Grave Robbers

My personal reconstruction of the Dark Shadows universe was made by connecting the books by Marilyn Ross that I could find with the episodes of the television show that I saw.  I’ve always been one to try to make a logical storyline out of such things so that I could connect them when they came at irregular intervals.  (I’m still a fan of linear storytelling.)  So it’s a bit of an eye-opener to read the series of pulps in order.  There are continuities and discontinuities.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers again has Quentin, in 1830, portrayed as a good guy.  When he was first introduced in the series some books back, he was a satanist and very nearly evil.  And this was in a more recent era.  You get the sense that Ross was responding to fan requests.

As I noted regarding the last book in the series, the stories do seem to have grown more complex, and sophisticated over time.  The writing remains labored, but the story aspect improves.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers comes the closest to standard horror so far.  This is a dark story with problematic race issues thrown in.  The first two-thirds or so are set in England and are tied into the story by Barnabas Collins being there.  It is distanced from the usual moody setting of Collinwood where, despite all the haunting and troubles, you tend to think things turn out alright in the end.  Here the antagonist grave robbers kill people close to the heroine and the corpses sent to gruesome ends.  And there are zombies.

To flee the evil ringleader, Barnabas takes Paula Sullivan to Collinwood where Quentin is introduced to the story.  In 1830 he’s an unpredictable trickster, but good at heart.  He and Barnabas team up, as last time, to take on the grave robber when he moves, you guessed it, next door to Collinwood.  Then something unusual happens—Paula discovers zombies are afraid of crosses.  This leads to a strange episode of Barnabas—a vampire, remember—chasing a zombie with a cross.  In general religious imagery is scarce in these novels.  A vicar or two may be mentioned, but vampires aren’t menaced with crosses.  That does happen in one of the movies, but here it seems that because Barnabas is a good vampire he’s not bothered by a cross.  Or it could be a consistency issue.  Either way, this is a moody addition to the series, appropriate, as always, for autumnal reading.


Jekyll and Jekyll

W. E. D. (“Marilyn”) Ross was a journeyman writer.  Prolific, he produced more than 300 pot-boilers, and he only started writing at mid-life, which kind of lends hope to me.  (He, however, didn’t always pay attention to literary niceties.)  I’ve made a determined effort, over the past decade or so, to collect and read all of his Dark Shadows novels.  These aren’t great literature, and I generally have to space them out to recover from them.  I just finished number 27 (of 32), Barnabas, Quentine and Dr. Jekyll’s Son.  Although I watched Dark Shadows as a child, it’s pretty clear that my cosmology of Collinwood was primarily shaped by Ross.  Living in an area without a regular bookstore, and without the cash to regularly buy books, I found what volumes I could at Goodwill and read them avidly.

Barnabas, Quentine and Dr. Jekyll’s Son is now a rather rare item on the used market.  It’s pretty clear that as Ross went on and on in the gothic fiction genre, he tried new things and these generally improved his work.  This story, set in the past, involves Dr. Jekyll’s grown son accompanying Barnabas Collins to Maine in order to escape his father’s reputation and, as a sidebar, to try to cure Barnabas of his vampire curse.  This means that one of the Collins girls, Emily in this instance, falls in love with Jekyll rather than Barnabas.  It also marks the point at which Ross tries to make it clear that both Barnabas and Quentin are good guys, but being under their own curses, they have to follow their vampire and werewolf natures, respectively.

I think I may have read this one as a child.  Although each book was stamped with its number in the series, I was dependent on when my mother decided to go to Goodwill and what they happened to have on hand in their book bin.  Some scenes from this book came back to me in the reading—although it was perhaps forty or more years ago—and one of the most important of these was one where Barnabas and Quentin collaborated on capturing the criminal.  Among the true fans of the series, they are known as the immortals (and Quentin isn’t always a werewolf), and they revisit Collinwood over the centuries.  Quentin can be both good and evil, but Barnabas is generally a sympathetic character.  Dr. Jekyll’s son isn’t such a strange guest at Collinwood, and the stories do seem to have improved over time.  It’s still Ross writing, but this one was more than a surface refinishing of a classic tale.


