For as long as I can remember I've been a sucker for gothic thrillers, especially those set at British boarding schools. There's so much potential there - the ancient school buildings, the fog-shrouded landscapes, the sense of history frozen in time, the wafting hint of repression and unnatural obsessions. Alas, despite all that potential, no example of the genre has ever lived up to my melodramatic expectations. Either they're so poorly written that it's an effort not to gag at the overworked metaphors and lame cliches, or else they devolve into a climax so anticlimactic and silly that I find myself thinking: "Really? I've read all this way, and that's all you've got?"
And then, finally, a book that delivers the goods! White Devil is a literate, well paced, dense ghost story with characters that engage, writing that absorbs, red herrings so intriguing you'll enjoy being led astray, and a plot that keeps tightening the tension until the final sentences of the story's wholly original, wholly satisfying, wholly creepy denouement.
The story revolves around Andrew Taylor, a 17yr old American boy exiled by his outraged parents to an exclusive English boarding School after scandal and a death force him to flee his school in Connecticut. But the ghosts he's left behind are nothing compared to the ghost waiting for him at Harrow School - a pallid, spectral lad whose soul remains bound to earth by 200-year old cruelties and jealousies. Now add to the mix a bitter, washed-up poet grasping at his last chance to redeem himself; an eerily beautiful but precocious female classmate; White Devil, a bloody revenge tragedy authored by the troubled 19th century playwright John Webster; and rehearsals for a production of the life of the beautiful, scandalous, haunted Lord Byron (a Harrow School alumnus), to whom Andrew bears an uncanny resemblance ... set it all in an ancient boarding school complete with petty (and not so petty) adolescent cruelty, secrets concealed behind crumbling stone, and a string of mysterious deaths that begin soon after Andrew's arrival at Harrow ... stir vigorously, and enjoy losing yourself in a tale that is sure to keep you enthralled until the final paragraphs.
Props to Justin Evans, whose bio reveals no particular literary credentials, for producing this literate gothic thriller. It's not easy to produce extreme characters that don't come off as sterotypical, to create mood/atmosphere that doesn't come off as stagy, to construct a plot so dense that the story never stops delivering chills, and to resist the urge to wrap up the story with a full and pat disclosure that explains all. Evans writes with the mastery of language and assurance of a pro. How fortunate that the idea for this story fell into the hands of someone able to make the most of it!