The White Devil (book, Justin Evans, 2011)


From SFX #214.

THREE AND A HALF STARS

Author: Justin Evans

Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Byron, TB, and spurned schoolboy lovers.

A ghost story set in Harrow, The White Devil is an interesting cultural artefact; it’s about a place few of us outside the elite know much about, written by an American who spent a gap year there, giving us a skewed yet fascinating picture of an odd corner of British society.

It also makes the story feel very much like a 1970s ghost flick, all rain and grey and brown, a bit like Turn of the Screw or Don’t Look Now, a British funded film with obligatory male lead from the US. This is no bad thing, mind, we mention it purely for illustrative purposes.

Andrew has been busted for drugs in the US. Sent to Harrow to as a last chance to straighten himself out by his rich father, he attracts the attention of a dangerous ghost. Andrew is a dead spit for Lord Byron, y’see, and the ghoul of Byron’s spurned, school-years lover has unfinished business. Andrew’s likeness, and the fact he’s playing the dissolute poet in a play, draws out this evil from the past.

There’s some good atmosphere generated here, once the overly poetic prose settles down. The characters are all well drawn, the famed poet turned failed teacher Piers Fawkes being particularly noteworthy. There’s love, coming of age stuff, and moral wrangles to enjoy, but the trouble is with the plot; the adults are too quick to believe young Andrew. This removes much of the tension, reducing the protagonist to something of a cipher, and one feels that Evans is more interested in his characters’ mundane concerns than his ghost. Evocative, but not quite scary enough.

Did you know?

Justin Evans gives a good account of how he wrote the book, and his inspirations, on his website.

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