By Alan Williams
Published by The Cutting Edge Press
Reviewed by Jessica Patient
The Black Séance Parlour, Alan Williams’s first novel is the perfect companion for those wet and wild nights that we have been having recently in the UK. Williams successfully creates a book bulging with gothic horror, historical fiction with a big dollop of humour.
You’re going to need a new liver if you’re planning on matching Maggie and her sister, Judy drink for drink, as they try to forget about their troubled business. Their chocolate shop, nestled in Blackheath, is falling behind the times. The time is 1842 and the railway is coming, street lighting is arriving but their shop is not thriving. They need to change before they run out of money for food but more importantly, booze. Along with a local medium, Netta, they set about to open a séance parlour – the first of its kind in London.
“People shook their heads with disgusted excitement, pressing their eyes against the black window to see what horrors lay within.”
Williams has created two very strong-headed and determined characters that both have opposing views. Maggie and Judy’s sibling rivalry grows bigger and more out of control as the novel develops with them both clashing and fighting to be more power than the other sister. Judy is the one who has the idea for the séance but Maggie is reluctant at first. Their decisions will rip apart their livelihoods. Yet their love and their struggles to get their voices heard over the men who want to take control makes their friendship stronger.
The power struggle between the rising popularity of paranormal forces against religion during the Victorian ages are explored by Williams and the way they both have a hold over their followers. The stuffiness of society is being blown away by new and exciting theories. Curiosity of the unknown draws big crowds to the Séance Parlour but creates protests from the religious members of the church. Their tea leaf readings turn into crystal ball readings as they start telling their customers about their love lives and then, finally, they are able to draw on spirits, holding séances to help with a murder that happened on the heath. They are pulled further and further into the paranormal world until they start to lose grip on reality. The intrigue and tussle build as Maggie and Judy must battle to have their voices and the voices of the spirits heard over the non-believers. Until, at the end, a battle of words between science and religious leaders has Maggie’s future in the balance.
“There were screams, people looked away while others leaned forward to see the thing clearer in the darkness.”
When Judy isn’t staring into her crystal ball, she is writing a novel, which full of mysterious creatures and gothic horror. The novel within the novel works well to explore the similarities with the main plot. The characters within Judy’s novel are also on the edges of society and gain popularity very quickly but are also, like Maggie and Judy, turned against and forced out by a power struggle. Williams explores the concepts of the gothic novel within Judy’s novel with the sinister and dark spilling over from Judy’s novel and into the main plot. Williams is very good at building up the tension, the storms, and the unexplained noises to create eerie scenes.
The Blackheath Séance Parlour is a highly enjoyable, gripping read.