Saturday, March 24, 2012

Barnabas, Quentin and the Crystal Coffin

The Spoiler-Ridden Synopsis

     “How long will Collinwood’s evil forces allow Betty Ward to search for her sister’s killer?
     Heiress Betty Ward is worried about her twin sister, who has eloped with Jeremy Frene. She followed them from Paris to the Frene estate at Collinwood – but arrives too late!
     Her twin is dead, victim of a mysterious illness. Her body has been sealed in a crystal coffin and kept in a darkened room. Jeremy swears that because her ghost returns to the castle each night, he refuses to bury the coffin.
     Betty is convinced her sister’s death was not a natural one. Jeremy’s aunt opposed the marriage. Her ally against the couple seems to have been Quentin Collins, a suspected werewolf.
     Betty turns to Barnabas Collins for help, despite the rumors that he is a vampire. But she does not realize that by doing so, she has placed herself in mortal danger …”
(From the book jacket)

The above synopsis resolves much of the novel’s mystery before the reader has even opened the book, but there are still a few gems to be mined from the pages of Barnabas, Quentin and the Crystal Coffin.

Stephen King has said that every horror movie, no matter how terrible it might be, has a message. These messages are sometimes unintentional, he insists, but they’re present if you’re willing to look for them. I can’t say with any certainty that this rule holds water when applied to Marilyn Ross’s Dark Shadows novels, but there’s definitely something taking place beneath the surface of The Crystal Coffin. 

There’s a strange undercurrent of paranoia in this story, and not just the usual “Who’s the Killer?” plot found in most of Ross’s novels. Instead, the story betrays a sense of mistrust in artists, who are all portrayed as eccentric (possibly even homicidal) weirdos. Most of Ross's books are about young women introduced to spooky, hostile environments, so it’s natural the residents of Collinwood are going to be a little odd, regardless of their profession.

But here’s where the thing: As a writer, Ross was an artist of sorts. By placing painters and sculptors among the same ranks as mad scientists and magicians, he betrays a sense of alienation to his own work. The message here is that the mechanics of science and art are equally unfathomable to him. As a writer of pulp romances, nobody expects him to know much about science. But Ross was a hack* who had learned how to pay his bills by writing without ever fully grasping the mechanics of storytelling.

And he’s swinging for the fences in The Crystal Coffin, a book that features some imaginative imagery (and even a solid idea or two.) As you read in the book’s synopsis, Betty Ward spends the first act looking for her twin sister, who has married an American artist she met in Paris. While visiting the city of lights she’s imprisoned by an evil "dwarf" who spends his days making nightmarish wax sculptures. He had made a sculpture of Ward’s missing sister to sell to a suitor she’d rejected, but decides that Betty would fetch a higher price that a wax figure.

I don’t think the fairy tale imagery is a mistake, even though Ross doesn’t always know what to do with it. When Ward later arrives at Frene Castle (one of the many ruined estates that litter the ever-expanding property of Collinwood) she finds that her sister is dead, and has been embalmed and displayed in a glass coffin. Her ghost rises each night to fill blank canvasses with disturbing images that sound like the kind of thing Basil Gogos would admire.

There’s also a werewolf lurking the estate, not to mention the vampire Barnabas Collins, who does nothing terribly vampiric (is that a word?) in this book. Quentin disappears early in the novel, popping up once or twice later in werewolf form. After Barnabas runs the werewolf through with a sword, Quention runs off into the night. We find out later he was part of a plot to kill the young women at Frene Castle, but are never given a reason why he’d participate in the plot or what he had to gain.

There are some fun ideas in The Crystal Coffin, but most of them are underdeveloped. It’s interesting to see how the dark psychology of fairy tales clashes violently with reality. Betty Ward is presented as a “modern women” who rejects superstition, but it’s not superstition that poses a threat to her. Human imagination is the real threat of the story, which makes Ross’s mistrust of artists that much more troubling. I expect these kinds of sentiments from people without creative impulses, but from a professional writer it’s just kind of … sad.

*As a fan of Kenneth Robeson and Walter Gibson, please know that I don’t mean that in a disparaging way.

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