The White Devil
THE WHITE DEVIL by Justin Evans is both a mystery and a ghost story. The lines blur as readers are drawn into the labyrinth of Harrow, an English school for boys that holds many secrets of the past and present. This historical educational facility is the alma mater of Lord Byron and one of his many lovers. Rumor has it that the ghost of this paramour haunts the Lot dormitory where Andrew Taylor has just been sent to from America.
Andrew is on a short tether for being expelled from his school in the United States after doing drugs. His father told him that it cost a fortune to find a place for him at Harrow, so he better shape up or ship out --- his family would be through with him. This threat plays a big part in what happens to Andrew's decision-making processes as he blunders through his experiences in England.
One day, Andrew is walking by the cemetery and sees his friend, Theo Ryder, being throttled by a ghost-like figure: "A…growling, a barking…cut the air. Twenty paces down the path, a man straddled another man…the man on top was the source of the noise. He [wore] a long frock coat with tails, which hung on him [and] with both hands he thrust his weight upon the other man, smothering him. The attacker's face horrified Andrew. The eye sockets were sunken, the eyes protruded, a vivid blue, his flesh a morbid gray." Hair that is almost white "hung over his eyes." When he looks up, it's straight at Andrew --- they lock eyes. "Andrew staggered back" but realizes the figure on the ground is wearing the Harrow suit, thus he has to see who it is. The ghostly figure has disappeared, though, and Andrew finds Theo dead.
Andrew was always thought of as strange, but this episode makes him a further outcast and he is blamed for the boy's death. The only two people who are on his side are Persephone Vine, the headmaster's daughter, and Piers Fawkes, the housemaster who is writing a play about the poet Byron. Andrew and Persephone have an affair that ultimately puts Persephone in danger. Many people on campus are conscious of Andrew's resemblance to Byron, and he gets the leading role in the play.
As the narrative unfolds, creepy things begin to happen to Andrew and his few friends. He is not sure if the "white devil" he sees is in his imagination or is real. Is he losing his mind and going insane? Then, quite suddenly, an outbreak of tuberculosis hits several of the students, including Persephone, and Andrew is blamed for their plight.
Andrew must find a way to confront the "white devil." As it happens, in the cellar of his dormitory exists a cistern. He enters it and finds a tin box filled with written material. Clearly the papers are from another time. He takes them to Fawkes, who sends him to an archivist who is an expert in deciphering old works. It turns out the letters are to/from Byron and his special homosexual lover. As they are translated, Andrew realizes he must take matters into his own hands. He needs to find the "white devil" or his friends may die.
Justin Evans has written a ghost story in the 19th-century tradition, managing to touch on everything one might find in a book like THE TURN OF THE SCREW. He creates suspense while leading the reader through twists and turns, which keeps the tension high. Then he drops a surprise ending that no one could foresee. This makes THE WHITE DEVIL a force to behold. The pages turn quickly and almost by themselves. Readers should be prepared for some history, biography, poetry, a good mystery and a faithful ghost story when reading Evans's second novel.
Reviewed by Barbara LipkienGershenbaum on May 16, 2011