by Barbara Michaels
Publication Date: October 1, 1993
Genre: gothic romance, suspense
Project: a century of women
It is a find of inestimable value for Karen Holloway. The battered manuscript she holds in her hand—written in the nineteenth century and bearing the mysterious attribution "Ismene"—could prove a boon to the eager young English professor's career. But Karen's search for the author's true identity is carrying her into the gray shadows of the past, to places fraught with danger and terror. For the deeper she delves into Ismene's strange tale of gothic horror, the more she is haunted by the suspicion that the long-dead author was writing the truth . . . and that even now she is guiding Karen's investigation, leading her to terrible secrets hidden behind the cold walls of houses of stone.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how brilliant, capable and well-educated Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Mertz was. By all rights, we should really call her Dr. Mertz, since she was awarded a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1952.
I haven’t read a lot of her Amelia Peabody series, where she really puts that Egyptology doctorate to work, although the few I’ve read I’ve enjoyed. I have a pronounced weekness for mid-twentieth century Gothic Romance, which is why I’ve read a lot more of her so-called gothic romances.
Houses of Stone barely hits the romance genre. There are two love interests, one of whom turns out to be every bit as despicable as I predicted, the other who redeems himself somewhat. The real love story in this book is between the main character, Karen, and her scholarship. I read this book with a friend who struggled with Karen. She was prickly, angry, suspicious and occasionally she got things absolutely wrong, but her behavior made sense to me. She was also over being condescended to and treated like an adorable but wayward child.
The first part of the book concerns Karen’s effort to buy the manuscript at the heart of the story. In order to do so, she must both outbid and outmaneuver her rivals, primarily the loathsome Bill Meyer, who is a smooth talking professor from a different university. Once she secures the manuscript with the help of her friend and co-conspirator, Peggy, who is a history professor (and secret sex manual author) at the some university, the story transitions to Karen’s analysis of the manuscript. As part of this analysis, she temporarily moves to the small Virginia town to research Ismene in situ. This results in Karen running afoul of most of the town.
There is one particular scene in the book where Karen has been basically coerced into speaking to a local book club by her landlady, who is an unpleasant sort. Let it never be forgotten that women can be misogynistic asshats, too. In any case, Karen responds with annoyance to being forced into the speech, and regales a room full of old biddies with their first taste of feminist criticism in a talk entitled “The Pen as Penis” (or “Penis as Pen,” I honestly can’t remember which). This was hilarious. As an aside, I would point out that the poisonous Mrs. Fowler who roped her into speaking to her book club for free had no expectation that Bill Meyer, a man who is also in town trying to beat Karen at her own game, would do the same.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the discussions about the history of the gothic novel. Barbara Michaels sly sense of humor comes through on several occasions, including the very end, with the restoration of a painting. She isn’t as successful in painting the gothic atmosphere in this one as in some of her others, but that’s just fine. The strengths of the book make up for the other elements that Michaels leaves intentionally underdeveloped. There is a lot of feminism here.
Karen isn’t interested in being the heroine of her own gothic romance. She wants to make intellectual discoveries that will set her discipline on fire, and being the persecuted innocent woman at the center of a gothic melodrama would just get in the way of accomplishing what she sets out to do. The villains are disarmingly pedestrian: an old biddy with money problems, a couple of competitors who will stop at nothing to beat her, and a society that refuses to take serious women seriously.
This book was published in 1993, but it felt older than that – I graduated from law school in 1992, and while society was more regressive than today, I don’t think it was quite so regressive as painted here. I was actually surprised that it was written in 1993 – it felt more like a late 1970’s or early 1980’s story. The author was extremely prolific, writing around 70 books, three separate series (Amelia Peabody, Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby), at least three non-fiction works, and numerous standalones. She wrote under three names – her true name, Dr. Barbara Mertz, was the name under which she published her non-fiction works on Egypt, Elizabeth Peters was her mystery name, and Barbara Michaels was the name she used for her gothic romance novels. It’s always been the Barbara Michaels novels towards which I gravitated, although someday I hope to read her Amelia Peabody series. She passed away in 2013 at 85.