The White Devil, by Justin Evans (New York: Harper, 2011)
"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 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."
"Outside a cool evening awaited. The perspiration on his back and neck turned icy."
Halfway through and still trying to decide. Got off to a slow start -- Gothic fiction isn't usually my thing -- but I do like stories set in school settings and it is picking up a bit. TBA.
(Later) Decent as those things go, but as I said, Gothic fiction isn't really my bag, and I don't know that this book was enough to win me over to the genre. Oh well; nothing wrong with expanding one's literary horizons.
As noted above, the book's opening is fairly unremarkable, with Andrew arriving at Harrow as a brand-new sixth-former (senior) feeling like he's stepped into a wholly alien world. The sole American at a British boarding school, and a rare transfer where most students begin as shells (seventh graders), Andrew does not make friends quickly -- not to mention that the rumors about his expulsion from his last school for drug use have crossed the pond with impressive speed. Only dorm-mate Theo Ryder is at all friendly or welcoming to Andrew, and within a few days, Theo is found dead. Contrary to the jacket blurb above, Andrew isn't blamed for Theo's death at this point, and the remaining residents of the Lot (Andrew's and formerly, Theo's house, or dorm) continue their studies, shaken but not really permanently changed.
Or so they think. What Andrew can't tell anyone at first, for fear of being deemed crazy and sent home, is that he not only found Theo's body ... he saw him die, strangled by a mysterious, white-haired boy who was there one moment and (without running away) simply gone the next. When the autopsy attributes Theo's death to a rare but non-contagious lung disease, he tries to put the vision from his mind. At the same time, Harrow's poet-in-residence and Lot's housemaster, Piers Fawkes, has been commissioned to write a play about Harrow's most famous alum, Lord Byron ... to whom Andrew bears an uncanny resemblance. Andrew is cast in the lead role, and begins to forge tentative, unlikely friendships with both Fawkes and the school's sole female student, headmaster's daughter Persephone Vine.
Unfortunately, the spectral white-haired boy doesn't give up that easily. Late one night, Andrew sees him a second time, when the boy leads him to a prefect's bathroom in the Harrow of yore, where a perplexed Andrew prevents him from being raped by a gang of older, larger students. Later, he recites a bizarre verse which Andrew learns (with the help of Fawkes and the school's archivist, Judith Kahn) comes from an obscure Jacobean tragedy performed at Harrow some 200 years earlier. This coincidence convinces the skeptical Fawkes that Andrew's ghost isn't just in his head, and the two become engrossed in discovering who he is and what he wants.
Until two more students fall ill, with symptoms similar to Theo's ... but which now, on closer examination, seem to indicate TB. This ratchets up the urgency and publicity of their search, especially as one of the students is Persephone.
From here on out, the book does get considerably more gripping and hard to put down. Though I'm not typically a fan of ghost stories, I did enjoy the climax and resolution of this one. If you like boarding school novels with a touch of the supernatural, give this one a try.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.