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The London Séance Society


The London Séance Society

Sarah Penner follows up her debut novel, THE LOST APOTHECARY, with THE LONDON SÉANCE SOCIETY, a spellbinding work of historical fiction set at the height of Victorian London’s obsession with the spiritualist movement.

“Established in 1860, the mission of the London Séance Society is to provide clairvoyance and mediumship services throughout the city of London, with the intent of providing peace to mourners and satisfying the populace’s growing curiosity about the afterlife.”

A stalwart skeptic, Lenna Wickes has watched for the last few years as her sister, Evie, has become enamored of spiritualism and the techniques and methods of the London Séance Society, which has been governed, run and populated exclusively by men. But Evie’s obsession with the afterlife took a shocking turn when she was found murdered in the backyard of the hotel that their parents run, leaving Lenna desolate and unmoored.

"[T]he novel is never overly sentimental. Instead it finds its strength in solid character development, a riveting mystery, and the fun that encourages us to seek out tarot cards, ouija boards and palm readers."

Evie had long raved about the work of one spiritualist in particular, Vaudeline D’Allaire, an acclaimed medium whose work with the spirits of brutally murdered girls and women has solved more than a few cases and earned her a devoted following. Shortly before Evie’s murder, Vaudeline fled London for Paris following a few difficult cases, vowing never to return again.

Although she has never taken an interest in the spiritualist movement herself, Lenna knows from Evie’s constant chattering that séances are most effective on the grounds of the spirit’s death. Desperate to contact Evie both for closure and to find out the truth about her murder, Lenna does the only sensible thing she can think of: she heads to Paris to study under Vaudeline, assured that even the staunchest of skeptics can take an academic approach to the afterlife to unlock its secrets.

But across town, trouble is brewing at the London Séance Society. Once an esteemed business respected by citizens far and wide, it has fallen victim to ugly rumors. Despite its aim to provide peace to mourners and satisfy the public’s curiosity about the afterlife, the Society has begun to resort to cheap parlor tricks --- ventriloquists speaking in haunting voices; trick candles that burn down to reveal the perfume or cologne of the deceased, just at the right moment; and overlaid photographs that look about as realistic as today’s worst Photoshop fails. (Sharp readers will notice that the word “truth” is never mentioned in their slogan.)

Even worse, there are whispers that the widows and families who once turned to the Society for comfort have been met with astronomic pricing and manipulations, with more than one grieving widow ending up married to a Society gentleman long before the appropriate mourning period is over. Luckily, Mr. Morley, the vice president of the Department of Spiritualism, is looking into the matter. He has to, or else he will lose his place in the Society and the respect of its president, Mr. Volckman.

As Lenna proceeds with her studies under Vaudeline --- finding herself, to her shock and horror, to be quite adept at responding to cues from the spirits --- a letter arrives, informing Vaudeline that Volckman has been murdered. It is revealed that Vaudeline had been helping Volckman investigate the rumors plaguing the Society. When some of the men in the Society caught wind of her efforts, Volckman encouraged her to flee for her safety.

Now, with Volckman dead, Morley has asked Vaudeline to return and perform one last séance to discover who killed him and, presumably, who is behind the deceitful acts penetrating the Society’s innermost circle. It is a dangerous mission, but Lenna knows that following Vaudeline may help her find answers as well. Once the séance for Volckman is complete, Vaudeline has promised to do another for Evie.

With ghosts creeping on the edge of each page, two homicides and a plan for an even riskier séance underway, Lenna and Vaudeline are facing a daunting task. But as the women hide away in the basement of the Society’s headquarters and work with Morley to investigate Volckman’s last moments, it becomes clear that there is far more going on in the Society than the murder of its president.

Sarah Penner is a gifted writer of historical fiction. Her choice here to focus on Victorian England, with all its idiosyncrasies and quirks, is a smart one, as is her premise centered on spiritualism. THE LONDON SÉANCE SOCIETY is no work of fantasy, but Penner doesn’t completely shut down the idea of mediumship or the afterlife, grounding her narrative in science and unprovable truths that even a skeptic like Lenna cannot quite deny. At the same time, she expertly lays this intriguing element against its more human, emotional counterparts: grief and mourning.

Although Lenna embodies a sense of longing for contact with the afterlife, the novel is never overly sentimental. Instead it finds its strength in solid character development, a riveting mystery, and the fun that encourages us to seek out tarot cards, ouija boards and palm readers.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 24, 2023

The London Séance Society
by Sarah Penner