Houses of Stone // by Barbara Michaels


//published 1993//

So a while back I read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters, and loved it.  I also read her Vicky Bliss series, which was also enjoyable but not quite as much fun.  Turns out, Peters is a pen name for Barbara Mertz, who also wrote books under her own name AND the pen name of Barbara Michaels!  Good times, good times.  Anyway, this is my first book to read under her Michael’s name.  While a decent outing, I simply didn’t like the main character, which left this book at an overall 3/5 for me.

Karen is an English professor whose specialty is 19th century female authors.  Her one claim to academic fame was finding and publishing a small volume of poetry by a women whose pen name was Ismene.  Karen has yearned to find out more about Ismene ever since, but without much hope – until her friend, a book dealer, discovers a partial manuscript that appears to have been written by the same woman.  Karen is wildly excited about the opportunity to get her hands on the manuscript and learn more about Ismene.  Unfortunately, some of her academic colleagues are pretty interested in the same thing.  As Karen continues to learn more about Ismene, the manuscript, and the house where the manuscript was found, she finds strange accidents and incidents are occurring with startling frequency.  Are they coincidence?  A product of Karen’s over-active imagination (filled with Ismene’s Gothic tale of horror)?  Or is there something more frighteningly supernatural occurring?

I had a few problems with this book.  The first is Karen herself.  UGH.  Frankly, she’s just a bit too bitchy for me.  Most of her dialogue is a constant refrain about how downtrodden women have been tormented by the restraints of the patriarchy for centuries, and it got pretty old pretty fast.

“[My nightmare is] the old buried-alive theme – a classic feminist nightmare.  I know what brings it on.  Frustration. …  The dreams started after I saw the manuscript.  Once I get my hands on it they’ll stop.”

Did you know?  Only feminists have nightmares about being buried alive.  It’s because they’re constantly thwarted in their professional, private, emotional, and social lives.  That was only the first mention of the theme – on page 41 – but it was repeated constantly.  Women are so downtrodden and desperate to be heard that the only way they can speak is through vague Freudian messages.  My gosh.  It was like sitting through a constant lecture on 19th century female authors.  I was even subjected to a speech on why Austen is an underground feminist whose only aim in writing was to point out what dirty dogs all (ALL) men are.

At one point, Karen is telling her friend about the actual story Ismene has written.  She is explaining how she is trying to figure out when the manuscript was written by reading for clues in the story.

“The original Gothic novel,” [said Karen], “began with The Castle of Otranto in 1764, and reached its height in the novels of Mrs. Radcliffe thirty years later.  They were certainly overburdened with dastardly villains and vapid heroines, ancient castles and Deadly Secrets; but the Gothic romance represents a significant development in the history of the modern novel.  The images of imprisonment and danger represent the social, intellectual and economic frustration of women in a rigid paternalistic society – ”

“Spare me.”  [Her colleague interrupted.]  “I’m not knocking literary criticism, but I just don’t give a damn about analysis of that sort, be it Freudian or feminist.  The only thing I care about is whether it’s a good read.”

ME TOO.  As someone who loves to read, and who loves to read a story without attempting to extrapolate “the true meaning,” I hate listening to lectures explaining symbolism and imagery.  If there isn’t a letter from the author stating “HERE IS WHAT I WAS ACTUALLY SAYING: AN INTERPRETATION OF THE SUBTEXT OF MY STORY” then I’m really not interested in someone else’s opinion of that (theoretical) subtext.  And basically this entire book was an explanation of the subtext of every book ever written by a woman.  So boring.

Meanwhile, in between lectures the actual story tooled right along and was quite interesting.  Karen and her friends are gathering information about Ismene and exploring the old mansion where the manuscript was found.  Eerie happenings that go from peculiar to frightening to life-threatening abound.  But the ending felt weak – some events were left unexplained entirely (especially the more supernatural events), and for the rest, well, everyone gets a piece of the blame pie.  Instead of being one bad guy, turns out that pretty much each thing was caused by someone different.  Ismene’s story itself is suddenly wrapped up in a very bizarre turn of events, and I don’t know, I just felt let down by the conclusion, especially after I’d endured a few hundred pages of Karen’s rather arrogant attitude –

The [laundromat] was doing a brisk business.  She had to wait for a machine.  As she stood tapping her foot impatiently, she saw a familiar face.  It was bent over a book, but she recognized the tight-clustered black curls and heavy horn-rimmed glasses …  the librarian – what was her name?  Tanya something.  The glasses must be an affectation, an attempt to look older and more authoritative.  Most women fo that age wore contacts.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just being weird here.  Except I’ve worn glasses pretty much my whole life, and prefer them to contacts because I find the more convenient and comfortable, yet Karen immediately snap-judges Tanya.  She did that with everyone, immediately plunking them into a category and then complaining about the way men always do the same thing to women.

So, like I said – in the end 3/5 for a decent premise and some engaging moments, but a little disappointing in the end.  I still have the rest of Michaels’s works on the TBR, though, so I’m sure we’ll come across another one soon, hopefully with better results.