Potboilers

“Potboiler” is used in publishing to describe a book written merely to keep a writer going.  Full-time authors are comparatively rare, and many occasionally resort to churning out books simply to generate income.  I have no doubt that most of them start out as most artists do—creative, and looking for a career that allows them to be so.  If you want to earn money, to keep your pot boiling, you need to follow the formula.  Those are my thoughts on having finished the last book for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge.  One of the categories was three books by the same author and I had three unread Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Frightened Bride, number 22 in the series, was clearly a potboiler.

As I’ve confessed before, these books are guilty pleasure reads for me.  My literary tastes have changed over the years, however, and such journeyman writing sometimes betrays itself.  Even if a book has vampires and werewolves.  Dark Shadows was a melodramatic soap opera of my youth.  Still, it was moody and gothic—something these books manage to convey, even if the stories don’t live up to their promise.  Some of the plot elements in this particular installment don’t even line up, and having read Jane Eyre I’d guessed the ending shortly after the beginning.  I often wonder how the book series might have turned out with a truly literary attempt to tell the story.  Writing takes time.  Good writing takes a lot of time.  But even writers have to eat.

I’m not a Dark Shadows connoisseur.  I haven’t bought the original television series on DVD and I haven’t watched it since I was about ten.  Early memories, however, are formative.  With a remarriage, a death in the family, and a move, childhood got swept away rather swiftly, and along with it, watching Dark Shadows.  The series ended in 1971 after over 1200 episodes had been filmed.  Ross’ serialization began during the six-year run of the series, and, I suspect, he had to keep up a hectic pace.  Books 13 through 24 were all published in 1970, a rate of over a book a month.  I’ve suggested before that academics ought to take pop culture seriously.  Even before this era of fandom becoming mainstream, Dark Shadows spun off a small media empire and it continues to retain public interest.  The daily show struggled, despite being partially modeled on Jane Eyre, until the supernatural was introduced.  Although the Ross novels may not always show it, the hunger remains for supernatural explanations.

Patina

When reading three books by the same author, most of the time, it seems, it’s good to spread them out.  For the past few years my wife and I would visit an independent bookstore in January to pick up a few books for the year’s looming reading challenges.  We slipped behind this year and I happen to have three unread Marilyn Ross books at home.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Haunted Cave was the second of them.  Since, unbelievably, I didn’t have books to fit into the other categories, I read my second Dark Shadows book of the season shortly after the first.  It is a revealing experience to come back to a childhood influence as an adult.  I’m pretty sure I hadn’t read this one as a child, and as much as I like Barnabas Collins, this particular story was somewhat tedious.  And that’s saying something, considering how formulaic the series is.

One of the reasons I found it slow going—especially for a book of less than 200 pages—was that Ross relied too much on dreams to move the plot along.  I read quite a bit of fiction and I always find writing about dreams tricky.  Even within the diegesis of the story you don’t know whether to believe what’s going on in dreams or not.  Just as in real life, dreams are a break from the tedium of consciousness and they permit the mind to wander.  The dreamer can go anywhere, do anything.  Generally without consequence.  You awake back in the more continuous narrative of your life and the dream is forgotten.  In fiction, which is largely made up, dreams often act as filler.  Given the number of times Ross repeated himself in this particular book, it seems that he had to pad the story out quite a bit.  It would’ve worked just fine without the dreams.  Might’ve fallen short of contracted length, though.

It also continues the conceit of Quentin as a Satanist.  I have to confess that the original series was so long ago I don’t remember much about it.  The theremin music of the opening, with the waves crashing against the cliffs of Maine, yes.  Barnabas, tortured but not evil vampire, yes.  Much beyond  that, no.  I’ve had friends discover Dark Shadows as adults.  I watched it on commercial television during its first run and I haven’t seen it since.  I certainly don’t have time for soap operas in days crowded with other demands.  Still, these little books can take me back to a dusty corner of childhood that has a pleasant patina over it.  But it is best to keep such experiences separated a bit in time.

