Touch Me in the Dark is a modern gothic by Jacqueline Diamond, set in a creepy as shit Victorian house. I read it on a marathon car trip through the Midwest, and while the mystery kept me occupied (and from stopping at every Bob Evans, Tim Hortons and Cracker Barrel I saw), I thought the romance never really clicked.
Sharon Mahoney is a recent widow. She and her young son, Greg, move to Fullerton, CA for a job and to be closer to family. Because rent in Orange County is so crazy high, she can’t afford an apartment, but rather a few rooms in a Victorian boarding house.
Since this a gothic, the house is appropriately creaky and spooky, with odd, ghostly happenings going on. It also features the resident gothic hero—he could be a hottie, he could be a killer—we just don’t know folks! Ian Fanning used to be a cop until an accident left him with seizures and forced him to retire early. He’s making a living as an artist and living the boarding house that his aunt, Jody, owns. Ian often goes into a sort of trance-like state when painting, unaware of the art he’s creating. His work focuses on the same auburn-haired woman—a woman he is obsessed with. Ian believes the woman he is painting is his grandmother, Susan, who was murdered (at least she looks like pictures of Susan).
This is where the creepy gothic back-story kicks in. Let me tell you a tale…*clicks flashlight on under chin*
It was a dark and stormy night, and Susan was getting busy with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Bradley was a painter and laborer, not at all the type of man her parents would approve off. After Bradley left to fight in WWII, Susan discovered she was pregnant. Susan’s family did the reasonable thing AND LOCKED HER IN THE FUCKING ATTIC.
Seriously, what is it with attics? Jane Eyre. Flowers in the Attic. Got a problem relative? Lock ‘em in the attic!
Anyway, Susan’s family led her to believe Bradley abandoned her; they burned his letters to her. They even convinced her to put the baby up for adoption and marry another man after the birth, keeping the whole thing a dirty little secret. Before this could happen though, Bradley got word of the wedding and went AWOL, making his way back to Susan shortly after she gave birth. Jody came home one night found Susan and Bradley's bodies in a bloody nightmare of a scene. Bradley had stabbed Susan to death before killing himself, leaving only the baby unharmed. Jody raised the baby, Ian’s father, by herself.
Ian believes he’s haunted by visions of Susan, that is until Sharon shows up and—whoa!—she looks just like the woman in his paintings, just like Susan. All of this coincides with the 65th anniversary of the murder/suicide, and also supernatural events that lead everyone to believe Bradley is haunting the house.
Ian tells Sharon to get out. He’s got a bad feeling about all of this, and his fugue-state-paintings are getting increasingly violent. If Bradley’s not going to cause her harm, he’s afraid he might during one of his episodes. These episodes are described as seizures, and while not an MD, I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of what a seizure does. People do walk and talk during complex partial seizures, but not perform the sorts of complicated tasks Ian does–like creating an entire painting.
Sharon is freaked out by Ian—cuz ya know, “OMFG you look like my murdered grandma!” is not the best ice breaker when you first meet someone. When bad things, creepy things, start to happen (the TV catches on fire, she sees ghostly images in the mirror) she starts to believe Bradley really might be haunting the place:
The room filled with a gray presence. As if hit by a gust of wind, the house swayed and groaned. Sharon had the disconcerting sense that they had stood this way before, that she had indeed come back to this place, and that she’d committed some terrible mistake.
A sense of evil filled her, of an old hatred unslaked. But not from Ian, she told herself. He had no role in his family’s tragic history. Why should it involve him or her?
Since the haunting seems to center around Ian and Sharon, it clearly does involve both of them—they are tied to the past and possibly doomed to relive it.
So now would be an excellent time to get the hell out of there and book a room at the nearest Motel 6, right? Wrong. This is a gothic, and the heroine is gonna stick it out and find out what’s really going on. Ian and Sharon team up to solve the mystery of why Bradley committed such a terrible act in that house, and to find out what’s really going on in the present day.
I really liked the mystery here. By the end of the book the ghostly malice had ratcheted up to murderous proportions, creating excellent suspense. When the truth was finally revealed at the end I was surprised—I hadn’t anticipated the outcome. I love being surprised by a book.
The romance, unfortunately, was less than stellar. Ian and Sharon spend so much time apart that it made the romance when they did get together feel forced and awkward. There are a lot of secondary characters in this book, and a lot of focus on things other than the main couple. There was so much activity central to the mystery—lots of running around, lots of time in the heads of secondary characters—that I didn’t get the focus on the internal conflict with Ian and Sharon that was necessary for me to really engage with them.
Also, Ian feels compelled to paint Sharon, which is fine, except he keeps slipping into a trance state and then—whoops!—painting her naked. Strangely this does not lead her to, I don’t know, punch him or get a restraining order. Instead it leads to sexytimes. Go figure. Part of this is justified by Sharon being explicably drawn to Ian, as gothic heroines are, but I didn’t buy it.
As a mystery with supernatural elements, Touch Me in the Dark worked really well for me. As a traditional gothic, the romantic element fell short. I did enjoy this book, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I’d give it three and half out of five crazy-attic-relatives.