The Sheer Shadow
These days, when even my four-year-old niece has a functioning digital camera, it's hard to imagine a time when photography was still more mysterious than commonplace. Back in 1872, when Avi's THE SEER OF SHADOWS is set, photography was a brand new art form, a complicated set of processes understood by few and believed by many to be a sort of magic.
No wonder, then, that some unscrupulous photographers in the late 19th century took advantage of the public's ignorance of photographic methods and the simultaneous public interest in spiritualism, mysticism and ghosts of all kinds to launch a business in "spirit photography," in which images of a client's dead loved ones are superimposed onto a standard portrait or landscape photograph.
One of these shifty photographers, in Avi's novel, is Enoch Middleditch, a society photographer of little or no reputation. His apprentice, Horace Carpetine, tells the story of how Mr. Middleditch plotted an elaborate plan to dupe a grieving mother, Mrs. Frederick Von Macht, who desperately wants to put her late daughter's spirit to rest by placing a photograph on her gravesite. Mr. Middleditch has the idea to superimpose an actual image of Eleanora, the dead girl, onto a portrait of Mrs. Von Macht.
When Mr. Middleditch enlists Horace's unwilling help, however, little does he know that Horace actually has the supernatural ability to bring latent spirits to life with the photographs he takes. Horace, who was raised in a supremely rational household and with whom ghost sightings and spiritual phenomena hold little sway, at is highly skeptical about the ghostly images that appear in his photographs, and, later, about the mysterious figure that lurks in the corners of the Von Macht house. But as the ghost becomes more real --- and more dangerous --- Horace finds himself believing despite himself. What secrets are the Von Machts hiding? And how can he help put Eleanora to rest before this vengeful spirit does real harm?
THE SEER OF SHADOWS is a top-notch ghost story, filled with mysterious sightings, angry spirits, unexplained phenomena and plenty of creepy atmosphere. It's also, however, a -rate historical novel, as Horace is a believable, genuine inhabitant of a specific time and place --- New York City in the 1870s. Avi introduces readers to post-Civil War race relations, 19th-century educational practices, the Victorian fascination with spiritualism, and the elements of the photographic process --- all in the context of a thrilling, suspenseful ghost story.
Steeped in historical fact, grounded in elements of fact and science, the truthfulness of THE SEER OF SHADOWS in all things makes its supernatural elements that much scarier --- because if the history is true, might not the ghosts be also?
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 25, 2008
The Sheer Shadow
- Publication Date: March 25, 2008
- Hardcover: 208 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins
- ISBN-10: 0060000155
- ISBN-13: 9780060000158