The Wizard's Daughter, Barbara Michaels
I don't read a lot of ghost stories, because I am a wimp. The first time I read Barbara Michaels' Ammie, Come Home, I slept with the light on for the next couple of nights, and all these years later, I still don't read it after dark. The Crying Child scared me so badly that I gave my copy away. "Barbara Michaels" is a pen name of Barbara Mertz, who also writes as "Elizabeth Peters." Her Elizabeth Peters books, some set in the 19th century, others in the 20th, tend to be straight-forward mysteries, with an occasional hint of the occult. As Barbara Michaels, she has written Gothic novels, as well as stories about witches, ghosts, séances, spirit possession, and exorcism, sometimes centered in a crime to be solved, one that may have taken place years or even centuries ago. Under both names, her books often have a romantic element, and they can be really funny (even in the midst of the creeps).
From the back cover, I expected The Wizard's Daughter to be one of the ghost stories. Instead, it turned out to be a Gothic novel, or rather a spoof of a Gothic. A brief prologue tells of a séance conducted in Paris by the famous American medium David Holmes. Then the story shifts to Yorkshire, where Marianne Ransom, a ravishingly beautiful young woman, has been left an orphan, and a penniless one, at the death of her father. In 1880, the options for a gently-bred eighteen-year-old are few. Marianne is initially thrilled when a friend arranges for her to go to London, to a refuge run by a distressed gentlewoman for girls in her situation. Rather than a career as a governess or companion, Marianne dreams of life on the stage.
Through the kind of coincidence common in Gothic novels, she manages to find work as a singer, though in her naiveté she does not realize that the "theatre" is actually a gentleman's club of bad repute. Resisting the advances of one of the members, she flees that job to accept one as governess to a budding psychopath and his sister. She is rescued from this intolerable situation by the arrival of Roger Carlton, a lawyer who escorts her to the luxurious home of the Dowager Duchess of Devenbrook. The Duchess welcomes her as a long-lost daughter. Marianne gradually learns that the Duchess was the patroness and close friend of the medium David Holmes. Holmes disappeared several years ago during a visit to the Devenbrook estate in Scotland and is presumed dead. The Duchess believes that Marianne may be his daughter, and that she may have inherited his gifts. Desperate to contact Holmes again, she pressures Marianne to try a séance. Though the results are not conclusive to others, the Duchess is convinced, and she carries Marianne off to Scotland, hoping to make the final contact as the anniversary of Holmes' disappearance approaches.
There is a lot going on in this book, which has a large cast of characters, including the household of the Scottish estate. Michaels has fun spoofing the Gothic genre (in which she herself has written), from the orphaned heroine, to the miseries of a governess's life, to the ancient Scottish castle of the Devenbrooks, with its ruined cobwebbed wings, hidden passageways and eccentric occupants (one of them a crazy cat lady). She also has fun with the trappings of spiritualism, the séances with their rapping and table-turnings, the attempts by Carlton and the Duchess's friend Dr Gruffstone (such a Dickensian name) to debunk it all. One spirit guide has the most inappropriate name of "Pudenzia." The very susceptible Duchess claims to remember an early Roman virgin martyr of that name, which to her mind fully proves the guide's authenticity. Marianne also meets various eligible and ineligible gentlemen, and here again if you've read enough Michaels/Peters books, you can spot the hero pretty early on.
In the end, the story turns on what happens in the séances: does Marianne have the gift, or is someone playing deadly tricks? I admit, the answer took me by surprise.