Consistency

Consistency.  Back in Wisconsin I belonged to a group of Hebrew Bible professors who read a book and got together to critique it.  We came from different schools—Marquette, Sacred Heart, Carroll College, and Nashotah House (me).  We took turns on different campuses and spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon discussing our selected title.  Soon one of our members, an Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Milwaukee, began to look at me right off and ask if the author had been consistent—my most frequent criticism was inconsistency.  It’s the way I think.  If is an argument is being made, or a story is being told, it has to be consistent in order to be convincing.  Recently I realized that this has carried over into my writing on horror.

The dream of many authors and auteurs is to establish a successful series.  Publishers and studios like them too.  Follow one success with another just like it, so the thinking goes.  People like to see how the story ends.  The longer a series goes, however, the more difficult it is to maintain consistency.  I’ve been noticing this in the articles I’ve been writing lately.  I follow the stories closely and inconsistencies creep in.  I noted this in a recent post about Dark Shadows and I wrote about it when looking at The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity franchises in Nightmares with the Bible.  I realize, just as my Bishop friend pointed out, that consistency is my problem.  Sometimes it gets in the way of enjoying the tale.  Deft authors and auteurs will tease you with it.  It’s part of the literalist mindset.

Being raised as a literalist, from my youngest days I learned that the story goes only one way.  The world, however, is much more ambiguous than that.  Stories have multiple points of view and endless iterations.  Not only that, but not even the author or auteur has the final say in what “really happened.” When I first learned of reader-response theory I was suspicious of it.  Even with a doctorate and teaching experience I was still looking for consistency.  Get the story straight!  But stories are crooked and queer and untamed.  They follow the imagination and defy literary convention.  Those that succeed best are remembered as classics.  The rest are nevertheless expressions of fertile minds with tales to tell.  I doubt I’ll ever get over my watching out for consistency.  I should, however, pay attention to that gentle teasing my erstwhile colleagues gave.  Relax and enjoy learning how it goes this time.


Shadows of Childhood

Childhood, it seems to me, is where we define ourselves.  In the days when life expectancy wasn’t terribly long and people generally lived only long enough to reproduce, there was not much of a need to revisit childhood.  Now that we live several decades, however, childhood begins to loom large.  We have time to revisit and reassess.  This is one of the reasons I’ve been addressing Dark Shadows so much, and why my memories of it have been of such interest.  I recently watched the second feature film based on the series, Night of Dark Shadows.  This was aired after the original soap opera had been cancelled.  It focuses on Quentin Collins rather than Barnabas and it again caused me to reassess.

The story is complex—the soap opera was quite literary and intelligent to begin with—and it involves several characters from the series.  In my mind Quentin is a werewolf.  In the movie he’s not.  This made me realize that my image of Quentin is largely from the Marilyn Ross novels, not from memories of the television show.  I never did see the original series through.  Nor did I ever read all the novels.  Like most people my childhood was a pastiche of this and that as I sampled the somewhat small set of offerings made available in a modest family in a small town.  Fossil collecting and exploring within two or three blocks of home were about all the options.  And then there was television.  I watched a lot of it.  When the rigors of homework started to really hit in high school, I stopped watching so much.  I’d begun reading quite a bit by middle school, and many of those books are the ones I’ve been seeking out in recent years.  Not that middle school was that great, but it was formative.

Night of Dark Shadows, although set in Maine, lacks the Collinwood I remembered.  Yes, it’s a grand old house, but there’s no hint of being on the Atlantic coast.  No crashing waves.  No theremin.  Quentin is instead haunted by the ghost of Angelique and is apparently a reincarnation of an ancient ancestor whom she loved.  Angelique decides to kill off Quentin’s young bride so as to have him to herself.  It wasn’t bad, but I guess I was expecting a werewolf movie.  My view of Quentin was formed by the imagination of W. E. D. Ross, I’m coming to realize.  Sam Hall wrote many of the original episodes.  He also co-wrote this movie.  My childhood, however, remembers all of this differently.


Body Doubles

Learning about how Dark Shadows developed has freed me a bit, I think.  The stories between the original program, the novels, and the movies were never consistent.  I’d made that most fundamental of Fundamentalist errors—I’d assumed there was only one story and it went in only one way.  This helps explain, but not excuse, the Burton-Depp version of the story.  In any case, now I can read the novels with minimal baggage.  Understanding childhood is important if we survive long enough for it to haunt us.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Body Snatchers is a departure, even for Marilyn Ross.  Something critics sometimes overlook is just how literate the original, and subsequent, program was.  Ross occasionally attempts to cash in on that without feeling tied to the story line.

