The Magazine

A Harrowing Tale

Blood, sweat, and tears at an English public school.

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By EDITH ALSTON
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Set amid the historic halls of England’s Harrow School, The White Devil plumbs the literal depths of a shambling student residence known as the Lot to uncover a dank and sinister mystery linking one of the school’s most illustrious alumni, Lord Byron, to a malevolent resident ghost.

Drawing of Lord Byron as a Harrow schoolboy by William Finden

Lord Byron as a Harrow schoolboy by William Finden (ca. 1833-34)

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Appearances count for everything, when young Andrew Taylor arrives at the school from the States. A long-haired American underachiever with a string of New England boarding school expulsions behind him, he’s been sent there to redeem himself after the overdose of a friend, and to bring up his grades in a last year before college, when Harrow’s only girl student, the cheeky and beautiful Persephone Vine, quickly recognizes the newcomer’s striking resemblance to portraits of the famously handsome and flamboyant poet of some two centuries ago, and passes along her observation to the professor Piers Fawkes.

The daughter of a senior faculty member, Persephone is exercising her prerogative to study at the school for her A-levels, and Fawkes is a once-highly respected poet in alcoholic and disheveled decline. Years earlier Fawkes was invited by the school to write a play about Byron which he has never been able to complete; but soon after meeting Andrew, he’s off the bottle and writing again, happy for the availability of the American (in spite of his accent) to take the lead role in his soon-to-be-finished work.

High up under the steep gables of the Lot, Andrew has begun making friends among his fellow Sixth Formers, and on his first visit to the basement shower rooms has barely noted a faint atmospheric shift, when a chance walk through a churchyard brings him in sight of a gaunt frock-coated figure with a sickening cough, crouched over the lifeless body of his favorite new classmate, Theo. Then, as suddenly as the pale-haired man has appeared along the path, he is gone.

Is it a murder the American has just witnessed—or has Theo died of the undiagnosed pulmonary weakness that forensic evidence will soon reveal? Rocked along with his fellow students by the school’s loss of one of its most popular boys, and thinking that he might be suspected of some role in the death because of his past association with drugs, Andrew at first reveals nothing about the moment in the churchyard, taking refuge in a budding romance with Persephone and preparations for the play. But downstairs in the Lot, in the shower rooms built over the cistern of an earlier building, long ago sealed off, he soon starts to encounter another pale-haired figure—not a man this time, but a sensuous and vulnerable-seeming boy.

In 2008, Justin Evans established his gift for evoking the eerie with his debut novel, the much-praised A Good and Happy Child, about a young father who goes into psychotherapy because of deep fears about touching his newborn son, and uncovers memories of a long-forgotten trauma that may or may not be associated with a demonic possession. In another thoroughly modern mashup of mystery genres (Milton was the previous literary tie-in), The White Devil is a crossover case of mistaken identity originating in the spirit world, but with a storyline that at first seems more routine. Here, though, nothing is ever very ambiguous about paranormal events. This spook from the beginning is bent on revenge.

Still in search of the focal point for his play, Fawkes is sifting through the archives of Harrow’s Vaughan Library when two unearthed names start to align Byron’s early writing life with the history of the ghostly figure. Downstairs in the shower rooms, in an atmosphere shifting and nightmarish with candlelight and rats, Andrew has sometimes found the delicate boy in need of rescue, and sometimes felt enticed toward “an overdose of furtive pleasure,” when the story starts to accelerate through a mélange of coming-of-age romance, literary history, and psychosexual boarding school angst. As the encounters grow increasingly hallucinatory, he sometimes feels absorbed into the very identity of the ghost.

The lively rendering of English boarding school life, and an American outlier’s view of it (the author was a student at Harrow for a year), extends as far as Cambridge and into a London hospital isolation ward under the threat of a pandemic. But in this era of monstrous figures as the cultural currency for addressing some of life’s larger questions—think vampires and zombies and serial killers on TV—the idea of a revenge-minded ghost motivated by little more than the souring of a schoolboy romance seems a bit thin. As the story barrels toward its resolution in exorcism and expiation, it most of all just seems busy. A web search reveals that Harrow’s Vaughan Library is real, but there is no student housing known as the Lot.

Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.