I was in my teens when I started reading Gothic mysteries. It seemed like a natural progression, y’know? Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Ken Holt, and then Gothics crossed my path. From a teenage perspective, they made sense. Strong women facing danger with more romance than Nancy ever saw.
I noticed that people tended to fall into two categories: Jane Eyre or Jane Austen. That’s obviously over simplistic, but I found that a lot of folks found their footing either with the perils presented by the Brontes or the human drama showcased by Ms. Austen. Both are excellent, and of course a whole lot of people love both, as they should.
In my opinion, there’s a misplaced dismissal and, frankly, snobbish elitism when mystery readers consider Gothics. They’re dismissed as formulaic, and more than a little silly.
I beg to disagree.
The Gothic tradition is formulaic to an extent, yes, because there are certain elements that need to be met – a woman out of her element, isolated in some way, the dashing hero (or is he?), the scowling villain (or is he?), and an overwhelming feeling of something dire, sometimes with a supernatural twist, but often not.
To me, that’s as formulaic as a thriller, with it’s obligatory car chases, gun play, and the hero getting shot in the shoulder but shrugging it off. Mind you, I love them both!
And that brings me to what may be the Gothic’s Gothic novel, HOUSES OF STONE by Barbara Michaels.
Whether you know her as Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Mertz, or Barbara Michaels, no one can deny that she could write a compelling tale, but her cleverness in putting the Gothic novel on display in this book is phenomenal.
Basic plot, Karen Holloway has created a name for herself by finding a small book of poems by a heretofore unknown 19th century poet known only as Ismene. When she’s presented the partial manuscript by the same unknown lady, Karen finds herself in a race to figure out who Ismene really is, but of course the challenges, both physical and emotional, keep piling up.
The manuscript is a 19th century Gothic, and that’s the area of Karen’s expertise. It also happens to be an area of expertise for Barbara Michaels.
What makes HOUSES OF STONE particularly special is that it’s a Gothic novel about a Gothic novel, while the protagonist discusses the elements of the Gothic novel. What Ms. Michaels did was write a great treatise on the Gothic novel and then use the story she was telling to illustrate all her points.
Those points are not light and fluffy, though. She discusses racism, feminism, chauvinism, and looks hard at the politics of repression of the female voice in literature, with a strong nod to Virginia Woolf’s observations about a woman needing a space of her own.
It’s also a page turner, and a must-read for anyone who loves books.
If you’ve ever dismissed the Gothic, you should read this book. If you love Gothic novels, you should read this book.
Ah hell. You should read this book!