In 1842, two sisters drunkenly debate their future, their family chocolate business has failed and so they decide to open a seance parlour. The locals are shocked but soon their shop is crammed with people wanting to contact the dead. Despite their change in fortune, a rift forms between the sisters, as young sister Judy gets her novel published, finds a man and proves to be more capable of contacting spirits than Maggie. Spurred on by jealousy, Maggie tries harder and soon even the Queen is consulting her. The Church decides they must be stopped by any means possible.
Okay, confession time. I requested a review copy of this book and the publisher sent me one. Not a big deal, but I suppose that generosity does generate some goodwill. Secondly, and here’s the biggie, I live in Blackheath. If I walk a few minutes from my flat I can be sat on a bench with the Hare and Billet pub in one direction and Ranger’s House in another. So for a book set in Blackheath this is an advantage, and I derived a great deal of pleasure not only from sharing mutual admiration with the author for this village of ours, but also being educated about its past.
The Blackheath Séance Parlour is on the surface a murder/ghost story set in Blackheath in the mid-1800’s, but as the story progresses the real focus of the narrative becomes the relationship between three women. Two of these are sisters (Maggie and Judy Cloak), each facing fading dreams and mounting regrets. Together they run a failing chocolate shop and share in the debts and worry incurred by the enterprise. Through desperation for something more, Judy Cloak hits upon an idea for a new shop: a séance parlour, and in setting up this establishment they enlist the third of their triumvirate, an aging medium, Nettie Walters.
Without spoiling too much, the séance parlour takes off and we chart the controversies and challenges that arise as the women have to contend with the church, a murder investigation, rising fame and rivalries within their own inner circle. Williams does not play coy, the ghosts are real and we are thrown into a world of spirits, visions and ectoplasm (indeed, in the Author Notes he expresses his own distaste for books that shoehorn in a logical reason for séances and mediums after convincing the reader otherwise for the majority of the tale). Dark stormy nights on the heath are vividly described, the era’s clash between faith, science and superstition convincingly evoked. But through all the fantasy elements it is the relationship between the Cloak sisters that keep the pages turning, especially as fortunes dramatically differentiate the two.
At times whilst reading The Blackheath Séance Parlour I felt like I was on a time travelling pub crawl of local establishments: the Hare and Billet, The Crown, The Princess of Wales, The Gypsy Moth, The Blackheath Tea Hut and others, all are visited and described with affection. Williams seems to have done his homework and Blackheath comes alive.
Alongside the main narrative a second story is told, a novel within a novel, written by Judy Cloak. It is a titillating gothic serialised tale (also set in Blackheath), somewhere between Frankenstein and Dracula, that works for us as a satire on the fiction of the time, but also as an insight into the desires and fears of Judy, its author. The story does influence the main narrative, but at times I wish the editor had been a little more ruthless in trimming these parts back, as I found myself impatient to return to the Cloaks and learning more of their adventures.
I grew up in Croydon (South-East London) and so any pride I’ve felt about my home-town was tongue-in-cheek pride about surviving it. Now that I am settled in Blackheath a strange feeling has overcome me: affection for my surroundings. I suppose I am still an outsider as far as true Blackheathens are concerned, but still, there is a big space in my heart for this village mysteriously shielded from the city around it. But any affection I have is dwarfed by the love of Blackheath described in this book and for that I heartily recommend it.
So is this review biased? Well, yes it probably is. I don’t know what someone living in rural Utah might make of it. At times I wondered if the book might benefit from a small map, or a description of the Heath’s relation to London, as these might be difficult to picture. The cover-art would sit well in the London Dungeons, but I feel perhaps a classier image of Blackheath village would have been more appropriate.
I recommend the Blackheath Séance Parlour for anyone wanting an enjoyable, well researched, historical fantasy novel, and certainly for anyone who’s ever been to this little village I call home.
NOTE: The Blackheath Séance Parlour is having a book launch at Greenwich Waterstones today (26/09) at 5-7pm.