The White Devil by Justin Evans

In his debut novel A Good and Happy Child, Justin Evans explored themes as hefty as memory repression, demon possession, and parental anxiety. Now, he is back with a brand new novel that at first glance seems a bit too good to be true.

  1. It is a ghost story.
  2. It is set at a prestigious English public school (which, by the way, the author attended himself in 1988!).
  3. Lord Byron, aka the first literary rock star, plays a major part in the unfolding of the story.

The White Devil by Justin EvansNow, I adore a good old haunting, as most of you already know – almost as much as I love novels with an academic setting. After all, you're talking to the girl who read Donna Tartt's The Secret History at the tender age of fifteen and had my entire world – my literary world, that is, which, at fifteen, pretty much was my world – rocked by Tartt's inimitable cast of characters, all of whom I still consider some of my best friends. And, oh, the gorgeous settings, so irresistible to a young bookworm! One section of the book that has really stuck with me throughout the years is the bit where Richard Papen, our narrator, has just arrived at Hampden College and, woken up from a slumber, walks around the campus and is positively awestruck by what he sees. The red-cheeked girls playing football in the golden afternoon light; the smell of apples, smoke, and early autumn in the air, the famous Vermont foliage all ablaze, everything so completely different from the humdrum, suburban feel of Richard's upbringing... She had me at hello, Donna did, and even though I have re-read The Secret History more times than I can count – and even though the actual plot, though advertised on page one, takes off a bit further into the book – there remains something magical about the chapters depicting Richard's first days at Hampden. I remember feeling something quite similar during my first – but far from last – stay in Oxford. The air seemed to be electrically charged with the very promise of knowledge, and me every bit as starstruck by the city of dreaming spires as Richard Papen of Hampden (”did Oscar Wilde stroll across the same meadow as I am right now?”). So yes, I'm a sucker for a decent cademic setting and actively look for books that may whet that particular literary apetite. (Read on for more scholarly tips in my top 5 of the month!)

Good and Happy Child, Justin EvansSpeaking of appetites, I just can't seem to get enough of novels featuring historical, cultural, and/or (preferrably all of the above!) literary icons. So, when I found out that not only will The White Devil cater to my supernatural and academic needs, Lord Byron will also be a major player... well, obviously I was thrilled, in an anxious, wide-eyed ”OMG, must read now!” sort of way. But with great expectations come the possibility of a great letdown. Upon hearing of Justin Evans' new endeavour, I couldn't help but wonder how he would manage to pull it all off.

The good news is, he does pull it off. An intensely spooky, richly atmospheric page turner, The White Devil is virtually impossible to put down once you've started reading it. It is a delightfully scary ghost story, but Evans also impresses me with his honest and real portrayal of what it's like to be eighteen, far away from home, and nearly broken down with expectations and self doubt. And yes, the Lord Byron parts seem well-researched and go well with the contemporary setting. I may be revealing too much here, but if you, like me, have a strange fascination with 19th century terminal illnesses, you will LOVE the premises of the haunting! Oh well, enough said.

Something slightly less vague and sweeping about the plot. After having been expelled from his school in his native Connecticut, Andrew Taylor (no relation, one would assume, to the novelist) is to spend his senior year at the prestigious public school Harrow, once home to the great Lord Byron. No sooner has he arrived in the UK than things – mysterious, startling, inexplicable things – start to happen. Following the death of a fellow student, Andrew starts to sense a malevolent presence. Someone – or something – wishes him ill, and it would appear that whatever is haunting Andrew is related to him playing Lord Byron in an upcoming school play. When a classmate falls ill, Andrew reaches out to his housemaster, a former literary genius turned alcoholic, for help. As the true motives behind the haunting begin to unravel, Andrew and his friends soon find themselves fighting for their lives.

You've probably already caught on, but I will say it just in case: yes, do read The White Devil! If you are into literary ghost stories with an innovative twist, and if your heartbeat goes up a notch by the very thought of drafty old English boarding houses – look no further! As for me, I will read A Good and Happy Child – which, if it is half as good as this one, is sure to please this hopeless lover of all things supernatural and scary – and then eagerly await the next book by Justin Evans. Methinks I've found a new favourite!

HELENA'S TOP 5 OF THE MONTH: NOVELS WITH AN AN ACADEMIC SETTING

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

You didn't think I'd leave it out, did you? If I hadn't already read it (and re-read it, and re-read it...) I would probably feel slightly hesitant towards this 1992 cult classic. It is, I believe, a book best experienced when you're as young and impressionable as the main character. Perhaps, ideally, even younger. Reading it with adult eyes might result in a less lovestruck interpretation. But then, it's just a theory...

Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates

2. Beasts (Joyce Carol Oates)

The ever so prolific Oates is nearly always flawless when she writes short prose. Everything I love about her writing style - the dark undercurrents, the beautiful language, the overall disturbing feel - is enhanced in her shorter pieces of fiction. In this 138 pages long dark gem of a novella, a young girl falls in love with a much older professor and his bohemian lifestyle - with dark, Oatesian consequences...

 The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton)

3. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton)

This is modern literary history by now, but I'm going to tell the tale anyway in case some of you have missed it: Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt went to college together at Bennington and both turned their college experience into literary form. Tartt, of course, wrote about Hampden College in that little book I seem to have forgotten to mention in this blog post, while Ellis' second novel takes place at Camden, a WASP-y New England liberal arts college with more than a passing reseblence to Bennington. It is not Ellis' finest hour in my opinion, but still worth reading. In a "blink and you'll miss it" passage, reference is made to some of the characters of The Secret History!

 Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld)

4. Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld)

New to the world of Curtis Sittenfeld? I envy you! Not to build up impossibly high expectations or anything, but Prep truly is a gem. So many authors try to be relatable, readable, and literary at the same time. Sittenfeld, unlike many of her colleagues, is a tremendous success on all three accounts.

 The Anatomy of Ghosts (Andrew Taylor)

5. The Anatomy of Ghosts (Andrew Taylor)

Historical suspense, don't you love it? One of my favourites within the genre is Andrew Taylor, whose latest novel The Anatomy of Ghosts is set in 18th century Cambridge. Not as thoroughly captivating as The American Boy and Bleeding Heart Square, but I still give Taylor an A for atmosphere and effort.

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