Title: The White Devil
Author: Justin Evans
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“A fierce and jealous ghost . . .
A young man’s fight for his life . . .
The Harrow School is home to privileged adolescents known as much for their distinctive dress and traditions as for their arrogance and schoolboy cruelty. Seventeen-year-old American Andrew Taylor is enrolled in the esteemed British institution by his father, who hopes that the school’s discipline will put some distance between his son and his troubled past in the States.
But trouble—and danger—seem to follow Andrew. When one of his schoolmates and friends dies mysteriously of a severe pulmonary illness, Andrew is blamed and is soon an outcast, spurned by nearly all his peers. And there is the pale, strange boy who begins to visit him at night. Either Andrew is losing his mind, or the house legend about his dormitory being haunted is true.
When the school’s poet-in-residence, Piers Fawkes, is commissioned to write a play about Byron, one of Harrow’s most famous alumni, he casts Andrew in the title role. Andrew begins to discover uncanny links between himself and the renowned poet. In his loneliness and isolation, Andrew becomes obsessed with Lord Byron’s story and the poet’s status not only as a literary genius and infamous seducer but as a student at the very different Harrow of two centuries prior—a place rife with violence, squalor, incurable diseases, and tormented love affairs.
When frightening and tragic events from that long-ago past start to recur in Harrow’s present, and when the dark and deadly specter by whom Andrew’s been haunted seems to be all too real, Andrew is forced to solve a two-hundred-year-old literary mystery that threatens the lives of his friends and his teachers—and, most terrifyingly, his own.”
Thoughts: Starting a new school is never easy but when the school is across the ocean, is exclusive, and has a 400-year-old history, the rituals and adjustments a new student faces is even more daunting. This is what faces Andrew Taylor as he prepares to cross the threshold of his new private school, The Harrow School. Sent there by his father as a last-ditch effort to improve his grades and standing among elite college boards, Andrew knows that he cannot screw up again or else the consequences will be dire. Unfortunately, a mysterious force seems bent on preventing Andrew from walking the straight-and-narrow. Just how far is Andrew will to pushing the envelope in this unfamiliar environment while attempting to solve the mystery? Does Andrew even stand a chance?
Any time a story is based even partially in fact, the rest of the plot becomes much more interesting. This formula holds true for The White Devil. Anyone with access to the Internet can do a quick search to determine whether Byron’s life story really was as dramatic and diverse as it is mentioned in the story. Given the eyebrow-raising facts mentioned in the heat of the story, most readers will feel the urge to do just that. This in no way detracts from the plot but rather adds to the ring of authenticity exuding from its pages.
The mastery of The White Devil is not only in the literary history weaved into the story, the grim atmosphere takes on a life of its own. The dreary and damp weather, while often construed as a cliche about London weather, truly does come to mirror the mood of the characters, their hopelessness, and despair. The rain represents their frustrations at the lack of understanding and confusion about what is truly occurring. Mr. Evans executes this idea of the backdrop becoming a secondary character in a novel brilliantly, bringing to the story a very old-fashioned, Gothic feel that works brilliantly with the plot itself.
Andrew Taylor and Piers Fawkes, as the two main characters, are uniquely flawed but so well-suited to the story. Both have flawed pasts and are given the opportunity to grow beyond their flaws. Yet, the reader never knows whether each character will do so. The reader’s inability to predict either character’s behavior or reactions only adds to the confusion and growing dread. Combined with the atmosphere and historical elements, this unpredictability succeeds at keeping a reader breathlessly on edge up through the very last lines.
The White Devil has it all – atmosphere, history, supernatural activity, mystery. It is a perfect read for a stormy autumnal afternoon, as its eeriness fits so well with the idea of decay and retreat that permeates the air during that time of year. However, that is not to say that a reader cannot enjoy it at any point in time during the year. I finished it on a bright morning in May; even though the weather was sunny and warm, I still managed to feel chilled and uneasy at the action unfolding before my eyes. Mr. Evans has successfully captured all of the elements of a true Gothic horror novel, making The White Devil a must-read for any fans of that particular genre.
Thank you to Mark Ferguson from HarperCollins for my review copy!