After the Midnight Hour
With all the vampires and werewolves flooding the genre these days, a good old-fashioned ghost story seemed like a welcome change of pace. In the end, though, After the Midnight Hour is more of an average ghost story than a good one.
When homicide detective Jared Stryker moves into an old ranch house he inherited, he finds two women already living there. The beautiful Rachel dresses in old-fashioned clothes and is clearly wary of him. The no-nonsense Maya is an older woman who quickly offers to run the household for him in exchange letting her and Rachel stay there. Almost in spite of himself, he agrees to the deal, and slowly finds himself drawn to the mystery of the vulnerable Rachel. There were always rumors that the long-abandoned house was haunted. He never imagines that the stories were true, or that Rachel and Maya are both ghosts.
In 1880 Rachel was stabbed to death by her husband when she tried to leave him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her husband’s mistress was a witch who cursed her forever. By day she exists only as a breeze; at night she regains her human form, but can never leave the house. Her beloved servant Maya called upon her “ancient gods” to wreak a deadly vengeance on Rachel’s husband. She also begged them to let her remain with the woman she considered a daughter, so she would not be alone for all eternity. They agreed, except that Maya only “lives” during the day. The two women have existed this way for more than a hundred years, and Rachel has long since given up on finding a way out of her predicament. But as she and Jared get to know each other and grow closer, she begins to wonder if he can help free her from the curse – and what that would mean for them.
This isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s a easy read with a comfortable feel, but it also never quite comes together. I had no trouble turning the pages and didn’t really dislike anything about it, but I also was never completely engaged in the proceedings. The story development is uneven. For instance, the issue of Rachel’s ghostliness is awkwardly handled. Obviously, the cover makes it clear that she’s a ghost, but the author starts the book by remaining coy and dropping hints that something’s not quite right about Rachel with her old-fashioned clothes and Maya, who keeps talking to a breeze. I figured the author was going the mystery route and would let us slowly learn the truth with the hero. But then, on page 70 at the end of Chapter Three, the author suddenly explains Rachel’s entire history out of nowhere in one fell swoop. This felt like it was either too late or too soon. It happens early enough that by the time Jared figures it out, we have to reread all the explanations we already know, but it happens late enough that I wondered why the author didn’t just tell us from the start.
The story passes easy, but is never really compelling. It lacks spark. Story elements are mentioned and then dropped for long periods of time, like the rumor of a treasure possibly hidden on the ranch. There’s a halfhearted suspense subplot about a bunch of petty criminals who have been using the ranch land for some nefarious deeds who cause trouble for Jared. They show up every once in a while, almost as though to remind the reader they’re still around, but they never seem like much of a threat. The whole subplot feels unnecessary, like it was tacked on because Intimate Moments always have a suspense element these days. While it finally pays off in a good (though easily foreseeable) way, for much of the book it seems like filler, taking up space that could have been spent developing the characters more.
The love story is sweet and gentle. Rachel and Jared are both nice people who make a likable couple and the romance has some good moments. Jared saves a dog from the villains, and its presence makes for some cute scenes. Some of the banter between Jared and the crusty Maya made me smile. But despite Rachel being a ghost, there’s no real drama or tension. The author tries to add some conflict by revealing that Jared is a descendant of Rachel’s abusive husband, but it doesn’t amount to much. It’s a predictable plot where nothing unexpected happens and the resolution to the curse is pretty obvious.
The characters are certainly pleasant company, but never really grabbed me. The author keeps telling us how cynical and dark Jared is, with his tortured childhood at the hands of an abusive father, but that’s all she does: tell us instead of showing us. It’s never all that convincing. He comes across as too nice most of the time to seem truly tortured and his supposed issues are never really explored with any depth. It’s easy to sympathize with a woman with Rachel’s history, but Rachel herself never quite came to life (so to speak). Her character remains too vague. I knew her history, but never really got a sense of who she was beyond her backstory.
The front cover of After the Midnight Hour claims this is the author’s 50th book. That’s strange, since I read one of her Harlequin American Romances back in 1996 that claimed the exact same thing. That book was also a paranormal, and I’m pretty sure it was better than this one, too. As ghost romances go, this one is perfectly acceptable, but nothing special.