There are haunted houses and then there is Blackwater Abbey, built on the remains of an old abbey, where a select group of people have been invited to take part in a gathering for a series of group seances in the old country mansion on an island off Devon in stormy scary winter conditions. At least one of the guests won’t leave the island alive.
Set during The First World War and the purpose for the seances was to try to communicate with the spirits of the lost sons of the owners Lord and Lady Highmount who perished on the battlefield. The guests range from a few other associated gentry who had also lost sons, two spiritual mediums who are both at odds with each other and a handful of spies and those suspected of being traitors and double agents. The atmosphere is one of distrust, scepticism, hope and fear and is a guest list from hell, not to mention the uninvited guests – wall to wall spirits who inhabit the rooms and cellars of this property in which time seems to stretch and who observe the living guests with a mix of humour and fascination and are only visible to two of the guests, one of whom is not a spiritualist.
There is humour, romance, terror, suspicion and a pathos too which reminds the reader that it wasn’t only hundreds of thousands of working class men who were lost in France and Flanders but a colossal number of sons from the privileged classes and the aristocracy; the Second Lieutenants and Captains, officers who went over the top first and led the men into No Man’s Land and into dark tunnels underground from which there was no return. The poor quality gas masks and equipment for the soldiers. The victims who lived but succumbed to the effects of constant battle fatigue and bombardment and suffered lasting damage or ‘shell shock’ as it was called. The author knows his subject well and those elements of this novel have been researched very well. I haven’t read William Ryan’s novel The Constant Soldier but will do now.
With stormy candlelit seances, spooks and shenanigans, so many hidden passages throughout this old house that were haunted by both the malevolent living and the dead , it was an absolutely gripping, well plotted, enjoyable read. William Ryan must have been channeling Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe to write such a dark classic novel that is a perfect read for dark, stormy winter nights.
W. C. Ryan is also known as William Ryan, author of The Constant Soldier and the Korolev series of historical crime novels. His books have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the CWA’s Steel, Historical and New Blood Daggers, the Irish Fiction Award and the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, as well as being published in 18 countries. William lives in London and teaches creative writing at City University.