Seraphina unclasped her hands and reached into the satchel she always kept by her side and slipped out a lacquered wooden box lined with mirrors that her husband had picked up in the Far East for her. She had never used it in her séances—she never needed any sort of prop before—but this called for desperate measures. She intended to put a candle in the center box to reflect its light off the walls of the room—perhaps that would help set the scene. Perhaps it would call the spirits to her. She knew full well that the people around the table were grieving, for real. She couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t see or at least hear, their dead.
As soon as she set the box in the middle of the table, Seraphina began to hear the whispers. Finally.
Recently widowed and rendered penniless by her Ponzi-scheming husband, Julia Bishop is eager to start anew. So when a stranger appears on her doorstep with a job offer, she finds herself accepting the mysterious yet unique position: caretaker to his mother, Amaris Sinclair, the famous and rather eccentric horror novelist whom Julia has always admired…and who the world believes is dead.
When she arrives at the Sinclairs’ enormous estate on Lake Superior, Julia begins to suspect that there may be sinister undercurrents to her “too-good-to-be-true” position. As Julia delves into the reasons of why Amaris chose to abandon her successful writing career and withdraw from the public eye, her search leads to unsettling connections to her own family tree, making her wonder why she really was invited to Havenwood in the first place, and what monstrous secrets are still held prisoner within its walls.
As we all know by now – I am a lover of the gothic romance. I have read two previous Wendy Webb gothics – The Fate of Mercy Alban and The Tale of Halycon Crane, and reviewed the latter, concluding that the inclusion of supernatural elements in both was explainable – that they turned the corer form that gray area we like to talk about when discussing works like The Turn of the Screw, and into something more The Witches, with that same gothic suspense and apprehension style of writing that makes you curl into a ball and look suspiciously at all dark corners of the house in case something is staring back at you. That being said, The Vanishing is slightly more in the vein of the traditional balancing of supernatural vs. coincidence, where the whole time you’re wondering if this clearly put upon woman who has had her life torn from her is actually in the throes of some sort of supernatural evil or if, instead, she is seeing things that aren’t there.
The similar tropes from previous gothics are here too: an old monster of a house, a cast of quirky characters who are sometimes a little too secretive, and a heroine with her own questions about where she fits in and what’s going on. Added to that, we have an aging horror novelist who is stubbornly refusing to give any answers, a secretive son who controls the ins and outs of the house and a dashing farmhand with a little too much familiarity with our heroine. We also have a beautiful library that feels cold and foreboding, a secret buried deep in the past and a tradition of mediums and nineteenth century spiritualists to round out the atmosphere.
We begin at a seance table, right in the middle of a seance, unsure of what exactly is happening, but having flashbacks to the beginning of Drag Me to Hell. The world has just ripped open, the stars have aligned and something evil has, through a series of events, leaked out into this world. It’s a general mayhem you walk into on that first page, a swirling foreboding mayhem that comes with its own soundtrack that plays in your head while you read. And just as it culminates – it ends. And you’re wrenched towards the present day and the narrator – Julia Bishop.
Julia is an interesting character. She is both scared but curious, the latter pushing her past the former whenever things go bump in the night. She’s a particularly readable character because she’s so fallible – she tells us who she trusts, who she doesn’t and the list changes constantly, people going from suspect to friend and back again in the turning of a few pages. She keeps you on your toes! Her development throughout the whole of the book cannot be separate from the final couple of pages … which would be spoiling, and so I won’t go into it, but suffice it to say, the last few pages made this book for me.
Unfortunately, the most entertaining part of this book was the ending for me – it cast the whole rest of the story into a new light and had me rereading passages and quotations to see whether any of it had been foreshadowed. Unlike with the other two books I have read of Webb’s, this one was not an easy one to figure out in advance – this story came with twists that I could not foresee (And I usually pride myself on figuring out the mystery before I am supposed to!) that make me urge you all to pick this book up and give it a read!
One note on the atmosphere of the book: If you like being scared, and not in a someone-jumps-out-at-you-and-screams-boo way, but in an I’m-questioning-eveything-my-eyes-and-mind-are-percieving way, then the atmosphere of this book is for you. It reminds me of those movies set int he 19th Century – the grey filmed scenes that are pockmarked by people too-pale, dresses too stiff and strange creaking in the night. This book has none of those, not really, and yet, the book still gives off that air of Victorian spiritualism – even though, and maybe especially because of, its setting in North America. I do love a good gothic that breaks away from being in Europe – I do love Europe, but honestly, why not read a story that will scare you in your backyard?
All in all, a good read I recommend for when you’re up at the cottage or alone at home – with a cup of tea, a blanket and some courage. It’s a great read and the ending is well worth the flip-flops Julia does throughout the narrative.
Any good gothics you guys have picked up lately?