THE NORMAL RUN of gothic novels is at one with boxcars and turkeys: There isn't a brain in a mile of them. I will go further, The gothic is the only form of novel now existing that appears to have been committed when the author is both drunk and asleep. Even the novels of the Kathleen Woodiwiss school of rip-heavy-breathing (as distinct from rip-snorting) historiography have something to recommend them -- and in a moment I'll think of what it is -- but the geriatric hikinks of the usual gothic are about as free of redeeming social value as the local massage parlor. How, then, am I to account for the plate of crow that has just appeared before me?

Barbara Michaels' The Walker in Shadows has all the elements one expects. There is a beautiful young girl. There is a wicked ghost who wishes ill of her. The customary middle-aged heroine lives next door, and the girl's father is the customary middle-aged hero, indistinguishable from the manikin in the window of a shop specializing in tuxedo rental. There is the customary love interest and the customary bang-up ending. And so on, and on. I hate to say it, but I had a whale of a time. Barbara Michaels writes the kind of effortless prose that can charm the birds down from the trees. She can pace her action and -- as they say in the theater -- she can dress a set. The plot is supremely silly, and the denouement is a foregone conclusion, but Michaels' is the true essential axiom of the potboiler's credo: It doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it well. If she keeps on like this, Michaels may well inherit the mantel of the late Sax Rohmer.