Houses of Stone - Barbara Michaels

~~Moved from GR~~


Houses of Stone

by Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Mertz)


Houses of Stone manages--don't ask me how-- to simultaneously be a critique, homage, and spoof of the gothic novel.

Karen is a professor of English literature with a speciality in romantic/feminist works of the 19th century. When she stumbles upon an incredible manuscript--the first draft of a gothic novel by an unknown female writer--Karen follows the trail of the mysterious author to a gloomy and rather sinister plantation in Virginia. As she investigates the life of the reclusive and ill-fated novelist, Karen herself begins to take on the role of a gothic heroine. The story alternates between atmospheric and hilarious as Michaels pulls out all the tropes--burning buildings, crazy relatives locked up in the attic, being buried alive, swooning heroines, heroes fighting for their lady's honor, etc. The fun comes from the characters' genre-savvy bewilderment as they wander around in a modern version of Mysteries of Udolpho.

Karen really isn't my favorite heroine. She is unnecessarily prickly and dependent, alternating needy whining with snapping at her friends for perceived condescension. But then, I don't like gothic novels, and Karen alternately plays the role of the romantic heroine, admiring reader, and critic of the genre. I don't really like the Byronic love interests of the tale either, who are stereotypically dark, sinister, and handsome. The only saving grace here is Bill Myer, who, as a professor of literature, is amusingly genre-savvy. From the first moment things start getting supernatural, he starts pulling out plummy lines from the classics in an amused, sardonic fashion. From that point forward, it's difficult to tell whether he is feeling like a Byronic hero and voicing his thoughts, or simply making the statements he believes are apropos to him in his role of gothic hero.

I loved the well-drawn side characters: the gutsy, pragmatic Peggy and the ditsy Joan, as well as the incidental villains and comedic relief. However, perhaps the best part of the book for me was the knowledge I gained about the history of the genre and the historiography of women's literature over time, including pithy and rather appallingly chauvanistic comments made by various critics that appear at the start of each chapter. Although I am not a fan of gothic fiction and detest the Brontes, I found Michaels' analysis of her to be very interesting. It almost makes me want to reread them. But not quite. One thing that always bothered me about Barbara Michaels is that she totally underestimates Jane Austen. She calls Austen "demure" and says she only made one protest about the male-dominated field of literature. It's as if she's never read Austen, who continually makes scathing commentary about sexism. Since the Brontes hated Austen and made lots of nasty (jealous) comments about her, I think people tend to choose sides, and Peters ended up on the Bronte side. A pity, though.

Overall, although I found the main protagonist unendearing, the book is a lot of fun and very educational. I am not as fond of this one as many of the other Barbara Michaels stories and most of the stories published under her other soubriquet of Elizabeth Peters. However, Houses of Stone gives Michaels a wonderful opportunity to discuss a topic dear to her heart: female voices in literature and the tendency to entomb them in a house of stone.