The Crying Child, by Barbara Michaels

>> Friday, May 30, 2003

After quite a few years, I reread a book by Barbara Michaels, one of my favourite authors. It was The Crying Child, a contemporary gothic / ghost story.

From the moment she arrived on King's Island, Joanne McMullen knew that her sister's grief over losing her child had driven her dangerously close to madness. Mary just had a third miscarriage, and the loss of her baby is affecting her mentally - she's clinging to the idea of a child out in the woods, who is crying for her and begging for her help But when Joanne heard the same child's voice that her sister had heard wailing in the woods, she knew something terrible was happening!

Jo teams up with her brother in law Ran, and the handsome (but woman-wary) doctor Will Graham, to find out what the crying is. But when the ghostly apparition of a beautiful, sad woman appears, Jo begins to dig into the past of Ran's family, and discovers a web of lies, murder, and terror centering on a lost child...

Wonderful! I'd grade it an A-. Like Wait For What Will Come, I really don't know why it didn't make more of an impression on me when I first read it. I barely remembered it, and some of the things I remembered were actually wrong (for instance, I was convinced that at one point they actually found a real child, crying in the middle of the forest. This never happens. I can't think where I'm taking that scene from).

Geek that I am, I'm always trying to classify authors' books in my mind. Michaels has her "custom dramas", her straight suspense (which have only a suspicion of the supernatural) and finally, a category which I simply call "the ones I like best". In this final category, the characters (usually at least 4) see enough manifestations of the ghost, or whatever supernatural element, that they are persuaded that however unlikely, it is real. The ghost is some kind of reflection of a past event, and the characters have to make an effort to find out what it was that happened... lots of research, in libraries, collections of family papers, etc. TCC belongs in this category, together with other favourites as Ammie Come Home, The Walker in Shadows and House of Many Shadows.

I think what I love best about these books is seeing the diverse group of people working all together against the unknow. Another book that I felt struck a similar chord was a Nora Roberts: Face the Fire. Probably the reason why I liked it more than most people.

As for TCC itself, it was particularly successful in being chilling and a great gothic. I especially liked the final spine-tingling, climactic scene. The solution was a complete surprise to me, and made a lot of sense. The atmosphere, with a fog-bound island and the old house, definitely helped. Jo, the protagonist, was a very likeable character: sensible, smart and compassionate. Some of the other characters could have been better drawn (like Will, her romantic interest) but most were very well done.

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