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The Haunting of L.

by Howard Norman

The link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people,” Susan Sontag wrote in her classic series of essays, On Photography. Howard Norman’s noir thriller is a prolonged meditation on the relationship between photography and mortality, but the novel says nothing original – in fact, it says almost nothing at all – on the fascinating subject he chooses to engage.

Each point of the love triangle at the core of this page-turner has a different relation to the subject of photographs as memento mori. Vienna Lin is a sadist who causes fatal accidents and takes photos of the victims’ agony for a wealthy, if perverted, patron. His attractive wife Kala Murie is obsessed with photographs that capture “uninvited guests” from the afterlife. Her lover and Vienna’s assistant, Peter Duvett, is a photograph developer whose life has been blighted by once having developed a photo of his mother’s corpse before he knew of her death.

The romantic tension between these three is convincingly rendered, but the underlying philosophical conflicts are never connected or rendered in a compelling way. In the hands of sinister Vienna, the photograph cannot be trusted to reveal anything authentic; he undermines the implied veracity of a photograph by staging events and, if necessary, tampering with negatives afterwards. Faithful Kala believes the apparitions who appear in photographs carry urgent messages for the yet living. And Peter likes to caption photos because this limits their chaotic messages. He prefers a well-ordered world, one in which he and his beloved Kala could live at peace, beyond her husband’s corrosive reach.

None of these viewpoints, as interesting as they are in themselves, really engage with the others, though. One viewpoint poses the question, what is truth? The next, where do the spirit and material worlds meet? And the third, will you marry me? There’s so much interesting subject matter here, and it’s very well written, but someone opened the darkroom door during the development process.