Book review of The London Séance Society by Sarah Penner
Do you believe in life after death? What are your views on spirits, supernatural and paranormal activities? Do you feel our world, as it is, is made up of both positive and negative elements? Or is it simply that we choose to keep the negative unacknowledged for fear that it is not “spirited” but rather “humane”? Decoding answers to such intense questions come from a powerfully gripping horror thriller, The London Séance Society by Sarah Penner, a book that is one of the best of the year.
We think of the mind as enclosed within the narrow compass of the skull, but we could equally imagine a cavern filled with dark water and connected by some subterranean passage to the limitless depths of the ocean and think of each individual mind as a droplet of one great oceanic mind, which contains everything: all the gods and demons, the paradises and underworlds of every religion on earth, all history, all knowledge, and everything that has ever happened. A mind upon which it could truly be said that nothing is lost, not so much as the fall of a sparrow…John Harwood
And today, as I sat finishing up a brilliant book by Sarah Penner, The London Séance Society, a horror crime thriller, these words by John Harwood, which I had chanced upon reading a while ago, surfaced from the back of my mind, compelling me to challenge my logical reasoning and rationality. Who are we truly? What is normal, what is paranormal and what in reality is supernatural? Is it only the presence of beings beyond humans that is a point of intrigue when it comes to the term natural? And afterlife? What is the reality, if not a big sham, guys?
In case you are wondering why I am speaking so jumbled up today, well, nothing, just trying to mull over things as I sat decoding the concepts of life, death, the afterlife, the supernatural and such after reading “The London Séance Society,” Sarah Penner’s latest. A story so crisp and fast-paced, I swear I inhaled in sharply at so many instances that I was on wits’ end all the while. A nerve-racking tale pertaining to a hunt for truth and justice by two women, this one is set against the backdrop of conjuring the dead, aka the art of séance. With spine-chilling thrills and cold and calculated twists, the nemesis in this one is someone who will stop at nothing to protect a sham—a conspiracy—a scandal so outrageous that it can shake the very core of some well-to-do families and also debunk quite a bit.
Nevertheless, coming back to the main plot and characters, Lenna Wickes, who has come to Paris to learn the truth about her sister Evie Wickes’ death and also learn the art of séance, aka summoning spirits, from her mentor and teacher Vaudeline D’Allaire, a highly acclaimed spiritualist, little does she know of the horrors that are in store for her and her mentor. Lenna, who has always been biased against occult practices of such sorts, nevertheless decides to accompany Vaudeline back to England when the former is called to investigate and decode a high-profile murder case by means of this very art. Partly to learn, partly because she wants Vaudeline to conduct a similar séance for Evie, whose death remains a mystery, and partly also because she herself cannot fathom what is pulling her towards Vaudeline and her pursuits, as Lenna embarks upon this dangerous pursuit, both the women must prepare for horrors where paranormal or supernatural is in fact safe territory and where, in fact, the atrocity of humans and their bestiality is what shall require them to be on guard. Whether Vaudeline can solve the riddle of Mr. Volckmanmurder (he was the head of the London Séance Society and was found dead in the cellar room on All Hallows Eve) or whether Lenna can find answers to her own sisters’ deaths (found dead again in her garden backyard on All Hallows Eve), one thing is clear: there is more to this than meets the eye, and no revelation in this scenario is going to be pleasant at all.
How the mysteries get solved, whether Lenna can finally know who and what killed Evie, whether she comes to finally put aside her bias against the presence of the supernatural and believe in spirits—well, you gotta pick it up and read it, as I am definitely not going to spoil this awesome tale further.
Coming to the writing, well, this one is beyond spectacular. I tell you guys, there have been times during the narrative when I felt the tiny hairs stand up at the back of my neck, in pure tingling and anticipation of what would unfold next. From the point of view of thrills, well, there was an exuberant and raw tangency to the narrative, as if a beast of prey lay low all the while, waiting to pounce upon, as the narrative unfolded. Each twist, discovery, and revelation felt so palpable that I glided alongside Vaudeline many a time, musing upon the strange ways spirits really do connect with humans. Ya, I mean, deja vu. On a separate note, even “apportions”—the objects that signify spirits—were of such fascination to me that I felt it instantly like “been there, that” during the climax. I won’t reveal more here for spoilers now. It’s just that, with funny tricks, cheap clairvoyance techniques, chants and the so-called fraudulent practices that usually govern a séance, when eventually, in the climax, Vaudeline and Lenna undertake a successful and authentic one, my heart goes out to the authenticity as well as the sheer bravery with which the two women met their nemesis in a battle of pure wills. It was unnerving, the climax.
And speaking of unnerving, there was another aspect that I felt was pursued really brilliantly—sensuously, in fact. Yes, I am referring here to the relationship between Vaudeline and Lenna. There is only so much you can express through words, but Sarah here has gone beyond that masterful art, conveying coyly but deftly between lines the kind of passion, true love and faith the two of them felt for each other. It was amazing to witness their relationship, lying there between the words, out of reach yet very much there, staring naked in the eye, getting more and more powerful with each passing instance. You know it is tricky to portray love and passion so succinctly in a thrilling tale like this, and yet Sarah has done outstandingly in this regard, bringing to the forefront the aspect of how true love always thrives and survives. It was not easy to put it that way, and the description actually felt like a captivating dance on the pages of sorts, showcasing the love and passion the women shared for each other. Marvellous!
All in all, this is a horror that is one of the best I have read in a long time since it is sure to make you go back and challenge the logical realms of reasoning you may have been harbouring and nurturing for years. Yes, what matters eventually is “the being” we hold in the vessel of the primordial soup of our life, called our inner soul, and how that “being” moves on in the Karmic cycle, choosing to latch on to the afterlife presented to it. Deeply metaphorical and multi-layered, this is one of Sarah’s best poems, and I would simply say go for it. You guys will be spooked and spiked with love, life, death and so much more!
So, I hope you guys liked my thoughts on Supernatural, Secrets, and Society: A Review of ‘The London Séance Society’ by Sarah Penner