The Blackheath Séance Parlour, by Alan Williams (review)

I was drawn to this book because it was set in Blackheath.

The main plot of The Blackheath Séance Parlour (first published in 2013) tells of Judy and Maggie Cloak, sisters and residents of Blackheath, London in 1842. At the beginning of the book they spend most of their time and what little money they have in the Hare and Billet pub, drinking port and trying to dream up a big idea to escape poverty. Judy finally gets her own way and together they convert their failing chocolate shop into a séance parlour with the help of a local medium Netta Walters. We enter a world of tea leaves and crystal balls, spirits and the dead. At the same time there is a mystery in Blackheath, a murderer is at large. But the plot does not just deal with this storyline.  We also have a story within a story, a penny dreadful written by Judy and also set in Blackheath, which ties in with the surreal and the paranormal.

Alan Williams, the author of this novel, works in film and television and you can tell. The story goes off at a great pace and whisks you along with it. The scenes are short and easy to follow and you can imagine a Sunday-night serialisation on telly – but it’s more than just a ‘period drama’.

We are treated to a mixture of all sorts of genres, which shouldn’t quite work together, but kind of do. It’s fiction based in some fact (real inhabitants and events of the village, as listed in Neil Rhind’s bible of Blackheath, Blackheath Village and Environs 1790-1970).  It’s historical but not wholly veracious.  It’s anachronistic (the language, the details in Judy’s novel seem a bit risqué for the time); it has both the gothic and the fantastical about it.  In some ways it reminded me of Michel Faber’s macabre Under the Skin…but don’t let me spoil anything for you.  It’s tricky to write about the book without giving too much away.

Suffice to say, it is a great deal of fun. It is not aiming for the high brow, and I was not too concerned to find out which events or characters described were real (although some readers might be interested to discover that many of them were). Whether or not you believe in communicating with the dead, the events told here are fascinating, especially when spiritualism clashes with the church, embodied by the local priest Father Legge. I wanted to know more about the latter’s relationship with Maggie.

But to get back to Blackheath, for me the most interesting and seductive character in the book. It’s the place where I grew up, a place I love to this day and where half my family still lives. It is of course a different place today, but we still recognise it, with its place names and the stormy nights across the blustery heath, and it is apt that the murderer chooses the desolate heath for his hunting ground.  Williams brings alive a hive of gossiping neighbours, a community of pubs and shops, surrounded by the heath and the ponds. Blackheath is the whole reason why I picked up the book.  As a pure Blackheath-o-phile I would have no idea how it would come across to someone who doesn’t know the area, but for me it was such fun to go wandering through all the familiar streets, into the Ranger’s House, down to St Alfege Church in Greenwich, dodging the murderer on the black treacherous common land, or buying a cuppa from the Blackheath Tea Hut. The sisters even have a memorable scene looking for spirits down at Nunhead Cemetery, which is spitting distance from my current home.  It was also fun to imagine a time before the iconic building of All Saints’ Church (in 1857) which now dominates the heath from so many angles.

The Blackheath Séance Parlour is a great fun read and combines several layers of story with a few different genres and keeps you guessing throughout.  I personally could have strangled Maggie at certain points, but the main characters are well drawn and you do care what happens to them. Around and above them all hovers the spectre of the village of Blackheath.  If you don’t know it, you really ought to visit. Get down to the Hare and Billet for a port, and sit at the Cloaks’ favourite table. They won’t be there, but it’s worth looking out for Alan Williams, sitting in there working on his follow-up.

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The Blackheath Séance Parlour is published by Cutting Edge Press and is available from Amazon.

Disclosure: I was given a free copy of the book for the purpose of this review. The opinions and the photo (taken today) are my own.

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