New Year Reading

Childhood has a powerful draw.  I first started reading Dark Shadows books when they were published for (I kid you not) 60 cents.  I got them for cheaper than that at Goodwill.  Every time I read one I wonder what my young imagination found so compelling in them, but in an effort to trust my younger self I keep on.  So I read Marilyn Ross’ Barnabas, Quentin and the Witch’s Curse.  The book doesn’t really say anything about a witch’s curse, providing as it does some of the backstory for Quentin.  If you aren’t familiar with that background, and you want to be, Barnabas is a vampire and his cousin Quentin is a werewolf.  Both were made so by curses, a plight the Collins family has long faced.  

In recent years I have read the 19 volumes in the series preceding this one.  They tend to be formulaic, and often show the signs of having been written quickly.  W. E. D. Ross is sometimes listed as the most prolific Canadian author ever.  He wrote over 300 books, mostly in genre fiction.  It’s no wonder many of them sound the same.  Still, I have to admit that both from watching Dark Shadows and from reading these novels as a kid, I liked Quentin.  Yes, he was smug and self-confident, but as a werewolf he had the ability to become someone else.  Unlike other books in the series, this one focuses on Quentin and points a pretty heavy finger to him being a Satanist.  That seemed pretty harsh to me.  There’s a difference between being the victim of a curse and being a Devil worshipper.

Now I know I shouldn’t take this as belles lettres.  Ross is not remembered as a great stylist, master of character development, or for being all that creative.  Dark Shadows was a soap opera—one of the more intelligent of the genre—and there’s only so much you can do with it.  Satanism was a cultural concern in the 1970s.  In the following decades it would bloom into an outright panic.  I’m pretty sure that I never read this particular volume when I was young.  Even now as a relatively mature man I found the implications somewhat disturbing.  The Scooby-Doo ending doesn’t do much to ameliorate the undercurrent of evil.  Quentin always seemed like such a sympathetic character to me.  Maybe it just goes to show what happens when you go for a quick read rather than choosing a book of substance.  Childhood can be that way.

Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

October’s Monsters

Blood and vampires go together like October and, well, vampires.  Although I don’t understand manga, I do know it’s extremely popular, and a friend has been lending me the volumes of Hellsing by Kouta Hirano.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve read numbers 4 and 5.  Hellsing sets up a world where the Catholic church destroys vampires, as does the English, Protestant organization Hellsing Organization.  The latter, however, has as its secret weapon the vampire Alucard who, in nearly every number, gets dismembered in some bloody way before pulling himself back together to overcome the enemy.  In the latest issues I’ve read the Catholics and Protestants have to cooperate against the threat of neo-Nazis (and this was before Trump was elected), who also employ werewolves.  (It’s October, remember.)

Having been pondering the vampires of Maine, I decided to read the next in my own generation’s vampire hero, Barnabas Collins.  I’ve been reading the Dark Shadows series by Marilyn Ross to try to find a lost piece of my childhood.  There was a scene in one of these poorly written Gothic novels that made a strong impression on me that I finally re-encountered in Barnabas, Quentin and the Nightmare Assassin.  Interestingly, in this installment Barnabas, the gentleman vampire, is cured of his curse while traveling back in time with Carolyn Stoddard.  The story doesn’t explain how some of the characters from the twentieth century appear a hundred years earlier, but it does bring an early encounter of the vampire against the werewolf—an idea monster fans know from its many iterations such as Hellsing or, famously, Underworld.

You might think vampires and werewolves would get along.  In both the Dark Shadows and Hellsing universes the personalities of both come through clearly.  Both monsters have deep origins in folklore and people have believed in them since ancient times.  Just because they’re not human, however, is no reason to suppose they’ll get along with each other.  As soon as Universal discovered that monsters translated well to film the idea began to develop that monster versus monster would be a great spectacle.  We had vampires and werewolves clashing on cheap budgets with fog machines.  A new orthodoxy was created that the undead just don’t get along.  It’s a idea that continued into the relatively bloodless Dark Shadows series, and on into the violent and gleefully bespattered Hellsing.  And since it’s October nobody should be surprised.

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?