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4.1 out of 5 stars
The Seance
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84 of 87 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 1 June 2008
It is sometimes remarked that inanimate objects can have such a strong presence within a story that the object almost becomes one of the characters. I think this is certainly true of the sinister Wraxford Hall. This crumbling manor house has accrued its reputation down the years thanks to its eccentric inhabitants and its location. Its spooky setting amidst overgrown grounds and the surrounding sprawl of woodlands, known as Monks Wood, has caused the local poachers to pursue their game elsewhere. A pack of vicious hounds is said to roam the area and the ghost of a monk is believed to haunt the woods. Anyone who sees the spectre is reputed to die within the month.

`The Seance' is John Harwood's second novel and is set in Victorian England. Events unfold through pages of narrative seen from the perspectives of three of the story's main characters: Constance Langton, John Montague and Eleanor Unwin.

Constance's distraught mother is inconsolable following the death of Constance's sister. In desperation, Constance and her mother attend a seance in the hope of providing some much needed comfort. John Montague is a barrister and amateur artist who is charged with tracing the heir of Wraxford Hall. Montague decides to commit the hall to canvas and on taking up his brushes, finds himself suffused with artistic powers that he had not, previously or since, possessed. Eleanor Unwin suffers from blinding headaches and an overbearing mother. Her headaches are the result of so-called visitations from the dead.

The social niceties of the time are particularly well drawn in the women's narratives and journals. Unchaperoned ladies and unsuitable husband material are almost as much to be feared as the manor house that binds the various characters. Eleanor's toxic mother is especially outraged when marriage to an artist threatens to heap social stigma on her family.

The scenes in and around Wraxford Hall are deliciously creepy. The weather-staples of Victorian mystery stories - the bone-chilling cold, swirling mists and lightning - are much in evidence as the protagonists attempt to uncover the secrets that they and the house share.

If you've already enjoyed John Harwood's excellent first novel, `The Ghostwriter', or, if Victorian-era mystery stories are your thing, you won't want to miss `The Seance'. This is a compelling and highly atmospheric novel from a superb writer.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 18 January 2009
It's nice to say that John Harwood has maintained in "The Séance", his second novel, the same high standard for creepiness that he set in his first, "The Ghost Writer".

This time Harwood has gone the whole gothic hog, setting the story in Victorian England and beginning with the story of Constance Langton, who in true Bronte style, is lonely and neglected by her parents after the death of her sister Alma as a young child. Constance takes her mother to a séance, hoping to cure Mrs Langton's malignant grief, with tragic results, then learns she is the benefactor of an eccentric relative's will and has inherited Wraxford Hall, a place with an equally tragic past and reputation for being haunted. Through the séance, Constance has come into contact with Vernon Raphael of the Society for Psychical Research. Raphael asks that he and his colleagues be allowed to investigate Wraxford Hall and determine if there are really any supernatural influences and also to solve the mystery of a previous owner's death and the disappearance of a young woman and child, a mystery that Constance believes may explain her own unhappy past.

This is not the kind of book to start reading in the bath, in case you find yourself still immersed, prune like and freezing, several hours later. It should be enjoyed before a crackling fire, the curtains securely drawn, the wind and rain lashing at the windows and a comforter wrapped tightly about your person.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2014
I'll start by saying that I enjoy this style of writing: it perfectly evokes the Victorian/Edwardian period, and presents the atmosphere apt for an historical murder mystery.

But several things prevent this from being a four-star review or higher. Firstly, the characters, although are mostly very well realised, do tend to be much of a muchness. All the women are fearful of their mothers, often unable to hold their own in a conversation or argument, and show some significant weaknesses that don't really endear them to you. I know that women weren't exactly in a position of power 150 years ago, and that the reality of life for many was to be quiet and obey, but we don't want to read just about that: we want fire, intelligence, ambition in a character. We want them to step outside of the norms. We don't want to root for needy wrecks, exactly what is portrayed here.

Secondly, there are quite a number of paragraphs that are far too purple for my liking, add nothing to the telling and merely slow down the narrative. These could have been cut out quite nicely, which leads me on to point three: this book needs a re-edit. Not just to cut down the length, but to address at least two technical flaws that I spotted: including the journal issue mentioned by another reviewer.

My final thought is that although the mystery is solved, and nothing about it is overly outlandish, it does feel as though the author spun himself a complex web, but wasn't entirely sure how to unravel it cleanly: so, the final section of the book does witter on a little in terms of trying to explain what happened and why, and brushes aside and shuts down any police investigation in a very cursory way. It left me feeling a little dubious. They say the start and ending of a book are the most difficult parts: I wonder how many sleepless nights finding an ending to The Séance gave its author?
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 2008
Think 'The Woman in White' mixed with something by the Brontes and you'd be on the right lines. If you really enjoy a thrilling classic gothic Victorian novel, then you'll relish this. I really enjoyed reading this book. I've already read The Ghost Writer by the same author - it was good but I definitely prefered this one.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2009
Having read John Harwood's The Ghost Writer and enjoyed it, I was curious to see how The Seance would rate. I was not disappointed: this novel is a much more satisfying read. My only regret was that it was too short! The novel was read over two days and I had to put it down so that it could be savoured very slowly.

Set in 1881, the central character, Constance Langton, lives in a rather unhappy household where her mother is fixated on the loss of Constance's sister, Alma, and the family is controlled by her depressed state. Constance's father has been alienated from his wife and buries himself in his work, leaving the house for long periods, leaving Constance alone with her mother. Mr Langton eventually can take no more, and abandons his family to live elsewhere.

In order to help her mother deal with her grief, Constance introduces her to seances in the hope that Alma's spirit can be contacted. Constance also realises she herself has a gift for spiritualism although at first dismissed this. Without spoiling the novel for anyone wishing to read it, the plot thickens rapidly and various characters make a strong impression on Constance, notably the lawyer, John Montague.

