Egyptologist Barbara Mertz created two pseudonyms for herself when she began to publish fiction to distinguish between her academic and her genre writing. As Elizabeth Peters, a pen-name she evolved in the 1970s, she writes a three successful mystery series, each featuring a strong female protagonist: art-historian Vicky Bliss, librarian Jaqueline Kirby, and late-Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody. (The latter series shares a few important commonalities with Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarabotti novels, and I encourage Carriger's fans to check out them out.)
As Barbara Michaels, a pen-name she developed in 1966, Mertz writes primarily one-off romantic thrillers. We've reviewed Michaels' novels here before; I'm happily on record as a fan of her feminist, (often but not always) supernatural-inflected Gothic fiction. Although the novels can be hit or miss, the body of Mertz's work as Michaels rises above the crowd of romantic thrillers for a few important reasons: she writes intelligent female characters (a woefully rare commodity in the romantic thriller genre) and her books are funny. They're also impressively well-researched and communicate Mertz's very real delight in history and historical mystery.
While not her strongest novel, Michaels' 1974 House of Many Shadows is yet a good read. All Michaels' authorial strengths are on display - the book features a strong female protagonist, grumpy but not asinine love interest, atmospheric setting, memorable tertiary characterizations, and a fairly interesting historical mystery. It's also, however, very dated - the potential villains, for example, are a strung-out hippie and his blobby girlfriend. What results is a fun but frustrating book.
Following a nasty car accident, Manhattanite Meg Rittenhouse is left suffering from auditory and visual hallucinations. Unable to keep a job and make her rent, Meg is forced to turn to a wealthy relative for charity. The relative sets her up in an ancient, rambling mansion in rural Pennsylvania with a job (fix it up so the elderly relative can sell it) and a budget (don't buy any new clothes; don't take any drugs; no more one cocktail a day). The property's caretaker, Andy, is the disinherited son of Meg's relative's dead husband. Although not the standard Gothic tall and dark (he's a ginger with freckles and a snub-nose), Andy does have a mysterious past (he dropped out of grad school! No one knows why!) and a tendency to mope. Also, Meg and Andy don't get along. Yet.
Meg's hallucinations become steadily worse as she settles into her new home. Weirdly, however, they now only occur when she's a) in the house and b) touching Andy. He finally admits that he sees and hears weird things, too. Neighbors and townsfolk drop atmospheric hints of dark deeds in long-ago dark times, and after a couple of trawls through the local historical society's archives, Meg discovers that the house sits on the site of a gruesome 17th century murder. As Meg learns the house's history, she realizes that her hallucinations represent the events leading up to the murder. Meanwhile, the house's previous tenants, a strung-out hippie and his screechy, braless girlfriend, camp out in the surrounding woods and embark on an escalating campaign of terrorization. Meanwhile, the shadows around the old mansion seem to be growing uncannily darker.
(Skip the next paragraph if you hate spoilers; fun)
Turns out, the house is haunted by the ghosts of seventeenth century German emigrants, an alchemist and his housekeeper. They were slain by a mob of Puritans, the murderous spirits of whom still haunt the shadows that stretch towards the house at night. On the anniversary of the murder, the evil shadows eat the strung-out hippie. Don't worry; he deserves it - he's trying to kill our heroes. Andy, it turns out, is a successful novelist - he dropped out of grad school to concentrate on his next book. He and Meg confess their love (who'd have guessed that despite all that arguing they actually really liked each other?) and the elderly relative leaves them the house. Which, by the way, is probably still haunted; it's implied that Meg and Andy may have to experience everything all over again every year. Let's hope that their more terrestrial villains always choose that time of year to attack.
The novel's greatest weakness is its supernatural element: House of Many Shadows is an out and out ghost story, and Michaels doesn't quite succeed in mashing a traditional axe-murder haunting story into a self-aware, feminist take on the Gothic novel. The nature of the haunting is really problematic; it's is clearly both psychologically traumatic and physically dangerous but Meg and Andy decide to stick it out anyway. Because of lurve. Really? Forever? Maybe the evil shadows only go for stringy-haired hippies.
But all the elements of a Barbara Michaels novel are present and accounted for, and as usual, she doesn't disappoint. Michaels is a brilliant setter of stages; the decrepit house and the ancient forest are evocatively rendered and creepily atmospheric. Meg and Andy's banter is cute, and neither is annoying or idiotic or loathsome (a regular problem in romantic thrillers). Even if the characters are a little stereotypical, and the (non-supernatural) ending a little pat, the book is none the less enjoyable for it.
Mertz's back catalogue as Barbara Michaels is currently being rereleased by HarperTorch, and you can also find her books at your local independent used bookstore.