by Barbara Michaels
Meg Rittenhouse fears she is losing her mind. The doctors tell her the strange and disturbing hallucinations she's been experiencing ever since her accident are all in her head, and that, with a little rest, the haunting visions will vanish. But accepting an invitation to stay with her cousin in the country may be the worst decision Meg has ever made. Here, in a remote old house miles from anywhere, the terrible sights and sounds have gotten even worse. Suddenly eerie black shapes dance in the shadows—mocking Meg, haunting her . . . threatening her. And the presence of kind, considerate Andy Brenner, the caretaker, both reassures her and terrifies her—because Andy also sees these dark specters . . .
First off, that blurb isn't entirely accurate. Andy is "kind" and "considerate"? Those aren't the first words I would've chosen to describe him, but ok... Also, Meg isn't staying with her cousin-- and there are no black shapes dancing in the shadows. But other than that, great job, blurb-writer!
I've lost track of how many of Barbara Michaels' gothic/paranormal novels I've read. Quite a few, at this point. I have a love-hate relationship with this author. There's almost always something to complain about (irritatingly militant feminism, for instance), but on the whole, I enjoy her work and can rely on it to whisk me away from reality. They're usually comforting and cozy, with what I consider to be fairly mild elements of suspense. Is there such a thing as "gentle horror"? That's about the extent of anything I've come across in her books, so far. Maybe there's a handful of slightly creepy moments, but nothing to make me worry about things that go bump in the night.
This particular novel is typical of the author, which means that I found it entertaining. Not her best, but also not her worst-- though I think I say that about most of her books, and I'm not exactly sure what is the best of her work...
The cast of characters is fairly limited, but I think that might be in its favor, since it necessitates more interaction between what characters there are. The romance element could've done with a little beefing up (as is usually the case), but it's pleasantly there in the background. The spooky mystery is... of acceptable quality. There were no stunning, unbelievably amazing developments that I can recall, but it kept me interested, and there are a few genuinely eerie moments.
All told, a decent "cozy gothic/paranormal", if that's not a contradiction in terms.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I could tell that this was one of the author's older novels, though I wasn't sure how old. (It was published in the mid-70s.) Though there are only a couple of mentions of out-dated technology (a tape recorder, for example), it just has a "vintage" feeling. The types of antiques that are popular... The distaste for the Victorians... The (mercifully brief) sermon on Betty Friedan and the plight of the housewife... However, I think what dated the book the most was the slang used by the druggie guy, who tells her he can't "split" until he gets some "bread".
--The reason the ghosts/visions didn't appear to Andy or anyone else before was presumably because no-one else had been particularly as "receptive" or susceptible as Andy and Meg both are, at this point in their lives. I get that, but it's still a little convenient and strange. After all, there's a hint that one of Andy's older relatives (a great-aunt?) saw Anna Maria when she was a child, so why nobody else?
--Now that they know the history of the house, I'm surprised Andy and Meg are so keen to live there. How do they even know that the "ghosts" are laid to rest? They didn't really do anything for the uneasy spirits (or whatever the whole "vision" thing was about). Andy's coming to terms with his own feelings of guilt, but other than that... They didn't lay anything to rest. I don't think I'd want to live with those creepy, evil shadows right outside my house every night!
--"Good Lord, you can buy a gun in this country as easily as you can buy a pack of cigarettes." Ha! Really? ...Mkay, if you say so.
--"...a collection of nineteenth-century needlework that amused Meg as much as it offended her aesthetic sensibilities. Some of the doilies in the box might have been pretty if they had been crocheted in plain white thread. The most subdued had five different shades of scarlet, from brownish red to cherry, plus lilac, green, and gold."
--If there was a mention of Egypt or mummies, I missed it. Disappointing, because I've made a point of noticing at least one such reference in just about every Barbara Michaels book I've read. (g)
--"You ought to be able to get at least a year's lodging out of Sylvia. Even she knows you can't write a book in six months." "You overestimate Sylvia. Like most people, she thinks you can write a book in six days if you work at it." (Writers do seem to enjoy venting through their literary characters!)
--Meg and Andy's romance is a bit disappointing. There are moments of tension, but (typically) there's not quite enough there between them to account for the sudden implication that they're now "together". Part of the issue is that when they're in the house, they can't touch without lifting the veil on a supernatural scene. That kind of thing really puts a damper on the romantic mood. ;o)
--On the other hand, once they realize what's happening and that the scenes they unveil are harmless, I find it hard to believe that they didn't try it more often and in more rooms-- from more angles, etc. It's a little strange, considering how invested they each are (at different times) to discover all they can about the mysterious phenomenon and the family in their visions. There's a feeble attempt to explain this reluctance (Andy's afraid it's not healthy for them), but it is pretty feeble.
--Similarly feeble is the explanation for why Andy didn't directly inherit the house to begin with, considering that it came to his father through his mother-- and that his step-mother was already well-to-do, with property of her own.
--"...Sylvia looked like the kind of woman who walked the aisles of the supermarket with a little hand computer, ticking off the prices as she filled her shopping cart." First, me-ow. Second, "a little hand computer". I suppose she means a calculator? I guess they really haven't been around that long. Amazing how much technology has changed in the past forty or so years...
--The embroidery angle was interesting. I've never done embroidery (beyond some very basic cross-stitch, as a pre-teen), but maybe someday it would be fun to give it a try.