When the house, Wraxford Hall, is described, my immediate comparison was with Daphne du Maurier's Manderley, as the house has almost a living and rather sinister presence like it. Add to that Monks Wood, where a spectral monk is said to walk, and you wonder what or who will appear in the grounds of the Hall. The descriptions of the Hall and wood are deliciously creepy and this book would be best read during a wet and gloomy afternoon before a blazing fire (with a glass of red wine in hand).

My overall impression of The Seance was one of a beautifully written novel which gripped me from the start, although I felt it could have been longer. At just under 295 pages, the author could have spun the tale and developed some characters a little more. The language of The Seance is semi-Victorian without its over-wordiness, and it is perfectly pitched to a 21st century reader.

I give The Seance a 5 star rating and look forward very much to Harwood's next novel, which hopefully will be much longer!
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 3 January 2009
This is a fantistically gripping, multilayered and clever little novel. As other reviews have mentioned, it harks back in its style, its subject matter and its overall flavour to the great Wilkie Collins at the height of his powers. Yes, think 'Woman in White' and 'Moonstone' but the one it reminds me most of is the, (in my opinion) ,far superior 'No Name'. They share a spirited heroine, with courage and daring beyond her time and numerous nefarious deeds.

Indeed it is easy to forget that John Harwood is not a Victorian great himself, so powerfully does he evoke the best sensationalist and gothic fiction of the time....perhaps, in keeping with the subject matter, a little spirit guidance is at work?? Only Harwood is also clearly subject to modern conventions of storytelling too and knows his readers now have a far greater cannon of sensationalist literature and film-making to draw upon and his novel is a modern work in the best sense:- lean and muscular, where older fiction can be flacid; unafraid of playing with conventions and most importantly, unpredictable. Its almost as if Wilkie Collins had been able to read Stephen King, Joe Hill and other modern horror icons, before popping back to Victorian England to pen this one!

This is a clever, involving and tautly spiraling work that rewards the reader with a cracking story, clever mystery and chills aplenty. You will want to stay up late into the night reading this one. Buy it...and if you haven't also read 'The Ghost Writer', the first novel by Harwood get that too. And spare a thought for old Wilkie Collins... read No Name its fab too.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 8 August 2008
If you loved 'The Turn of the Screw' or if you like dabbling in the stories of M.R. James then this book is for you. It may be a modern book, but the verimisilitude of the writing is such that it could have been written a hundred years ago; the characters come across as of their time, the setting is perfectly recreated and their actions ring absolutely true. This is a book whose scares lie in what ISN'T written down, but where your mind fills in the horrors between the flashes of lightning, strange noises and ghostly apparations.

I adored this book and my only regret is that I'm far too quick a reader to make it last.
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VINE VOICEon 2 December 2014
Engrossing well paced mystery/detective story set in Victorian England. Not afraid to use some of the more cliched apects of Victorian fiction: foundlings, imposters,stolen diamonds, surly servants, damsels in distress, haunted houses all feature (or appear to feature) but the unusual narrative structure: multiple narrators take up the story, sometimes describing the same events from different viewpoints, always maintains interest. The plot is strong and incident packed, the two main female protagonists sympathetic.

The Victorian era is well sketched, although Constance's unchaperoned visit to Wraxford Hall seems a bit unlikely. The obsession of the age, scientific and quasi-scientific attempts to prove or disprove Life after Death, is particularly effective. The actual Seance of the title, which occurs late in the novel, is worth the wait and very dramatic...it teeters on the brink of "Scooby Doo" style daftness but the gothic trappings and eerie setting saves this from falling.

The opening chapter, Constance Langton's first narrative, is the best part of the book for me, well plotted; this would be a perfect short story in itself. The last part, Constance's closing story, after the Seance, is the most disappointing, the explanations being rather less interesting than the mysteries they shine light on. Some of the strange occurences can only be explained by the "the unreliable narrator" trick. Some of the preceding events--particularly what happens to Edward Ravenscroft---remain opaque. The eventual fate of the main villain is also a bit unsatisfying, he is shown as a black hearted mastermind and he is dealt with, perhaps, a little too easily.

Apart for this minor carping about the ending, John Harwood's melodrama is enjoyable and well written. Highly recommended.
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Constance Langton was only 5 when her 2-year old sister Alma died in 1873. Their mother, broken by Alma's death, retreated from life and her marriage. Constance's efforts to try and give her mother peace by introducing her to mediums and a séance have an unexpected result. Constance's narrative shows us a young woman who is alone and lonely. The narrative then shifts to that of John Montague, a solicitor who, for reasons of his own is seeking closure around the property of Wraxford Hall. Eleanor Unwin's narrative tells us of her strange visions, and her meeting with the heir of Wraxford Hall starts to tie together the unfolding stories in this wonderfully written and enthralling tale. A story that races through the years and through the action; a tale of love, lust, greed, guilt and the darkness that lies in the minds of men and women. Highly recommended.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 22 October 2008
Elegantly written, clearly well-researched and downright creepy, The Seance both excites and intrigues from the first page.

As the mystery unfolds through the different first-person narratives around which the story is structured, the reader is sucked into the dark underbelly of Victorian society which seems so real you can almost taste the Cholera.

Whilst not out and out frightening, the chills are created by implication and suggestion, and the author does a fantastic job of keeping his audience constantly on edge without ever resorting to major shocks.

The only reason it's not a five-star rating is that whilst promising so much throughout, the denouement is a tiny bit predictable. But as the journey that takes you there is so enthralling, it's bordering on the churlish to dwell on that minor (subjective) fault too much.

Oh, and the cover design is absolutely beautiful.
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