Laura Purcell’s fourth novel with Raven Books once again sees the ‘queen of the sophisticated and spooky page turner’ serve us up a Gothic, historical treat. Whilst none of her subsequent books have been quite so spine-chilling as 2017’s The Silent Companions, this latest offering, The Shape of Darkness is a suitably spooky novel about violence, grief and coercive control set against a backdrop of paranormal activity and the unexplained.
Agnes Darken, a silhouette artist, is dismayed to discover that a serial murderer is picking off her clients one by one. In ill-health since a bout of pneumonia four year’s prior, she is counselled by her brother-in-law (her deceased twin sister’s husband) to leave well enough alone. Yet when it seems that the murderer is sending Agnes messages and threatening what is left of her family, she finds she cannot.
She seeks out the assistance of the White Sylph, a young girl named Pearl who has been born with albinism and seems able to convene with the spirit world. If the two of them can contact the victims and find out who the murderer is, perhaps they can stop another death from occurring.
Told in alternating chapters that switch between Agnes and Pearl’s points of view, The Shape of Darkness is a story that unfolds quickly. Both characters have compelling, if complicated, backstories. Agnes lives with her mother and nephew, and is looked after by her brother-in-law, Dr Carfax, who seems to be a hovering, overprotective presence as much concerned with keeping Agnes convinced she is ill as treating her.
Her sister, Constance, died in an accident fourteen years previously, and though Agnes has little reason to miss her, she is present in the protagonist’s thoughts for much of the novel. Another unseen character similarly takes up a lot of space in the novel: a Lieutenant Montague of the Royal Navy, who seems to have been involved with both sisters. Agnes’s family history is somewhat complex and the reader must piece together what has happened through hints and references to “The Accident”.
Pearl’s history is easier to follow. Though she takes a decided secondary role in the book and indeed shares much of her story with her half-sister Myrtle. These chapters of the novel were reminiscent of 2020’s Spirited by Julie Cohen, another novel in which seances were manufactured, leading me to believe that both books may have shared a historical antecedent.
Despite the confusing nature of the book’s set up, The Shape of Darkness reinforces Purcell as a master of building suspense. With each new development, it became harder and harder to put this book down. The thrill of guessing if the conclusion would be supernatural or a clever deceit made for a thoroughly engaging reading experience, akin to reading a detective story. While the book’s ending was somewhat ambiguous (it posits several potential answers and leaves the reader to decide which is real) it was for the most part logical to the story, barring one slightly cliched element which I wish had been omitted.
Purcell has often been touted Du Maurier-esque in her writing. But, with each book, she establishes herself more and more firmly as a writer carving out her own genre. Her modern-day Victorian sensation novels are compelling and take the reader on a spooky, emotional journey, leading this writer to hope that Purcell’s earlier two books about the royal court might someday re-appear in print.