Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels

Title: Houses of Stone
Author: Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Mertz)
First published in 1993

Plot summary from Goodreads: When young professor of English Karen Holloway happens on a privately printed volume of verse dating from the early nineteenth century, it’s all in a day’s work. But when a battered manuscript bearing the same mysterious attribution, “Ismene, ” turns up, Karen realizes that it is an important discovery that could be the making of her academic career. Karen immerses herself in a headlong search for the true identity of the unknown author, tracking the provenance of the manuscript to Virginia’s historic Tidewater region.

She is not alone in her quest; academic rivals shadow her steps, trying to gain possession of the valuable manuscript, and the locals are more inquisitive about her activities than seems natural. Fortunately, Karen has the help of her eccentric and able mentor, Peggy, whose historical expertise proves to be invaluable. And, as she painstakingly deciphers the crabbed, charred pages, she begins to wonder whether she has the assistance of Ismene herself. Is the tale of Gothic horror that Ismene tells not a novel but a memoir, the very possession of which may jeopardize Karen’s life? Ismene’s legacy calls out from the past, from an eerie world fraught with terrifying impressions of fire and ice that will not die until the painful truths that inhabit houses of stone are revealed.

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.