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.

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?

A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.

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.

Dark Shadows Indeed

Part of my childhood died today. Like millions of others, I have been eagerly anticipating Tim Burton’s new Dark Shadows movie to wash the treacle of Twilight from the vampire’s mouth. Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the conflicted gentleman vampire, fully aware of and repulsed by his curse. After school I would religiously sit in front of the black-and-white television and watch the waves crashing into the cliffs of Maine as the moody story began to unfold in daily episodes. So when I read this morning that Jonathan Frid had died, I knew the vampire had found peace at last. And I was sad.

Although I’ve read scholarly analyses of monster fascination, nothing sets me back to childhood so directly as my beloved monsters. I don’t know why I feel a thrill in my chest and my pulse quickens when monsters appear before me. Perhaps it is a child’s way of coming to grips with a world beyond his or her control, or perhaps it was my way of dealing with a broken family. Lacking a father figure in life, I was fascinated by the gentle care and predatory nature of Barnabas Collins. He really did care, but he still had to bite you in the neck to survive. To my pre-adolescent mind, Jonathan Frid was Barnabas Collins. When I grew old enough for gothic novellettes, I consumed the serialized Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, no matter how predictable or trite. I was reading about my heritage.

I have no doubts that Johnny Depp will portray a believable Barnabas Collins next month. Jonathan Frid, it is said, was consulted and was often present on the set of the new movie as it was being filmed. His turn to portray the tortured ancestor of the Collins family had lapsed, but he was the original. What is the draw of the vampire if not life after death? And although Jonathan Frid is gone, next month I will stand in line to see the resurrection of the vampire on the large screen.