Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Barbara Michaels' Ammie, Come Home

Wow, last Thursday night was a whopper, writes Jeannine. 21 attendees and all talking at once. It’s time to bring my gavel back; banging a book on the table had very little affect. This was the sort of behavior I expected for The Da Vinci Code. Who knew a discussion of Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels could result in a near brawl (see guys, you DO want to come to our meetings). No, no one was actually that angry, but we were certainly loud.

Ammie, Come Home follows the actions of Ruth Bennett, her niece Sara, Sara’s boyfriend Bruce, and one of her professors, Pat MacDougal (who becomes romantically attached to Ruth) as they become aware of other forces active in Ruth’s historical Georgetown home. After attending a séance at a dinner party, Ruth decides to have one at her own house with frightening results when a “spirit” speaks not through the medium but through her niece (giving the medium the biggest scare of all). As more odd things occur in the house including dreams and the seeming possession of Sara, the four unite to get to the bottom of the mystery. In addition to haunted goings on, there is also a second story revealed by their research of the Revolutionary War occupants of the house. There, I haven’t given too much away.

That doesn’t sound terribly controversial, does it? Yikes! When some people don’t like a book, look out. And quite a few did not like it at all. And equally as many enjoyed it a great deal. One person thought this might just be a matter of taste, and asked if the ones who disliked it would ever be interested in that kind of spooky read on their own. Most said no, but a few still insisted they disliked it because it was poorly written.

At this point, I should mention that this was one of Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters, née Barbara Mertz) first novels, published in 1968. There was definitely some consideration in the group that the writing styles of the time period may have had some influence on our reading of the story, that it being one of her early novels she was still developing her skills, and that some of the “spookiness” of the story might be deflated because of all the scary and horror books and movies produced since then. Or not, as some insisted.

Most people felt the characters were underwritten, but could not agree if this was intentional to speed the story along, or just inept. Bruce was considered to be the one best presented, but several people were disappointed with Ruth and thought more about her and her background would have built up the story. They also felt her relationship with Pat was sudden and didn’t ring true. But handy (read “plot device,” to which one member – who shall remain nameless but we all know who he was – responded that the new author took the “plot device” out of the how-to-write-a-book kit, but then didn’t read the instructions for using it).

One member also mentioned that another difficulty in writing this book was that it was necessary to juggle two stories at the same time, the past and the present. To which others said… but no, what was said was kind of rude.

To all of this harping, our fearless A----- said emphatically, “Obviously I was reading a completely different book, because the one I read was very enjoyable.” Several people concurred. Well, shoot, I liked it too; it zipped right along and I didn’t have any inclination to slap anyone like I usually do in spooky stories, especially when they start screaming (why do they go into a deserted house AT NIGHT? And then they’re surprised? Sheesh). The pro faction began speaking up at this point, and thought the story was being overanalyzed, and berated for not being something it never intended to be. And I had to add that on Dorothy-L, the mystery listserv made up of hardcore mystery fans, oodles and oodles of authors, and librarians, a great many wrote in that Ammie, Come Home is one of the best “spooky” stories around, and a favorite of many.

An interesting sideline – many thought the séances in the book could have been explored in greater depth. These were extremely short séances (or drive-thru séances, as one called them), and the medium and all the other guests were immediately dropped from the story. A couple mentioned that the two of them had attended an actual séance where about 12 people sat in a circle, and the medium told each of the ones who had expressed interest something only they knew that he heard from “beyond.” One of the couple said she was told something only she knew about, and didn’t know if he was getting it from beyond, or just “reading her mind,” but he was onto something. And this information was not something that could be investigated or inferred. They were quite impressed, though not at all convinced of another realm’s existence.

Speaking of spooky, I asked who thought it was scary, who thought a little, who thought not much…. Some were strongly affected, some not at all, several thought it was all a sham or an effort to get Ruth to sell her home. One member thought it was just right, not too spooky, just enough for a pleasant chill, but not scary at all. Until she and her husband went to visit an empty house that had been foreclosed on, with no people or electricity. At night. With only a flashlight. Dark bushes. Dark house. Very very quiet. Scared herself silly, and spooked her husband as well.

One final point that almost everyone was impressed with, that every person (living OR dead) can only be influenced by the symbols of their own beliefs. I don’t want to give too much away, but this idea did play a major role in how things turned out. Or, as one member put it, it was great to discover religious bigotry extends beyond the grave. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that….

Everyone was amazed to discover that there was a TV movie made in 1970 based on the book, The House That Would Not Die, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Egan, and billed as “a tale of witchcraft, black magic, and a haunted house in the Amish country.” Huh? Cheaper to film in an old deserted farmhouse, I bet. And Bruce became Stan. Why? Was the real Bruce offended? Huh? Hollywood.

Decorations were sparse but appropriate. Pictures of buildings in Georgetown, and of a séance, surrounded by books on spiritualism, ghosts, and Georgetown. The discussion tables had tablecloths, crystal candlesticks, a genuine plastic skull and a Bible in the center (major plot point) – all for a proper séance setting. We decided against invoking the spirits, and didn’t light the candles either. That might set off the sprinkler system, and we know how well that turned out the last time….

Refreshments were contributed this time by some of the members. Jack-o-lantern appetizers, long finger cookies (a simple shortbread cookie with sliced almond fingernail can really give you the creeps), cornbread ghosts, apples with caramel, and many more. And yes, the pièce de résistance was the infamous Kitty Litter Cake (see recipe). Tootsie Rolls should be outlawed.

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