This plot relies on the 1956 movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Indeed, as a daily show Dark Shadows couldn’t really utilize a “monster of the week” format effectively (although it seems to have given the idea to those who later did).  The novels, however, could draw on such cultural tropes.  Both major releases of Body Snatchers (there was a remake after Dark Shadows ceased, in 1978) were considered terrifying by implication: how could you tell if someone took over the body of someone you know?  Who could you even trust, if such a phenomenon were possible?  Since such things aren’t common down here, it’s easier to suggest they come from outer space.  So it is that this installment has the weird juxtaposition of a vampire and werewolf having to outsmart aliens who take over human bodies. Kind of an early monsters vs. aliens scenario.

Again, not to seek too much depth where it doesn’t naturally exist, this scenario raises interesting questions.  How would terrestrial and extraterrestrial supernaturals interact?  I’m not sure W. E. D. Ross was up to this kind of gothic-sci-fi mash-up.  He was, after all, primarily a romance writer.  (Although, a recent trip to a library book sale and used bookstore in the same day led to the realization that paranormal romance is a burgeoning field.)  I recently read an article disputing the “willing suspension of belief” that is said to accompany such ventures.  As an adult I know that these novels are what must be considered cheesy, quick, and formulaic ephemera.  Still, I couldn’t help being pleased to see Barnabas and Quentin cooperating here.  If aliens ever do decide to invade, we’ll need all the help we can get.


Shadows of Childhood

While it may not seem to fit my current re-fascination, I’m not really a “fan”personality.  My interests are far too diverse.  Since I’ve been thinking about Dark Shadows a lot lately I decided to do some reading on it.  There’s a genre of nonfiction that involves small format, short introductions to various media.  I’ve read a few of the Devil’s Advocates series about horror movies and I recently discovered the similar TV Milestones series about, well, TV.  They have a volume on Dark Shadows by Harry M. Benshoff, and I knew it would help scratch my current itch.  You see, I wasn’t really a devoted fan of the show—I watched it after school like a lot of kids did in the late sixties and into the early seventies.  I read a few of the novels.  I never attended any conferences (they exist) and never wrote any fan fiction.  I think my level of engagement was different.

Nevertheless, this is an informative little book.  I found out that there’s even more to the phenomenon than I already knew I didn’t know.  I never really followed the whole plot line.  I didn’t realize just how complex the story is.  Perhaps on some level I knew the series was culturally significant.  As a child I didn’t know much about the wider culture.  We were working class poor, how was I to find out about such things?  For me, Dark Shadows was a kind of escapism, I suppose.  A fantasy that met a need, not a plot to be unraveled.  I wasn’t aware of how sophisticated, if cheap, it was.

By the time I got to college and started to meet different people, it was a moment that had passed.  I really didn’t think much about Dark Shadows again until after my own gothic tragedy of Nashotah House.  During the days of my career malfunction I rediscovered my childhood, perhaps looking for something better.  I started collecting and reading the novels again, and if I’m honest, were it not so expensive I’d consider watching the original series again.  Like all things nostalgic, I know my Rosebud will never be today what it was back then.  My reading sense wasn’t developed enough to see what might’ve been going on behind the scenes.  Benshoff does a good job of bringing much of that to the light.  I’ll likely read more on the series as time goes on, but I now have a better framework for looking at this particular milestone.  Not, however, as a fanatic.


Search and Research

Woe to those who live to research but who have no professorship!  I have been prone to research since about high school, driven by the need to know.  Almost Wesleyan in my need for certainty, I have always been inclined to check things out.  It took college and a doctorate to teach me the necessary research skills.  It took years of teaching for me to learn how to frame questions on my own.  And it took years of being shunned by the academy to realize that as I’ve been pursuing my personal research agenda that I lack the time to fulfill it.  I’m a slow learner.  Yet I can’t give it up.  The thought process that led to Holy Horror was a kind of epiphany.  I could write a book without reading every last thing about the subject.  The problem, however, would always be time.  I’ve read an awful lot about horror media and I’m only beginning to scratch the surface.

