Collinsport

Nothing is ever wasted.  That’s my economy of the soul.  I spent my tween years mooning about Maine.  I’d grown up watching Dark Shadows after school and I’d begun reading the pulp fiction based on the series by Marilyn Ross.  My mother wondered how I could waste my time on vampire nonsense when there was sun shining outside and other kids to play with.  Little did she know that I was learning valuable lessons for the future.  My fascination with Maine—still intact—led me to vacation there whenever possible and over my career I’d applied to more than one or two jobs there based primarily on the potential reward of living in the same state as Collinwood and its spooky mansion  atop the cliffs overlooking the stormy Atlantic.  Once some friends in Norwalk, Connecticut took us to see the  Lockwood–Mathews Mansion, used for Collinwood in the movie House of Dark Shadows.   Such is the draw of childhood imagination.

What were these lessons I’ve mentioned?  Well, Collinwood stands outside the quaint fishing village of Collinsport.  Both are named after the family that houses some very dark secrets, as well as shadows.  Barnabas Collins is a vampire.  He has run-ins with many supernatural creatures, including ghosts, witches, and a few Scooby-Doo kinds of cases where someone’s faking the paranormal.  But Barnabas isn’t the only monstrous Collins.  His cousin Quentin, whom I kind of remembered being his ally, was an unstable werewolf.   Of course, I’m not sure there is such  a thing as a stable werewolf, but still.  Those in the family stay loyal, despite the beasts that lurk within their walls.  Some of the early Collinses were involved in the slave trade.

The Collins family has a long association with the state of Maine.  During the groovy 1970s they seemed somewhat progressive while maintaining the aloofness of the aristocracy they’d become.  Despite Tim Burton’s spin on it, they were the undisputed lords of Collinsport.  You felt you could trust them.  Unelected though they were, they possessed an innate sense of social responsibility.  I also learned as a child that, as appealing and tortured as they might be, you could never really trust a Collins.  Barnabas was not evil, but he was a vampire.  He required blood to survive, and his victims, like those of the current Collins of Maine, Susan, were female.  Any girl who trusted a Collins was in danger, unless she was their willing servant.  I was not squandering my childhood afternoons.  I was learning lessons about trust and its costs.

A Few of My Favorite Monsters

It was a guilty pleasure read.  We’d just moved and I needed a new novel for bed-time reading.  Most of our undamaged books were still boxed up and, well, enough excuses: I like Dark Shadows novels.  Hardly well written, these pulp potboilers are like extended, Gothic Scooby-Doo episodes.  I first started finding them used at Goodwill when I was a kid and I’ve re-collected a number of them as an adult.  Although they feature a vampire, and sometimes a werewolf and witch, the crisis of the story generally devolves to a hoax at Collinwood.  So it was with Barnabas, Quentin and the Avenging Ghost.  I hadn’t thought to write a blog post about it until I came across a passage mentioning Rocain.  In context, one of the characters explains how Rocain, the son of Seth, shows that sorcery goes all the way back to Genesis.

Genesis was one of my lines of research during my academic career, although I never published anything I was working on.  I didn’t, however, recall having read about Rocain.  The internet quickly pointed me to Legends of Old Testament Characters by Sabine Baring-Gould, chapter 8.  Clearly this was where Marilyn Ross, or his source, got his information.  Baring-Gould sits on my shelf as the author of The Book of Were-Wolves.  He also wrote the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”  There was an era, overlapping with Baring-Gould’s lifetime, when a minister could be an independent scholar of repute.  Although much that’s found in his many publications is now disputed, his was a lively and lifelong curiosity that led to several books.  

Upon reflection, Sabine Baring-Gould, who was a priest fascinated by occult topics, would have fit quite well into the Dark Shadows diegesis.  Although set in the late 1960s into the mod ‘70s when the television show aired, these were Victorian vignettes of a conflicted vampire and his strange, wealthy, and somewhat clueless family.  All kinds of guests, some of them quite Lovecraftian, drop into the Maine mansion and its grounds.  The writing of the novels is tepid at best, but the series was surprisingly literate.  Dark Shadows is nevertheless undergoing a kind of revival these days, and friends sometimes tell me they’ve just discovered this oddly compelling world.  I invite them in.  I’ve unpacked a few more boxes since selecting this pulp novel, and one of them, I note, holds books by Sabine Baring-Gould.  The guilty pleasure read?

Joban Vampires

Interview VampireThe first vampire novel I ever read, I remember correctly, was one of the Dark Shadows series written by Marilyn Ross. I don’t recall which one, since I had to buy my books from Goodwill or some such vender utilized by the poor. Now, I’m really a squeamish guy and the sight of blood bothers me. Barnabas Collins, however, was a compelling character—deeply conflicted and a reluctant vampire. The combination of his sadness and the setting in coastal Maine kept me looking for Dark Shadows books every time we went shopping. It surprised me, given all that, that I had such difficulty getting into Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. I started reading it years ago (it was also a second-hand copy, and, interestingly, the color scheme of the cover nearly matched Dark Shadows novels) and some eighty pages in put it down only to forget about it. Starting from the beginning a few weeks ago, I gave it another try. Although Louis is a conflicted vampire, the pace is languid and it was almost as if the self-pity was overdone. I was determined this time, however, to see it through.

