Hunter's Moon

The Midnight Hour

The Senator's Wife

Walking After Midnight

Ghost Moon by Karen Robards
(Delacorte, $24.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-385-31972-X
Olivia Morrison returns to LaAngelle, Louisiana, with her eight-year-old daughter Sara after an absence of nine years. Raised by her stepfather’s family after the drowning death of her mother, Olivia had rebelled against authority and eloped at eighteen with an irresponsible rodeo rider. Now at the request of her “aunt” Callie, for the first time she returns for a week’s visit.

Olivia and Sara walk from the bus station to the Archer family home, LaAngelle Plantation, past Ghost Lake, a place that has always frightened her, in part because she hears “Run away” in her mind whenever she thinks of the lake.

Olivia and Sara arrive at the house during a party. Big John, her “grandfather” -- her late stepfather’s father -- sees her, mistakes her for her deceased mother, and suffers a heart attack. This is only the most recent of a series of misfortunes in the dysfunctional Archer family. Olivia’s sexy stepcousin Seth is divorced and has recently gotten custody of his unruly daughter Chloe. Now Seth is engaged to the lovely, successful real estate professional Mallory, whom Chloe resents. The Archer Boatworks, the major employer in the area, is in financial difficulty (of course, this hasn’t interfered with their big-spending life style). Seth’s mother Callie is suffering from cancer; it’s her regret over the indifferent upbringing Olivia received at the hands of the Archer family that has prompted her to invite her to come home. And this is only a sampling of their problem -- in addition, there are all kinds of family infighting and bitterness going on.

Sara is a timid, frightened child, and she often awakens in the middle of the night believing a monster has been in her room. Olivia finds herself frequently experiencing terrifying nightmares; when she wakes, she believes she smells her mother’s perfume in the air. Was there more to her mother’s drowning than she had known?

Seth has always been attracted to the alluring Olivia (even when she was fifteen and he was in his twenties which I found a little disturbing), and time has not dulled the attraction. Olivia, who has had no sex life in the years since her divorce, likewise finds her hormones kicking up whenever Seth is around. But Mallory, as well as their children, is an obstacle to their acting on their feelings.

Meanwhile, over a period of decades, little girls around the state have been either killed or disappeared without a trace. Evil hangs as thick as the summer humidity in Louisiana.

Ghost Moon is one of those large-dysfunctional-family Gothic novels with lots of relatives around and where family get-togethers are ordeals, the kind of story where sympathy between family members resembles a knife between the shoulder blades and Southern courtesy is a foreign concept.

I wish the author had included a family tree because it took me quite a while to figure out who was related to whom and how, and I don’t think I ever quite got all the cousins straight. I don’t blame Olivia for taking off with the rodeo rider -- she certainly didn’t have any reason to hang around. She is a loving, caring mother to Sara, but she sure didn’t learn it from the Archer clan.

In her most recent books, Ms. Robards has switched from straight romance to romantic suspense. In Ghost Moon the suspense element is much stronger than the romance. Seth’s and Olivia’s attraction seems to be entirely physical; I never got the feeling that their hearts were involved. Olivia is the more appealing character -- sensitive and caring, she has tackled the challenges life has handed her. At the end of the week, Seth prevails upon Olivia to remain at LaAngelle permanently. Of course, the novel would have come to an abrupt end if she’d insisted on returning to Houston, but frankly any sensible woman would see this as a losing proposition and leave no forwarding address. But then Gothic novel heroines never figure their best move is to clear out.

Perhaps other readers will be more perceptive, but I had no idea who the killer was until the very end primarily because the author doesn’t provide many clues. His actions and thoughts are dispersed throughout the book, but they serve to heighten the tension rather than reveal his identity.

The author is most successful in establishing atmosphere. The book positively reeks of Southern decay. From the early scene where Olivia and Sara are walking up a dark road and past the spooky lake, the reader knows things are going to get unpleasant fast, and the creepy mood is maintained throughout the course of the novel.

Readers who enjoy Gothic novels dripping with atmosphere may want to check out Ghost Moon. Readers who want more romance in their romantic suspense may be disappointed.

--Lesley Dunlap

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