House of Tombs
Caroline Farr | Signet Books | 1966 | 128 pages
Young archaeology student Denise Stanton leaves her home in California for the rugged coast of Maine, to study with the internationally known, but notoriously eccentric, archaeologist Professor Scot Weigand. The professor maintains his own museum of antiquities in Werewold, the old pre-Revolutionary War estate on Weregild Island. [Weigand’s Werewold on Weregild, for the alliterative minded] Traveling to Weregild aboard the ferry, Denise displays a surprising revulsion to the artifacts of her trade, shuddering at the sarcophagus and other artifacts in the boat’s hold, and their attendant musty smell. Many of the archeology-related passages read as false as Denise’s alleged expertise in the field.
While considering the appallingly stale contents of the ship’s hold, Denise hears the details of Professor Weigand’s recent nervous breakdown from the ferry’s pilot. Professor Weigand had suddenly returned to Weregild from a Middle-Eastern dig in some sort of psychotic state, and attempted suicide by leaping from the dramatic cliffs on the edge of the estate. Only the efforts of his son John and family friend Lloyd Meredith prevented him from taking his own life. However, Lloyd Meredith plunged to his death in the struggle to save the professor—his sacrifice noted by the town gossips who had spread rumors that he was having an affair with the archaeologist’s wife.
Upon arriving at Werewold, Denise finds Professor Weigand to be an intimidating figure, but not someone she would suspect of suffering from mental illness. His young second wife Karen seems bored and unhappily trapped on the island, away from the entertainments available on the mainland. Although both the professor’s sons assist him in the family archaeology business, only John displays a real interest in the work; Ruldoph Weigand shares his step-mother’s interests in the distractions found mainly in the clubs and bars in town. Professor Weigand shocks Denise with an intimate secret; she is not just a random hire to support his scholarly work, but is in fact a lost member of the family, the daughter of his estranged cousin.
Denise becomes unsettled upon learning more of the house’s history as a smuggler’s hideout for Royalist forces during the Revolutionary War, and worries about the existence of several hidden passageways and tunnels connecting the house and outbuildings on the grounds. She becomes convinced that someone is traveling through these neglected passageways, and perhaps even entering her room at night. While searching a ruined farmhouse reputedly at the entrance to one such tunnel connecting to the house, a clumsy attempt is made on Denise’s life. While examining what appears to be a golden beech leaf from the museum’s collection lying on the ground, a beam from the ruined roof comes crashing down, nearly crushing her. Fleeing in a panic, she sees a ghostly figure in a white gown disappear from the scene into the farmhouse.
Scrambling back to Werewold, Denise meets Dean Maynard, a young painter—and convenient romantic interest—living on the island. Although she finds his manner ingratiating, she takes him into her confidence. Together, they attempt to uncover the mystery surrounding her attack, and expose all the secrets at Werewold, including the true nature of Lloyd Meredith’s death.
House of Tombs fails to deliver much beyond the basic trappings of gothic romance genre fiction. The revelation of Denise’s family connection to the Weigands never develops into anything resembling a suspenseful inheritance drama, and the ghostly attacker at the farmhouse is quickly linked to the smuggler’s tunnels rather than to Werewold’s haunted past. As soon as Denise discovers a body in the museum’s sarcophagus, the villain comes forward, and the slight story races to its conclusion.
Would it even be a spoiler to disclose the epilogue, with a newly betrothed Denise looking back on the affair from a newfound comfort? Her infuriating beau has become a veritable prince, with Denise noting, “I am putting on weight so quickly that I’m afraid [he] might change his mind, even though he laughs and tells me that he likes plump girls.”