Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Appreciation of Barbara Michaels Part III of III - The Dark on the Other Side

”Well, Babs,” Barbara Michaels’ agent said one stormy afternoon in New York City, “Quentin Collins is the hottest thing on television; how about writing something with werewolves, only make it more Gothic this time. Throw in a good thunderstorm and a big old house.”

Barbara went away, and after a shot of vodka or two, sat down and wrote The Dark on the Other Side, her third and final foray into the occult themes so popular in the late 1960s.
2006 Berkley Reprint

This is Barbara Michaels subverting the Gothic Romance as far as she can, with once again predictably mixed results. Again the role of the Innocent thrust into situations beyond his control is played by a male, this time Michael Collins, a writer who becomes involved in the lives of Gordon and Linda Randolph when he visits the estate to interview Gordon for a forthcoming biography. And what an estate it is, a lavish house modeled on a British country estate complete with towers and gardens, servants and a particularly unctuous personal secretary.
Charles Geer jacket painting for the original 1970 hardback edition.

Gordon's wife, Linda, assumes the role of Byronic hero, a brooding, dark haired beauty ravaged by alcoholism and a tendency toward paranoid schizophrenia. In the first chapter alone, the house and its furnishings speak to Linda, commanding her to kill Gordon, and at my count she consumes at least six cocktails before dinner, numerous glasses of wine during dinner, and finally collapses in a drunken stupor and has to be carried to her room, all within the first twenty pages.

But Linda may not be as crazy as she seems. Michael's investigation into the life and career of Gordon Randolph begins to uncover a number of former students and other acolytes whose lives have been shattered by psychosis, drug abuse, and suicide. Remember we're in Barbara Michaels' country and it's not long before Collins begins to suspect that Randolph is flirting with something dark and dangerous, namely getting in touch with his inner beast, or in Michaels' own words, the dark on the other side, a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Fire.

The Dark on the Other Side is one of Michaels' most interesting works, and also one of her most frustrating. Her attempt at constructing a psychological thriller is weakened by undeveloped characters. Randolph is not nearly interesting enough to merit someone writing a full length biography, or nearly as sinister in his role of Gothic villain as he should be. Like Prince of Darkness' quasi-satanic hooey, it's pretty tame stuff. But how often in the late 60s Gothic Romances did the novelists flirt with not only adultery, overt or implied, female alcoholism, or bondage scenes? Yes, there is a startling moment late in the book when our hero keeps our heroine gagged and tied to a bed allegedly to keep her from doing harm to herself or others.

Harry Bennett's illustration for the 1971 paperback reprint gives away the ending, much like the beginning of this blog post.

Following Michael’s late 60s occult trilogy she returned to less experimental forms of Gothic writing, the ghost stories for which she is most remembered (The Crying Child, The Walker in Shadows) and the historical Gothic Romance (Greygallows, Black Rainbow) before abandoning the pseudonym altogether as her Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody mysteries soared to the top of international best seller lists.

Fans of the genre seem to either love or hate Michaels' works with passion either way. For me the experimentalism, edginess, and deliberate subversion of the genre in these early gems make them enjoyable to return to every few years.

3 comments:

  1. Gotta love that demon in the window!

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  2. Harry Bennett's son told me that his brother modeled for the beast.

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  3. Wow, that last cover ... I don't know how much time I spent staring at it as a child. (A lot of the covers here are old friends.)

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