Justin Evans’ novel “The White Devil” is a horror novel that builds slowly, perhaps a little too slowly. It’s not until around page 150 that the terror really begins to boil over. It’s a worthwhile wait, however. Combining mystery, gothic horror, and a little literary history, this is a novel well worth reading.
The novel begins with 17-year-old Andrew Taylor, an American with a history of family and school problems, arriving at the England boarding school Harrow. He deals with suspicious and bullying fellow students, makes a few friends, and even lands a starring role in a school play due to his physical similarity to the Victorian poet Byron.
Andrew also hears about a school ghost who roams the hallways, the “Lot Ghost.” Andrew laughs off these stories as mere rumor until he sees the ghost kill one of his schoolmates. This is no typical Victorian ghost, however, who can only rattle cages and make windows blow open. Evans makes his antagonist truly evil and threatening. And Andrew quickly realizes that the ghost is stalking him, targeting any new friend Andrew makes at Harrow.
Much of the rest of “The White Devil” is Andrew trying to unwind the mystery of this ghost. Andrew finds something of a confidant in his school housemaster Piers Fawlkes (how’s that for a British name?) and together they pour through the not-so-attractive history of the school and discover a connection between the ghost and Byron. Andrew also grows close to Persephone, the one female student in school, and she gets drawn into the mystery.
Evans balances a lot of plot points in “The White Devil”--Andrew and his parents, Andrew and Persephone, Andrew practicing for the play, Fawlkes and his career, Andrew and Fawlkes dealing with the ghost. In lesser hands it would have been a bloated mess, but Evans makes it all work. I was particularly interested in the Fawlkes’s character, who wants to be a famous playwright instead of a housemaster. For much of the novel you wonder if he has Andrew’s best interests at heart.
But Fawlkes is just one of a number of strong parts of “The White Devil.” Evans writing style reminds me of so many other great gothic British novels, strong without being too wordy. The fact that he studied at Harrow for a year as a child makes one wonder how much of the class bullying is fiction and how much is memory.
And then there’s the tuberculosis. Evans’s ghost infects his victims with tuberculosis, and Evans does a great job describing students suffering with the disease--overcome with coughs, spitting up blood, and dying without being able to draw a breath. It was very effective and more than a little horrifying.
This is not a perfect novel by any means. As I said, it takes a long time to get started. After an initial death scene, Evans spends a number of pages building the plot (and building, and building…). Just before the mid-point of the novel Andrew finds a vital clue in a box and I thought to myself, “finally!” From that point I had a difficult time putting it down. Also, the ending is a bit abrupt (like so many other horror novels, I got the impression Evans had a great idea but not an equally great way to end it all).
But these are minor squabbles. In case you didn’t realize it by now, I found “The White Devil” to be a great read. If you’re sick of zombies and vampires and want something with a little more depth, definitely give it a try.