One of the recurring themes of the book, and I presume the Vampire Chronicles series, is that vampires are not evil because of the Devil. In fact, there is nothing Satanic about them. Blame tends to fall on God for their state. The more I thought about it, the more the theodicy of the vampire began to resemble that of Job. Like Job, death for a vampire takes a long time. There is much suffering along the way. Louis can love, in a measure, and can loath himself. He never really understands what it is to be a vampire. The other undead he meets help to define him, but he can’t get too close. His life is a kind of Hell without Satan.

Rice’s vampires don’t fear crucifixes or shun churches. In fact, Louis takes a priest as one of his victims, sacramentally near an altar in a church. Religious imagery and discussion abound in the book. It truly is a vampire theodicy. Perhaps, for its day, it was the next step in vampire evolution. Bram Stoker, while the most famous contributor to the modern vampire myth, didn’t corner the market on defining the undead. When Louis meets vampires of the old world, they are mindless, plodding killing machines that even other vampires avoid. Rice’s vampires feel, think, and yes, theologize. I feel strangely satisfied now that I’ve finally finished the Interview. It was a vampire at my bedside for so long that it feels like an accomplishment to have finally laid it to rest.

Modern Vampires

VampiresTodaySometimes I feel guilty. A grown man reading about vampires? Then I think of such puerile things as television and the stock market over which other adults waste their time and my pituitary gland releases endorphins and I carry on. I must say, however, after reading Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism, that I’m not a vampire. Nor have I ever wanted to be. I am fascinated by the idea, however. The more I read—as is the case with most good academic books—the more I questioned definitions. Laycock does a good deal of that questioning himself in this book, and I came away wondering what indeed defines a vampire? As a child it seemed pretty clear. The vampire was a blood-sucker who came out at night. Fangs, a thirst for blood, and a faded aristocracy seemed to be the essential characteristics. But I was only a child.

Before you get the wrong idea about Laycock’s book, I need to say that his is a serious study of modern day vampires. Yes, they exist. No, they’re not easy to define. As an academically trained scholar of religion, Laycock is keenly aware that self-definition is crucial to categorization. Religious believers self-identify. We have no way of categorizing an adult (and some would say no way at all of children) without their own affirmation of what they believe. Vampires Today, however, raises the pointy question of whether those who self-identify as vampires constitute a religion. Or if vampire communities may be considered religious groups. In case you’re confused: many people identify themselves as vampires—sanguinarian and/or psychic. They believe they require the life energy of others to live and prevent illness. They sometimes drink blood—with permission—or siphon the life force of other people. Like all adults, they should be treated as self-identified. Probably not, as Laycock carefully spells out, a religion.

As in his other books, Laycock takes seriously groups that would, based on numbers alone, be considered fringe. Nevertheless, these groups are a part—sometimes an influential part—of larger society. We live in a world where we’re authoritatively told there is nothing but matter and energy, and as biological beings our purpose is reproductive success and then death. Is it any wonder that vampires and others are seeking something more? I’m no vampire. I read the occasional, thoroughly pulp, Dark Shadows novel to recapture a little of that after-school wonder I felt watching the waves pounding on the Maine cliffs while Barnabas Collins lurked inside. And he bore a strange truth that was perhaps instilled in those young years. Age is only partially a biological matter. Defining it any other way is, I have to believe, immature. So I read about vampires and wonder.

A Lot of Salem

SalemsLotVampires may seem out of place late in December, but they never really go out of season. That will be my excuse, anyway, for writing about Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have just finished reading. Like many of King’s books, ‘Salem’s Lot takes a fair commitment of time to get through, and I actually started it back in November when it feels natural to have creepy thoughts. I suppose winter is more of a ghost season than a vampire season, but I have read what I have read. So, vampires.

The book is old enough now to have been a kind of prequel to the current vampire craze. Prior to picking up the tome, however, I didn’t know that it as a vampire story. I’m not sure it made as much of an impact as the shudder-inducing Twilight series (and that is a shudder of the most ironic kind). ‘Salem’s Lot is, after all, a fairly conventional vampire story—a Dracula reset in rural Maine. Instead of a Jonathan Harker we have a Ben Mears. Instead of Abraham van Helsing, we have Matt Burke. The plot is much the same, the end result is much the same. And vampires are banished by religious paraphernalia, as we’ve come to expect. For me the ultimate Maine vampire will always be Barnabas Collins (the kind fitting more the description of Jonathan Frith than Johnny Depp). Barlow, as a vampire, is entirely too self-serving. Barnabas is a deeply conflicted ghoul, a monster you can love. But not too much, because then we’d be left in the twilight. Mixing the vampire just right is tricky, and it seems that a soap opera was the place that got it right.

