    • Hope you enjoy it! It’s a lot of fun (despite flaws)!

  • Having a human behind it all works when done well. But if the author has to tie their story in knots trying to explain away all those seemingly supernatural events (naming no names…) it gets ridiculous. But I do love a good ghost story.

    • See, yeah. I think I’m prejudiced because I always want it to be a ghost. Ghosts are more fun! If it’s a person, it takes all the fun out of it. But maybe I just haven’t read any good ones where it turns out to be a person.

  • I think it’s really difficult to get a satisfactory ending to ghost/vampire/living dead stories. Building the tension is relatively easy, but what oh what can you really do for a huge climax? Anticipation is so often more powerful than actuality. I’m reading The Woman in Black at the moment and wondering how that’s going to turn out in the end, if it’ll pull its punches at the last minute. My favourite ghost story is Le Horla by Maupassant – intense buildup in a longish short story that ends with the worst still lingering in anticipation and complete uncertainty as to whether the monster existed or was a figment of the imagination. Every couple of hundred years someone times it just right. 😉

    • I’ve never read that Maupassant story, but I will have to give it a go. I think that some measure of ambiguity in the ending is best with a very atmospheric story. That way you are left with some of that chilly frightening feeling.