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The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Jonathan Skariton’s Séance Infernale, a darkly suspenseful novel of revenge and crime set against a backdrop of scandalous cinematic history.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Although it’s set in the present day, much of the drama of Séance Infernale takes place in the Victorian era and is seen through flashbacks and other means of historical inference. How does the novel play with the intersection of past and present, and what do the characters glean about the fluidity of time’s boundaries? 

2. Discuss the character of Alex Whitman, whose personal and professional demons give driving force to the novel’s overlapping conflicts. How and when do we come to know different sides of Whitman, and what stood out to you as his most notable and defining traits, beliefs, and emotions? 

3. Whitman becomes involved in the hunt for Elliot from an unexpected, oblique stance: that of a film memorabilia dealer, who’s tasked with finding Augustin Sekuler’s missing film. Expanding from his initial involvement in the case, what does the novel suggest about the intersection of art and crime? How are the artists and criminals in the novel similar and different, and to what degree do they become equally complicit in the tragedies that befall Elliot’s victims?  

4. Sekuler’s great-granddaughter explains how after he (ostensibly) invented the motion picture, he realized the danger in his innovation: that “by capturing the moving image, he essentially captured a monster” (page 61). How does this represent the narrative trajectory of the novel itself? Who are the “monsters” of the present day who so grossly abuse the power of film, and what is most monstrous about a moving image in particular, versus a static one? 

5. Discuss the use of visuals and imagery throughout the novel, in both a literal and a figurative sense. How do the photographs, overlapping text/multimedia, and typographical arrangements corroborate the strong theme of the power of vision established by the interest in a literal film? Did those elements of the reading experience enhance your understanding of those themes and ideas? 

6. How do the shape and structure of the novel create the sense of suspense and urgency in solving the crimes at hand? Why was it important to the novel’s plot to see the events of December 3 to 9 so meticulously, and how did that chronological compression impact your engagement with the characters? 

7. Whitman’s personal motivation for finding the missing girls—namely, his grief over missing his own daughter—becomes increasingly important over the six days in December. Did you feel his involvement became morally compromised as a result? Either way, did you think his motivation impacted the outcome of the case positively or negatively? 

8. Sekuler’s missing film frames provide a literal representation of how impressions of the past can wreak havoc on the present and leave behind ghosts of an unexpected variety. What other ways do memories of certain images, ideas, and desires haunt the characters in the novel? Consider the idea that pictures are “not alive, whether they look like they are or not. If you perceive that they are moving, it’s an illusion; if you believe it, it’s a delusion” (page 205). 

9. Discuss the gender dynamics in the novel. Are women and girls seen exclusively as victims, and/or how and when are they heroes? Are men always the most responsible and grounded? What reveals their vulnerabilities, explicitly or inexplicitly? 

10. What does alchemy and its history represent in the novel? Besides the investigation into the historical context of alchemy, are there other forms of magic that we see proof of in illogical or mystical occurrences? 

11. What does the collision of modern technology and older forms of media do to the integrity of art? Does our present day pose a threat to archives like Sekuler’s and Edison’s films in and of itself, according to the novel, or do you think it has more to do with the motives of individuals? 

12. Why do you think so many puzzles—linguistic, mathematical, artistic—are planted throughout the book? What does their sophistication suggest about the intelligence and savvy of criminal minds, and how does that compare to artists’? 

13. To what degree did you feel closure at the end of the novel? Were you satisfied by how Whitman’s quest ended? 

Suggested Reading

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
A. S. Byatt, Possession
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Nicole Krauss, Great House
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932
Marisa Silver, Mary Coin
Ali Smith, How to Be Both 
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