The movie Thirty Days of Night, based on the graphic novel, places vampires squarely in the middle of winter. In the thirty days of no sunshine in the Arctic Circle, the vampires of winter flood the town. Perhaps the idea relates to ‘Salem’s Lot for an entire town to come under siege. Or maybe not. When I read vampire stories I hope to come out transformed, I guess. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian may have spoiled me in that regard. As with most King novels, however, ‘Salem’s Lot is artfully written and at least for the characters a new story with a small twist on the old ending. In at least one regard, it is true to life—although they learn that the church banishes vampires, nobody joins and they only pray as a last resort.

Buyer Beware

Pain, it is said, has a wonderful way of focusing the mind. So when I woke up in what can best be described as a body position used for extras in the movie, Twister, I took a few aspirin and got on with my life. I had purchased non-refundable tickets for a campus visit, and capitalism is nothing if not unsympathetic. The lower back pain was fine when sitting, or standing. Try anything in between, however, and you’ll learn the real meaning of reading the riot act. Once off the train—slowly, slowly—I was fine again, until I had to sit down. The next morning, facing a day of meetings (why is everyone’s office on the fourth floor? Why do Brownstones still lack elevators?), I decided I’d better pop into CVS for some meds. It was with considerable irony and not a few groans that I noted all the products for back pain were on the bottom shelves. The condoms, in the same aisle, were right at eye-level. Sitting on the floor, pondering the relative merits of chemicals of which I’d never heard, I thought about what we take for granted.

Parents and guardians are our first teachers. Among those early lessons are often the religious ones. Recently speaking with both seminary professors and pastors, I have heard the common refrain that church membership is declining and the number of younger people listing themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. I noticed this in my teaching outside the seminary setting; quite apart from students of other religious traditions, many undergrads took my class knowing nothing at all of the cultural matrix of Christianity in which they’d been raised. It is also true in a consumer mentality that one shops for religious experiences just like one shops for backache medicine. You go with the one that works for you. Few bother to ask if they agree with the theology, after all, Methodist = Baptist = Presbyterian = Lutheran in many people’s minds. Doan’s or Bayer? Take your pick.

Now that Dark Shadows has been released for home viewing, another component may be added to the equation. We pass on what we value to those we love. While the writing for Dark Shadows leaves quite a lot to be desired, there are a few memorable lines. Angelique, you may recall, cursed Barnabas Collins for unrequited love, turning him into a vampire. When he laments to Elizabeth Stoddard that Angelique hates him, she replies, “No, if she had hated you she would have merely killed you. A curse takes devotion.” Passing on our beliefs, perhaps, somehow ties into all this. As believing creatures, perhaps we each need to find our own solutions. My only fear is that when I find the right remedy, it may very well be on the bottom shelf.

Read the caption

Dark Light

It took a few weeks and five states, but I finally got to see Dark Shadows. Although I’d seen the trailers, there was quite a bit over which I remained in the dark. After all, the television series ran daily for several years and the story of Barnabas Collins was never really resolved, to the best of my knowledge. Trying to fit all of that into a couple hours of cost-intensive Hollywood showmanship would be a tall order. I have come to trust the Burton-Depp collaboration, however, and I had read some time ago that Johnny Depp had wanted to be Barnabas Collins when he was growing up. It is difficult nevertheless to resurrect a vampire after some three-and-a-half decades of slumber. Speaking with some friends after the movie I discovered that I was not the only child discouraged from watching Dark Shadows after school as a child. But watch I did.

Barnabas Collins became a monster as the result of a curse. The series—which I remember principally as a series of impressions and images—and the movie make that clear. The man who has lost control of his own fate is a reluctant monster. An aristocrat who lives by draining the blood of the common folk. Despite the humor and carnality of the movie, social commentary is there. Sometimes buried in an iron coffin, and sometimes in a vintage VW bus from the early ‘70’s. It may not appear full blown on the big screen but it pulses through the veins nevertheless. Barnabas Collins is a reluctant and conflicted vampire, but he does kill others to survive.

Why would a kid raised in a religious setting be so drawn to a creature of evil? Perhaps it was because Barnabas was the ultimate penitent. He had to victimize others, but he always regretted doing so. Like any living (or undead) creature, his nature compels him to survive. He is sad about his lot in the world, but is helpless to change it. Like many children of the monster generation I was nourished by a long series of movies featuring impossible creatures, including vampires. The earliest vampire I knew, however, was Barnabas Collins. Although Bram Stoker had set the type nearly a century earlier, my measure of the vampire was the reluctant denizen of Collinwood. Although I read my Bible dutifully, and never missed church, I still found the plight of this lonely monster compelling. The movie may not live up to the standard of all Dark Shadows aficionados, but if it brings a subtlety of moral ambiguity to a generation of absurdly self-assured modern-day fundamentalist children, the curse of Barnabas Collins may really be a blessing in disguise.