The reading room of the British Museum is not, I think, the first place in which most of us would seek refuge from a consuming grief, especially not in winter, when fog creeps into the great dome and hangs like a damp halo about the electric lamps. Nor are ones fellow readers always the most desirable company, some being less than fastidious in matters of dress and personal cleanliness, whilst others, seemingly on the verge of madness, conduct whispered conversations with phantoms, or crouch motionless for an entire afternoon, glaring at the same unturned page. Others again lie sprawled in attitudes of abandoned despair or exhaustion, snoring away the hours with their heads pillowed upon priceless volumes until the attendants come to turn them out. There are of course many industrious souls deep in concentration or copying busily, so that the dome seems to echo, at times, to the faint sound of a hundred nibs scratching in unison, but to a troubled mind that sound can too easily suggest the fingernails of prisoners clawing upon stone.So begins "The Gift of Flight," one of four stories within the story of John Harwood's debut novel The Ghost Writer. Devotees of the nineteenth-century ghost tale will perhaps recognize in this passage the conversational tone and light social comedy of M. R. James, but "The Gift of Flight" evolves into an allusive, suggestive psychological tale more reminiscent of the other James, or perhaps of other classical practitioners as Onions and de la Mare. In the final analysis, fictional author "V. H." is no narrow pastiche of a particular style, but a voice all its own, credibly nineteenth century but with the timeless quality of all great ghostly fiction.
I begin with the stories inside the story because they are slightly more accomplished and resonant than the main narrative of The Ghost Writer. But in a way this is a false distinction, as the interplay between the levels of fiction creates much of the off-kilter mood that renders this superficially uneventful novel so compulsively readable. The Ghost Writer is the story of Gerard Freeman, the Australian son of an English mother whose dull life is enlivened by two things: his relationship-by-correspondence with a wheelchair-bound English girl named Alice, and his curiosity about his mother's past on the beautiful family estate she fled for reasons she refuses to elaborate. The novel's opening sequence, juxtaposing Gerard's experience of his hot, dry, insect-ridden Australian hometown with his image of the delicate beauty of the English countryside, amply demonstrates Harwood's gift for generating atmosphere on classicist terms, with simple but elegant images and without linguistic pyrotechnics.
To give away too much of the plot would be to deny the reader the experience of its gradual unspooling. Suffice it to say that Gerard quickly discovers a connection between the fiction of V. H. and his mother's hidden past. In addition to being fine ghost stories in their own right, these pieces, which make up just under half the novel's length, capture the ways in which autobiography is transformed at a certain remove into fiction, and create a powerful set of recurring images. It's not only V.H.'s reworking of personal history that causes those images, however; unnatural and seemingly impossible coincidences will suggest to the attentive reader that some subtle supernatural force is at work, and make the ghost stories part of the larger narrative rather than entertaining diversions from it.
It must be said that certain aspects of the plot will become obvious to an attentive reader before Gerard begins to suspect them; the book employs a particular device that can hardly be kept from raising audience suspicions (he said vaguely). Nonetheless, Gerard is more than a hapless hero, and he combines other pieces of the puzzle as rapidly as the reader will. The last two-fifths of the novel, in which a, abandoned mansion of the traditional variety makes a pleasantly spooky appearance, are the sort of thing that demands to be read in one sitting, and the final sequence, in which long-standing expectations are confirmed, manages to attain supernatural heights of eerieness despite superficially non-supernatural events. No fan of the period ghost story or of historical family mysteries should miss The Ghost Writer, which is that rarity of rarities: a perfectly-crafted debut.
Harwood's second novel, The Seance, has obvious general similarities to The Ghost Writer, but is also profoundly different. Instead of the present-day setting and single narrator of that novel, The Seance is set entirely in the Victorian era, and features a series of linked narratives. It begins with Constance Langton, whose grief-stricken mother and indifferent father make her home life a miserable one. Desperate to ease her mother's pain at the loss of younger daughter Alma, Constance becomes involved in the spiritualist movement. A reader might suspect the set-up for a novel of spiritualism and skepticism, not dissimilar to Sarah Waters' Affinity or a number of other works exploring the connections among grief, nineteenth-century rationalism, and gender roles. But events quickly take a startling turn, and before long Constance finds herself in possession of an unexpected inheritance and an unusual collection of documents. The first of those documents, an account by solicitor John Montague, is the second narrative strand; its opening will suggest what sort of novel The Seance really is, and provide another example of Harwood's mastery of Victorian prose:
I have at last resolved to set down everything I know of the strange and terrible events at Wraxford Hall, in the hope of appeasing my conscience, which has never ceased to trouble me. A fitting enough night for such a decision, for it is bitter cold, and the wind howls about the house as if it will never cease. I shrink from what I must reveal of my own history, but if anyone is ever to understand why I acted as I did-- and why else attempt this?-- I must not withhold anything of relevance, no matter how painful. I shall feel easier in my mind, I trust, knowing that if the case is ever reopened after I am gone, this account may help uncover the truth about the Wraxford Mystery.This, then, is at once a haunted house story and a sensation novel, and intimations of murder, blackmail, child-switching, and fraud will run parallel to accounts of events yet more bizarre. Montague's narrative, with the suggestion of shadowy research into ancient texts, plays out as an antiquarian ghost story written with scholarly distance, after the manner of M. R. James or the more stylistically subtle works of H. P. Lovecraft. A third narrator returns to some of the characters from Montague's account, but the events detailed this time offer another spin on spiritualism. Eventually Constance Langton comes back to the fore in a lengthy section that integrates the varied elements in a satisfying and largely surprising manner. Unreliable narration of an especially tricky kind is involved here, but there are enough hints that the device doesn't feel cheap.
Although the novel's primary focus is not on seances of the type that have captured the popular imagination, its thematic concerns are not far removed from what the opening might have led one to suspect. He goes about it subtly enough that readers caught up in the story may not notice, but Harwood is at pains to capture the precarious state of women in upper-class Victorian society, dependent on male relatives-- fathers, brothers, husbands-- for their financial security and ever susceptible to the threat of poverty or forced institutionalization. Acknowledging both the hope that spiritualism could give to a society riven by premature death and rationalist skepticism, and the frauds that were often perpetrated to create that hope, the novel refuses to offer a simple verdict on the question of the supernatural. Anything might exist, and the existence of common trickery cannot rule out real cases of the inexplicable. As with The Ghost Writer, this is a novel whose ambiguities are irrelevant to its remarkable atmosphere: haunted or human, its settings and characters are unsettling. The resolution is rather too abrupt, and a certain twist on the traditional formula of such novels doesn't have enough impact, but these are quibbles: The Seance is another masterpiece from one of the finest 21st century practitioners of the ghostly novel. One can only hope that a third John Harwood novel will not be long in appearing.