The Short Version: An American student sent to England to finish his education at Harrow finds himself pulled into the archaic and strange universe of British boarding school – and to make matters worse, the ghost of Lord Byron’s schooltime lover may well be killing off Sixth Formers who get too close to Andrew. How coincidental that he (Andrew) looks so much like Lord Byron…
The Review: There’s something mythic about British boarding school life. American boarding schools don’t come close – the closest thing we have would probably be Ivy League colleges and, even then, it’s only a rough comparison. The dark winding rooms, the secret code languages, the inevitable ghosts… This is a well that can be tapped repeatedly without ever running dry.
I lead off by saying this because Mr. Evans’ book feels very much like he’s gone to that well, pulled up a brimming bucket, and carefully doled it out in order to create the perfect formula boarding school ghost story. There’s not a moment out of place, not a thing that’s all that surprising in terms of the build-up, the further turns of the screw, the climax, and the epilogue-denouement. The characters are stock: the American dropped in England, the sexually precocious headmaster’s daughter, the drunk poet professor with the heart of gold, the crotchety librarian who also has a heart of gold, etc etc.
What differentiates the book from its ilk is that there are also some light historical aspirations here as well. Although I guess that’s not really so nouveau these days. Anyway, Evans takes on good old Lord Byron and ‘uncovers’ some evidence of his “first real love” – with a young homosexual boy named John Harness. (ed. note – Harness, apparently, was NOT a real person but a conflation of two men Byron went to school with. So that’s a bummer.) It’s nothing shocking to hear that there’s “buggery” (a word used more often than it should be – it’s a damn funny word to say aloud and, I’m sorry, but I can’t take it seriously when crotchety Brits are saying it) at Harrow nor is it shocking that Lord Byron was getting it on with just about anything that moved. What I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing remotely surprising in this novel.
But that’s not a bad thing. This is the sort of novel that someone writes after having taken “Poe & The Gothic” at BC – you can practically tick off the Gothic Tropes like doppelgangers, hallucinations, underground cisterns, seances, possession, etc etc etc. I’d say that the most original part of the book is the disease aspect. Harness’ ghost is able to kill people – basically by giving them a rapid-onset form of tuberculosis. It’s rather horrifying and I’d say the scariest scene in the book is when Andrew and another classmate are taken to hospital in London because their two hallmates have now died of what looks to be a superbug form of TB. They’re tested, quarantined… and then asked if they’re having unprotected sex or using intravenous drugs – because this form of TB would be impossible without suffering from an autoimmune disease. Fawkes, the drunk poet prof, has a moment of realization when Andrew tells him this and thinks something about how absolutely shattering it would be to be told that you probably have TB and then moment later told that it’s probably because you have AIDS. I mean, jesus. Just thinking about that is enough to shut off the part of your brain that deals with rational things because that’d be too much to comprehend. I also think that infectious diseases, especially fast-spreading drug-resistant ones, are the scariest thing in the world today.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I don’t really have much else to say about the book. It’s well written and handled with smooth skill – but your level of enjoyment will come from what you’re looking to get out of it. Don’t believe the Stephen King quote on the cover – it isn’t that scary, not even remotely. But there are a few good jumps and jolts, a few harrowing (buh dum tshhhh) moments, and the epilogue wraps things up nicely. I just genuinely found it ordinary, average, shrug-worthy. Oh but I will say this: Penelope Vine would’ve had the same effect on me that she had on Andrew. I’m a sucker for a sassy rebellious British girl.