I’m not totally naive.  Okay, I’m pretty far along on that path sometimes, but I want my readers to know that I understand movies and television are made for money.  It’s a business, I know.  But I’m an artist at heart and I like to think the creators are fond of their characters.  Writers are advised to drown their darlings, to put their protagonists on a cliff and then throw rocks at them.  And I also understand that money can make you do even worse to them.  Of course, I’m still thinking about Dark Shadows.  For me it’s been a rediscovery of my childhood.  And just how much time I’d need to make sense of just one television series with a five-year run.  There’s far more information on the web on Dark Shadows than I was able to find in print on Asherah for the years of my doctorate.

And the expense involved.  Plus, it’s only early April and the lawn needs mowing!  I’m still wearing a heavy jacket some days but the grass is always greener.  Period.  What a time to fall into a research reverie!  I need a sabbatical but they don’t have those in the 925 world.  And I need a professor’s salary to be able to afford the media required.  The Dark Shadows series alone has over 1200 episodes.  House of Dark Shadows introduced the fear of the cross to my understanding of Barnabas Collins.  My world has been shaken and to settle it I need research.  What I have, however, is work starting in just a few minutes.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

Shadowy House

The more you learn the more you realize just how little you know.  The House of Dark Shadows was like a key, a missing puzzle piece for me.  Dark Shadows has been on my mind quite a bit lately.  I’m the first to admit that I’m no expert.  I never saw the whole series on television—I saw many episodes once, during my childhood.  Enough to know who the characters were—especially Barnabas—but when I stopped watching it (when? Why?) I started reading the novels by Marilyn Ross.  Clearly the soap opera was gaining enough ratings to merit the building of a franchise.  But the thing was, there is so much in life that I never concentrated on it.  I read the novels occasionally, and I never saw House of Dark Shadows when it came out in 1970.  Not, in fact, until 2022.

Since I was only eight when it came out, even though it was rated PG, I would’ve had neither the means nor the money to get to a theater.  I had, in fact, never even heard of it.  Having been raised a Fundamentalist, I have a tendency to believe there is just one way a story goes.  I know there are variations—they occur in the canon of Scripture, even—but something deep-seated tells me it should go this way.  House of Dark Shadows (which explains a lot of Tim Burton’s decisions for his movie reboot) has a different story line.  Given that it was 1970 it would have been in the midst of the initial series broadcast.  The movie was quite successful.  Still, Barnabas ends up victimizing Carolyn (which in the novels he is reluctant to do), and Roger, and outright killing a number of people.

I spent the movie trying to process how the story should go.  Of course, I haven’t seen the soap opera enough to know.  This Dark Shadows franchise is episodic and it doesn’t add up.  The film was shot quickly and leaves gaps in the story.  It certainly doesn’t track well with the tale of the Maine family who knows about “cousin Barnabas”and that he visits Collinwood from time to time.  Our course, between the series and the novels there are many, many avenues to select.  When Tim Burton got the idea to make a movie he had an abundance of stories from which to choose.  The House of Dark Shadows isn’t a great movie.  It is gothic and moody and a standalone story.  And it has me wondering about what other dark shadows conceal.


Collecting the Past

Some readers, probably, react with embarrassment when I go on about Dark Shadows.  The fact is, however, that our childhoods somehow define us and mine included frequent doses of Dark Shadows after school.  This was complemented by the series of potboiler novels by William Edward Daniel Ross, writing as Marilyn Ross.  We didn’t have much money when I was a child (some things never change) and the only means I had of procuring the books in our small town was Goodwill.  The novel series ran from 1966 to 1972, roughly concurrent with the television show.  Since I was buying them second-hand I could never tell which, if any, I would find in the book bins.  If I did find any, I’d buy them.  I got rid of them when I “grew up.”

Dark Shadows, however, has come back to me at various points in my life and about a decade-and-a-half ago I began, somewhat shamefacedly, trying to rebuild that earlier collection.  The individual volumes are considerably more than the nickels and dimes I’d originally paid for them.  In fact, the rate of change has been somewhat astronomical.  Some of the volumes are rare.  Given the prices, I suspect I’m not the only nostalgia-poisoned child of the sixties and seventies who’s buying them.  There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with having finally completed a task years in the making.  When the box containing the last volume arrived, it was a moment of private ecstasy.

