I read a lot of Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt in high school; both are authors who wrote Gothic style novels, the former more contemporary and the latter historical fiction. For this year’s RIP Challenge (it’s November 1 – I’m sliding in with this review just a day late!) I chose Michaels’ 1985 novel, Be Buried in the Rain. I chose it because I didn’t think I’d read it back in the day, and frankly, because it was short. I also wanted some mind candy.
I got what I came for! It starts off with an unsettling event – a local driver finding two skeletons in the middle of the road, dressed in moldy clothing from someone’s attic – one dressed as a woman, and a much smaller set of bones belonging to a baby. Then we meet our heroine, medical student Julie Newcomb, the granddaughter of a mean old matriarch named Martha. Martha has had a series of strokes and needs constant care but refuses to leave Maidenwood, the family home in Virginia that’s seen much better days. Julie’s mother persuades her to stay with her for the summer, relieving the live-in nurse, Shirley Johnson, during the afternoons and evenings. Martha’s horrible, and Julie only agreed to take the job out of guilt and the fact that her cousin Matt, a state senator, is paying her. She has nothing but bad memories of the few years she lived at Maidenwood as a child when her mother was trying to rebuild her life after a divorce.
There’s a remote possibility that the remains might be related to a very early British settlement connected to Jamestown, and, coincidentally, Julie’s former flame, archaeologist Alan Petranek, is the one Matt called in to dig on the property in search of more evidence! Alan, honestly, is a non-entity. He’s supposed to be handsome, tan, an Indiana Jones type, but he’s kind of insufferable if you ask me. There was a beef between Julie and Alan from back in the day, so they trade barbs in the beginning, but then all too quickly the old attraction begins to flare up. It’s all pretty chaste, which is probably why it made for good reading in high school.
So there’s the mystery of the bones – who disinterred them? Where did they come from? How old are they and who are they? Is there really evidence of a historical British settlement? There’s also a lot of family drama between Julie and Martha. Julie starts having flashbacks of repressed traumatic memories from her childhood years spent at Maidenwood. As Julie starts to dig deeper into the mystery, helping Alan and his grad student team, spooky and threatening things start happening to her. She adopts a dog, a stray mutt she christens Elvis, and he’s a fun addition to the story. (There’s even an incident in which Elvis himself becomes the target of an unknown would-be assassin.) Could the super-strictly religious housekeeper and her husband be behind the threats? Could it be the son of the nurse? Or could Alan himself be behind some of the hijinks? Everyone seems to be a suspect at some point. There’s a lot of small-town Southern family secrecy and gossip. Julie herself is a likable character, feisty and strong in ways that I wasn’t sure a 23 year-old student would realistically be. But I enjoyed her and rooted for her to slay her inner demons, stand up to Martha, and solve the mystery.
This was a good choice for an atmospheric, gently spooky Fall read. The very last page introduces a supernatural element that was alluded to but not explicitly portrayed in the rest of the novel, which makes for a fun new way to reconsider what’s happened. If you’ve never read Barbara Michaels before and you want some light, Gothic entertainment, give this one a try.
(Note: Barbara Michaels is pen name for Barbara Mertz, who also wrote under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters – she wrote the Amelia Peabody mystery series. Mertz was an Egyptologist!) You can read more about her here.)