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.


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

  2. 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.)

  3. I think the words "abandoning the pseudonym altogether as her Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody mysteries soared to the top of the international best seller lists" are somewhat misleading. The last Barbara Michaels book was published in 2000, and the last Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody book was published in 2006, a gap of only six years. Books published under the name Barbara Michaels and the Amelia Peabody series overlapped from 1975 to 2000.

  4. A note on covers:

    The 1971 Fawcett Crest cover of "The Dark on the Other Side" TOTALLY misrepresents what Linda sees out of windows. What she sees is a black dog, large and ferocious looking, yes, but still a dog. It is outright stated by another character that it might just be a real dog she is seeing, rather than anything supernatural, so there's an indication that it looks like, well, a dog. It is in no way a bipedal hairy being with human like hands and a half human, half demon face, as depicted on the Fawcett Crest cover. No matter how well rendered, and no matter that its purpose was to sell books, that kind of inaccuracy in cover art is half insulting and half annoying.

    The first cover you reproduce here is not the 2006 "Berkley" reprint. It is actually the 2006 Harper Collins reprint. The Berkley reprint is from 1988 and its cover is just as misleading as, but more puzzling than, the 1971 Fawcett Crest cover. It depicts a doorway and in the lower left corner, a shirtless black man, seen from behind, peering up
    at the doorway, looking very much like he has no business being there and can be up to no good.

    What. The. Heck. A black man. There is no black male character in this book. None. There is a black dog. A dog. The only way I can imagine that this cover was ever created for this book and approved for it was that nobody involved with creating the cover had read the book, but somebody who had read it years earlier misremembered the black dog as a black man, and passed this misinformation on.