All of this has me thinking about other influences Dark Shadows has had on me personally.  It is probably responsible for my lifelong love of Maine.  The television show was filmed mostly in Terrytown, New York, better known by the name given in Washington Irving’s tale, Sleepy Hollow.  I wasn’t aware of this on my visit to Terrytown—which was before the more recent television series based on, but not filmed in that location, aired.  My first publication regarding religion and horror was based on Sleepy Hollow.  There’s a sense of connectedness here.  To get the final volume, which is rare, I had to buy a collection of several of the books.  Like a man who found a pearl of great price went and sold all that he had so that he could buy the field in which the pearl was.  We’re never told what he did with the rest of the field.  If I had to venture a guess I’d say he used it to house his Dark Shadows collection.


Son of Comfort

So the other day I was reading a book proposal for another editor.  It mentioned the mononymous Barnabas.  Since the proposal wasn’t from a biblical scholar I wondered if this was the same Barnabas mentioned in Acts as the sometime traveling companion to Paul of Tarsus.  As I began to type this into the search box—and this was on my work computer, which, I hope, doesn’t know my reading habits—it autosuggested Barnabas Collins as the first choice.  One of the frustrating things about devices these days is they know who we are and sometimes we want an objective opinion from the internet.  Is Barnabas Collins as popular as I like to think he is, or is it just a case of my work computer anticipating my off-hour whims?  I sincerely hope it’s the former.

The proposal, by the way, was surprisingly referencing Paul’s Barnabas.  I wasn’t aware that he was much known outside biblical studies circles.  Probably about as rarely as Barnabas Collins is known in such circles.  There has been a resurgence of interest in Dark Shadows that has taken place in spite of, or perhaps partially because of, Tim Burton’s movie.  The film made many missteps, but people from my generation who’d never heard of him before began to reference Barnabas Collins to me.  I’ve never been a soap opera watcher.  It does seem that many college students used to go through such a phase—again, it’s the story that draws them in—but that never really happened to me.  I’d grown up watching Dark Shadows, however, and I’ve been tempted a time or two to start watching the series again.  With well over a thousand episodes, some of which are lost, it would be a major time commitment.  And besides, it wouldn’t recapture those grade-school afternoons watching what my mom thought was a waste of time.

The name Barnabas probably means something like “son of comfort.” I don’t know how the somewhat desperate writers, trying to gain back a slipping audience, came up with the name.  Their introduction of the supernatural into the daily drama did, however, transform television.  The usual demographic for the show was a bit older than me when it was being aired and I didn’t by any stretch see the entire series.  I did see enough, however, to forever frame my view of vampires.  There have been efforts, including one current, to reboot the series on television.  It may eventually rise again from its coffin. Featuring, of course, Barnabas.


Secret Formula

When writing fiction, I’ve never tried a series.  Some, such as Harry Potter, can set a writer for life.  I’ve always had the sense that the Dark Shadows novels were more potboilers.  There was a built-in fan base, and somehow in the sixties and seventies we didn’t expect Rowling-level writing.   It was the entire package: the Gothic, the recurring characters, the moody setting of Collinwood.  And of course, Barnabas Collins.  These novels may be journeyman writing, but here at number 25 in the series, Barnabas, Quentin, and the Magic Potion, there are some signs of literary improvement.  They are slight, rather like the first tinging of leaves with yellow as August begins to settle in, but they are there.  The series is nearing its end for me (provided I can actually find the last few books), but maybe it’s getting better.

What’s my reason for such a burst of enthusiasm?  Well, in this episode we see some features of Quentin that are more in line with how I remember him.  First of all, Ross tries some misdirection.  Quentin is presented as a master of disguise in the series and here there’s some clever hinting that, if you’re trying to think it through, leads you to mis-guess early on.  Not only that, but there’s a more positive view of Quentin here.  He’s not the evil satanist that he is earlier in the series.  Perhaps Ross had figured out by now that if people liked the idea of a Barnabas who is a conflicted victim, the same might apply to Quentin.  He’s not evil, but when you’re a werewolf, well, what can you do?

