Thursday, March 29, 2012

Varney the Vampire Vs. Barnabas Collins

Dark Shadows was mixing acids and bases long before Seth Grahame-Smith came onto the scene.

The “author” of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith took the public domain Jane Austin novel and injected it was a little zombie mayhem.  It was dumb fun for smart people and would be better liked if it wasn’t for all of the cash-in garbage that followed it. Seriously … who the f*k was asking for Little Women and Werewolves?

While it’s yet to be determined if Grahame-Smith has what it takes to be a screenwriter, he’s otherwise a good choice to pen the Dark Shadows movie. The original television show began as homage to Jane Eyre, but the show really became interesting when Dan Curtis decided to add a vampire to the cast. It’s likely that Curtis had Dracula on his mind when Barnabas Collins was first discussed but the character has much more in common with an earlier vampire named Varney.

Varney the Vampire, Vol. 1
“Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood” was serialized in a penny dreadful magazine starting in 1845. The penny dreadfuls were the precursors to comic books and soap operas, providing lurid entertainment to the masses in serialized installments. But the similarities between Varney the Vampire and Dark Shadows run much deeper than format.

Sir Francis Varney is a troubled soul and a man cursed to be a vampire for his misdeeds during the English Civil War.  After moving into a home adjacent to their estate, he begins to harass the Bannerworths, an aristocratic family in decline. His connection to the Bannerworths might be more than just neighborly, though, given that Varney bears a striking relationship to the portrait of Marmaduke Bannerworth hanging in the family’s mansion. All of that should sound more than a little familiar to fans of Dark Shadows.

Varney the Vampire is a sprawling, messy epic that is much better than it is usually given credit for. Never intended to be collected as a novel, the “book” is really a series of lengthy vignettes that build and finish story arcs before moving the characters into new territory. Comic book fans will even recognize the occasional “filler” installment as the story pauses to allow for the inclusion of a short story, usually told by one of the story’s characters (the best of the bunch might be a story about vampire pirates.)

Varney the Vampire might not be great fiction, but that’s hardly a reason to avoid it. As much as I love Dracula, I can’t argue that it’s an especially well-written story, but it still remains effective more than a century later. Varney the Vampire has also has its merits and, like Dark Shadows, remains compelling in spite of (and because of) its funky style storytelling.

1 comment:

CyborgHorse said...

And Dracula of course is a ripoff of Carmilla. Yet she is almost completely forgotten today.

I was hoping for a lengthier article concerning who is more sympathetic/tragic, Varney or Barnabas? Or maybe who is the bigger asshole?

Stuart Manning often cites Barnabas as the first real exploration of the reluctant/sympathetic vampire. I was wondering how true that is.

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