Friday, October 21, 2011

FFB: Séance - Mark McShane

Myra Savage wants to be famous. But while most people seek their glory in more earthly talents like the performing arts, athletics and politics Myra would like to be known as England’s most prominent psychic. She has shown her gift at an early age and was encouraged by her grandmother to develop it further. That it is not as reliable as she wishes it were doesn’t stop Myra from taking her dreams of fame to criminal extremes. This is the basic premise of Séance (1961) by Mark McShane’s first novel, a nifty thriller crammed with nail biting suspense.

Published in the UK under the more familiar name it shares with a cultish movie adaptation, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, McShane’s insidious blend of the supernatural with the suspense thriller is one of the most unique and under-appreciated books of the 1960s. If you have seen the film you do not know the book. The film version (now reviewed in comparison to the novel here) takes great liberties with the story and completely alters Myra’s motive and her character as well as that of her hapless and easily manipulated husband. I think the book is much more successful in how it tells the story of a crime that goes terribly wrong.

Myra’s plan is to "borrow" a little girl, Adriana, the daughter of a wealthy local businessman. She and her husband will make it seem that she had been kidnapped, even to the point of writing a ransom note and demanding money for her safe return. That it is indeed kidnapping and that they are turning into criminals completely eludes Myra. She has only "the Plan" in mind which is for the most part her servile husband's idea. They will return the girl completely unharmed as well as all the money – how can that be a crime? What Myra wants is for the police and everyone who reads the newspapers to know that she found the girl using her psychic gifts. But the reader knows full well that those gifts are dubious.

Bill, her husband, is devoted to Myra. She has manipulated him into believing "the Plan" will turn their life around. She will fulfill her dream and he will have helped her realize her goal. True happiness can only follow, right? When Myra brazenly takes a meeting with the parents of the kidnapped girl and delivers a series of cryptic messages the susceptible mother slowly begins to believe in Myra's powers. The girls' father and the police think otherwise. This is a well controlled, tightly plotted story of suspense with the reader in on every aspect of "the Plan" yet never expecting some of the shocks McShane has in store.

Is Myra a genuine psychic, can she contact the dead? Or is she just another fraud? Myra will tell you that her gift is genuine and that "the Plan" is merely a little push she needs to make her the only psychic in town worth visiting. McShane presents her as someone who truly believes she has a paranormal power but we can only be as skeptical as the police are about her so-called power when she resorts to such an elaborate and illegal scheme to be noticed. She comes off a little batty, but not nearly as demented as the character portrayed by Kim Stanley in the film. The major difference between the book and the film adaptation, however, is that McShane’s Myra surprises herself and the reader with one of her séances when she makes contact with a genuine spirit. Even Bill is frightened. And "the Plan" seems to be veering out of their control and taking on a life of its own. Has she finally tapped into her true gift? Myra may get exactly what she wishes but at a terrible price.

McShane would go on to develop a special brand of supernatural thriller all his own but would use a pseudonym (Marc Lovell) to explore that genre. With titles like An Inquiry into the Existence of Vampires, Dreamers in a Haunted House and The Guardian Spectre he took the tropes of the standard horror novel and turned them inside out creating a world of criminal deception and duplicity coupled with the presence of the paranormal that is unparalleled in the crime novel of the 1960s and 1970s. His genre blending books would pave the way for supernatural detective novel classics by other writers like Falling Angel (1978) and The Wolfen (1978). Under his own name McShane took off in a completely different direction penning a variety of subversive crime novels including The Crimson Madness of Little Doom (poison pens letters destroy the fabric of a quiet English village), Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street (man with a criminal past fears he may be found out by a chance meeting with a stranger), and The Man Who Left Well Enough (an insanely funny black comedy about a killer for hire in an English village). As Lovell he also wrote a series of espionage parodies featuring his 6'7" spy Appleton Porter, who can speak eighteen languages and is susceptible to blushing fits. Those books include The Spy Game (1980), The Spy Who Had His Head in the Clouds (1982) and Apple Spy in the Sky (1983).

Yes, it's yet another post for the R.I.P. VI Challenge. Make sure you click on the link and visit that page for over 500 posts on other books in the "literature of peril" which according to Carl's rules encompasses crime, mystery, horror and suspense fiction.


  1. I did see the film and recall liking it well enough, though it's been some time and the memory is a little vague. I'll have to try the book when my TBR pile gets lower.

  2. My favorite psychic is Whoopee Goldberg's character who is a real psychic but thinks she's not. I love her surprise when she discovers otherwise. The best part of GHOST in my view.

    I haven't read SEANCE, but it sounds a bit like a more dramatic example of a psychic not familiar with her own gifts?

    Something like that.

  3. Well done John, an excellent book review and pointer to an author well worth rediscovering - I was actually planning a post on this book quite soon (I have the Crime Club edition too!) but you've done such a good job on talking about it (and the first film version - I haven;t seen the Japanese remake) that I think I'll do the sequel instead!

    Really looking forward to reading what you have to say about the movie, which I have a great affection for (I wrote about on on another website, here:

    Cheers mate.