The “magic potion” is just as contrived and sketchy as most of the plot devices in this series—Harry Potter this is not.  It’s just a get rich quick scheme for a reprehensible old man and serves to move the plot along without really adding anything to it.  Carolyn here discovers that Barnabas is a vampire and, it seems to me, some of the plot devices for the Tim Burton movie might’ve been picked up from this particular novelization.  Although still not belle lettres by any stretch, the story here seems to have made some progress over the previous 24.  As a child, of course, I didn’t read these in order.  I relied on what I found at the bin in Goodwill, when I could find them.  I never had the whole series.  While trying at times, reading them may be a worthy exercise as an adult.  Perhaps series too grow up.


Not Quite Quetzalcoatl

It must be difficult to write the same basic story over and over.  And nostalgic adults like me can be tough critics as we try to recapture faded childhood glories.  Those memories fade like afternoon shading into evening, but still I can’t help myself.  Marilyn Ross wrote 33 gothic tales of Dark Shadows in the spinoff series from the long-running television program, and I’m determined to read them all.  In small doses.  The one, Barnabas, Quentin and the Serpent is actually a bit distinct.  The writing is still journeyman, that of a tired potboiler author, but the plot offers something a little different.  As in the last volume reviewed, Barnabas is free from the vampire curse for a time, allowing him to emerge in the daylight.  And his arrival at Collinwood is actually dramatic and well-timed.  The story is set in the nineteenth century.

Gerald Collins, a professor of archaeology, unexpectedly inherits Collinwood along with his daughter Irma.  They head to Maine from Mexico taking exotic creatures with them, including a dimetrodon that escapes and tries to eat them.  The story revolves around rumors that the professor caught and transported back a flying serpent.  At Collinwood (and let’s think about this a minute—if you add up the body count from all the novels you’ve got to wonder why there’s been no federal investigation) people start to die and reports circulate of a flying snake.  The professor’s going to be driven out of town because angry villagers think he brought this creature back with him.  It’s all very melodramatic.

As in the last novel, Barnabas acts as a detective.  Quentin, who is the werewolf cousin, manages to allude detection by disguising himself.  Even Barnabas is fooled.  The story tries to avoid invoking the supernatural—there’s no such thing as flying serpents—while allowing a werewolf to perpetrate a hoax.  It’s all good fun (except for that body count).  There’s a bit of vim here from our weary journeyman writer, but there are nine novels yet to go in the series.  Writing a series seems to be smart money.  Children (and I first read several volumes of this series as a child) like to complete things and can be loyal series fans.  I never read the full series when I was younger; they were haphazard finds at the local Goodwill book bin.  Of course they were still being published at that time.  I have to admit that I’m curious where it will go from here.  And I do miss Barnabas as a vampire.


Mental Health

Dark Shadows was a formative part of my childhood.  I don’t recall specifics, or even how I found out about it, but I do recall watching it after school and being completely taken by it.  When I do the math I realize I had to have been watching it primarily before I was ten, and then after that I started reading the books when I found them in the used bin at the local Goodwill where they usually cost a quarter or less.  Now they’re collector’s items.  That fact doesn’t change the reality that they are journeyman writing through and through.  William Edward Daniel Ross, under the pen name Marilyn Ross, wrote thirty-three novels in the series as part of his oeuvre of over 300 books.  The stories are formulaic and feature odd word choices, but they are gothic.  Sometimes gothic is just what you need.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Scorpio Curse is a fun romp through a period when Barnabas has—with no explanation in the novel—overcome the vampire curse.  It introduces some Collins cousins who come to an asylum conveniently located next door to Collinwood where murder breaks out and mayhem ensues.  I have to keep reminding myself to put my critical faculties aside when I read these guilty pleasures.  There are gaps and incredulities that are simply glossed over, and that’s part of the world in which they take place.  Astrology plays a part in this episode, as the title indicates.  It features a psychologist who, it would seem, doesn’t know how to do background checks.

The truly scary part of this Scooby-Doo tale is that the protagonists, Diana and Barnabas Collins, aren’t believed because they’re voluntarily admitted to the asylum.  Mental illness is a serious matter, of course, and it can be difficult to diagnose.  The difficulty here is that it’s used simply to dismiss what Diana observes.  Time and again, as the Scorpio murders continue she’s dismissed as “a mental patient.”  It’s all part of a plot, of course.  It does raise serious issues, though.  In the late sixties and early seventies there was a real stigma attached to mental illness.  There still is, in fact.  Ironically, the more we learn about mental disorders the more common they become.  Just about everyone has some neurosis or worse.  In our efforts to define the “normal” we dismiss those with actually diagnosed conditions.  We’ve come a long way since then, but we still need to work at dispelling the stigma.  One way to do it is, I suppose, to put conflicted vampires into the mix.


