The Seer of Shadows by Avi
Set in New York City, 1872, we are introduced to Horace Carpetine, a young man who works as an apprentice to a photographer. His employer Mr Middleditch is a rather unscrupulous man, eager to turn a penny whichever way he can, but Horace is captivated by the magic of early photographic techniques.
Told in first-person account, Horace describes meeting a young black servant girl called Pegg by the gates of Mr Middleditch’s house, who arranges a photography session with her mistress Mrs Von Macht. Sensing a wealthy woman, Mr Middleditch agrees to the woman’s request to take her picture so that she might leave it on her recently deceased daughter’s tomb.
Mr Middleditch has a better idea — to exercise his skills and manipulate the photograph so that it looks like her daughter Eleanor appears as a ghostly presence in the portrait. To do this he needs Horace to sneak around the Van Macht house and photograph any portraits of Eleanor that he might find. While there, Horace strikes up an acquaintance with the servant girl Pegg, who tells him the true circumstances of Eleanor’s death and the Van Machts’ culpability in her passing.
Yet once he develops the photographs, he’s horrified to see an apparition of Eleanor in the finished portrait. Not only that, but Eleanor looks angry and vengeful — and Pegg is certain that she’s going to do something terrible. The two of them must come up with a way to send her back from whence she came before anyone comes to serious harm.
Tapping into the late 19th century’s fascination with spiritualism that went hand-in-hand with the innovations of early photography, Avi writes an atmospheric and spooky children’s ghost story that has a fine eye for the period in which it’s set. Horace is a sympathetic narrator, caught between his employer’s instructions and his own sense of right and wrong, as well as his rational upbringing and his inability to deny the presence of the supernatural.
The ending of The Seer of Shadows was a little odd, with the plot wrapped up and flitting ahead nearly ten years for an ambiguous epilogue in the space of a paragraph, but the book is a suspenseful and creepy story that may not follow all the rules of a quintessential ghost story (it remains a little fuzzy on how exactly Eleanor returned from beyond the grave and how responsible Horace was for the subsequent haunting) but achieves its goal of delivering chills to the reader.