Judging by displays in big-box stores all over this great land, Halloween is just around the corner. The other day I was in Lowe’s and there was a life-size animatronic witch on display. The witch would periodically move one arm in a spastic way, then deliver an annoying cackle and some phrase that was supposed to be Halloweenish but also appropriate for younger children. Presumably, you’d buy this witch and put it on your porch to delight the youngsters. While some passing shoppers smiled at it, my first impulse was to smash the damned thing to plastic pieces.
A non-threatening witch: This is what has become of horror in America. Nobody wants to be scared any more. We either want cute renditions of our ancestral nightmares, or we’ll settle for being thoroughly disgusted by pointless gore, as in the Saw movies and the series’ countless imitators. One reason genuinely frightening film and fiction has fallen from vogue is because it’s hard to create. And where books are concerned, it takes a certain commitment from the reader. An atmosphere of dread can’t be created or experienced in a single paragraph or even a single chapter.
But enough ranting. Recently I happened on a Victorian ghost story that kind of recaptures the way Henry James used to write. The Seance, by John Harwood, is set in England between 1866 and 1889, and reads like it was written by someone who was actually alive during that time. I have a fondness for the Victorian era, since it was a time when science had not yet presumed to explain everything, and often became entwined with belief in the paranormal. Also, the strict moral conventions of the era allow for plot turns that would be completely unbelievable in a contemporary tale. A woman who finds herself married to a monster, for example, can’t easily escape him without risking a fate she might well consider worse than death.
The Seance involves apparitions and unexplained disappearances, and — a staple of Gothic ghost tales — an eerie mansion with a horrible past. But it’s more than a ghost story. It’s also a pretty good mystery, delivering a couple of nice twists in the last few pages. I liked it a lot. If you’re looking for something slightly chilling to read as the nights grow longer and Halloween draws near, you could do worse.