In Black

When autumn rolls around my hankering for gothic literature ratchets up.  It’s really my gothic sensibilities that make me watch horror films, seeking some kind of transcendence.  Some time ago I heard about the movie The Woman in Black, but I’ve never seen it.  I learned about the novel by Susan Hill, on which it’s based, and decided to check out the written form.  (I almost always like the book better than the movie anyway.)  The story is indeed moody, set in, as these stories often are, a remote part of the coast of England.  A lonely house cut off by the tide.  A hidden past full of secrets.  The plot is one of a vengeful ghost, and therefore the whole is somewhat supernatural.

I couldn’t help comparing it to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, which is also set on the coast of England, and also features a house cut off by the tides.  The storylines are quite different beyond that, but it is often the setting that makes gothic tales so, well, gothic.  The Woman in Black builds up the story slowly, intimating that something is wrong near the start, but not really giving too much away until near the end.  It isn’t really the conclusion, however, that a gothic reader is after, as much as the feeling.  Being immersed in a spooky setting where you’re not sure what’s going on.  There’s a kind of release in that.

I’ve often tried to figure out why this type of story appeals to me.  It’s certainly something to do with my childhood.  We didn’t live in a very gothic place.  My hometown was working-class normal, it seemed to me.  When we moved into the first apartment I remember, the setting did become gothic to an extent.  It was an older building that still had gas jets jutting through the walls from the days before electricity.  One of the bedrooms was painted black.  There was a huge crack in the linoleum in the hall that had the potential to trip you if you weren’t paying attention.  It was there that I first became aware of liking gothic settings.  It was the place I discovered Dark Shadows and began to find it strangely homelike.  Many of us, even with less-than-ideal childhoods, often look back to them with a kind of happiness that we just can’t seem to attain as adults.  Mine included some gothic elements, and reading novels like The Woman in Black takes me back there, if only for a little while.


Wolves? Where?

One of the oldest tricks in the capitalistic playbook is to make something look like a more successful product.  Trademarks and copyright laws prevent too close a similarity—for money is sacred—but we all know “brands” that try to look like other brands in hopes of picking up some of the business that attends success.  The same feature was apparently at operation behind The Dark Dominion: Eight Terrifying Tales of Vampires and Werewolves.  This is a book that I picked up in a used bookstore because its cover design—a dull olive green with a picture oval on the front—was clearly based on the Dark Shadows book series.  While the latter are still available, they’re increasingly difficult to find in used bookstores, so when I come across one I don’t have I tend to buy it.  I knew this wasn’t part of the series but the cover suggested to me it might be similar enough, like store-brand breakfast cereal.

Werewolf stories, it turns out, shouldn’t hunt in packs.  There’s no surprise since it’s pretty clear that one of the characters is a shapeshifter and it’s pretty obvious which one.  Six, or maybe seven, of the eight stories concern werewolves while one outlier has a vampire menace.  Some of the stories in the book are clever, but most follow the same trajectory: attacks are made, the villagers suspect something, one of them turns out to be a werewolf.  Time for the next story.  I noticed a long time ago that unlike vampires and Frankenstein’s monster, the werewolf doesn’t have the definitive novelistic origin.  Others wrote vampire tales before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that telling set the stage for those that followed.  The olive green cover suggests Barnabas Collins, but in reality is more in Quentin’s territory.

Interestingly, The Dark Dominion, like occasional collections before and after, doesn’t list an editor.  Modern books use the stature of volume editors to reinforce that what’s contained within has quality.  Otherwise who knows whether someone with good taste has picked the stories by authors you’ve never heard of and wrapped them together in a package meant to move?  That’s not to say that some of the stories aren’t good.  A couple are quite clever.  One is a translation of a medieval German tract.  Another comes from medieval Ireland.  The remainder are stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Perhaps it’s the burden of an editor to wonder what the selection criteria might have been.  What’s entirely obvious, however, is that making something look similar to a recognized book series still has the power to sell.