Recent Reading: Witch by Barbara Michaels (Elizabeth Peters)

I didn’t realize that the author was actually Peters until I opened the book and there that was. Not that this was a problem, I just hadn’t realized it. I then thought, kinda a nice touch, selecting a different last name that is also a plural male first name. A clever little clue for her readers, if anyone suspected Michaels was Peters but didn’t know for sure. Actually, turns out this author’s real name was Barbara Louise Mertz.

Anyway, I read this book because, all else being equal, I sort of like a light horror or dark fantasy novel around Halloween, just as I am somewhat inclined to read something Christmas-themed in late December. Then a couple of you recommended WITCH, so I thought there you go, good choice.

I liked this book fine, but almost at once I suspected it had been written a good long time ago. Yep. Copyright is 1973. This comes through rather clearly, just as the reader can tell many of Mary Stewart’s Gothic romances were written an earlier age. Mertz/Peters/Michaels started writing in the sixties. The story in WITCH is just structured in a way that would be highly unusual for any story, including Gothic romance, today. Specifically, in a pinch, the female protagonist needs the help of a brave male love interest to get her out of her predicament, even though this requires her to be stupid at key moments so that the guy can take over.

So, things to know about this novel: 

1. The structure of the story is indeed kinda dated. That didn’t bother me. I am perfectly capable of adjusting my expectations for story structure according to the basic time period in which it was written.

2. It’s low stress, for a light horror novel in the Gothic tradition. Not for a second did I worry about the ending. The style of the story made it crystal clear that the author was following romance tropes, including the happily-ever-after, not horror tropes where anything might happen. So, for example, take the protagonist’s teenage daughter. In horror, who knows what would have happened to her. But in this case, not a problem. I could enjoy the atmosphere and the writing without any concern for the daughter’s eventual fate. That is much more what I prefer.

3. The quality of the writing is excellent. Here’s the beginning:

According to the directions Ellen had received from the real estate agent, the house was in a clearing in the woods. Gently perspiring in the hot office, Ellen had thought wistfully of cool forest glades. April in Virginia is unpredictable; this particular day might have been borrowed form July, and the small-town office was not air-conditioned.

An hour later, after bumping down rutted lanes so narrow that tree branches pushed in through the car windows, Ellen was inclined to consider “clearing” a wild exaggeration. She started perspiring again as soon as she turned off the highway. No breeze could penetrate the tangled growth of these untamed forests; moisture weighted the air.

At any rate, this must be the house, though it more resembled a pile of worn logs overgrown by honeysuckle and other vines. There was a window, shining with an unexpected suggestion of cleanliness; presumably there was also a door somewhere under the tangle of rambler roses in front.

Very nice. This is a good example of using the opening paragraphs to establish setting and tone. Not much going on yet with the protagonist. I tend to like plenty of setting in the opening paragraphs, and I found this an inviting introduction to the story.

4. Ellen herself is a perfectly decent protagonist. Most of the other characters are simple – in fact, Ellen is in some ways drawn in simple, broad strokes as well. She’s kind and perhaps a touch interfering. She has a temper and a sometimes unfortunate sense of humor. I liked her, even though she is also somewhat dense at times. However, the man who sells Ellen the house is my favorite character by a lot and I wish we’d seen far (far) more of him. He actually came across as more interesting than any other character in the entire book, including Ellen.

I quite liked the cat, Ishtar. I was not so keen on the two Dobermans, which were firmly cast in the Devil Dog mode – which is true to the time period, as in the seventies, Dobermans were one of the breeds suffering a fad hatred. Fortunately, the society-wide suspicion and hatred of Dobermans has long since faded away – I say fortunately because this is one of my very favorite breeds and I therefore don’t much like seeing them used as this kind of Magically Obedient Evil Dog plot device. Ishtar was way more like a real cat than the dogs were like real dogs.

5) Lord above, woman, how could it not have been obvious who the real villain was?

This is perhaps not quite fair. Unlike me, Ellen did not know she was in a Gothic horror-romance sort of story and therefore perhaps did not have an advantage in picking out the obvious bad guy.

On the other hand, there were lots of clues.

Who would like this book?

If you’re a Mary Stewart fan, by all means give this one a try. While I wouldn’t put this one on the same level as Nine Coaches Waiting, it’s definitely in the same tradition and shares many of the same pluses and minuses as Stewart’s book’s.

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4 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Witch by Barbara Michaels (Elizabeth Peters)”

  1. Glad you liked it! You know, I can’t recall the villain at all. I remember: Ellen, the guy who sold her the house, Tim, the cat, the existence of her daughter Penny, and the Man (Jack?). Oh, and the obnoxious preacher she walked out on.

  2. Norman, rich, handsome, Tim’s guardian, afraid of cats, plus obviously manipulative and evil.

    I think it says a lot you remember basically everyone except the villain!

  3. Witch is one of the earlier books she wrote. Her female protagonists got a lot more take charge as the years went on. You might like better the Vicky Bliss novels that she wrote under, I think, the Peters name.

  4. Currently rereading: “Velveteen vs….” series by Seanan Mcguire. I was suddenly in the mood for some cheerful cynicism. Junior superhero hangs up her leotard at age 18 to escape servitude to an evil Disney Corp., and is looking for something new after a series of dead end jobs. Hijinks ensue.

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