Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Report: DARK SHADOWS by Marilyn Ross

A word of warning: I'm about to spoil the plot of a 46-year-old book.

As you might know, I'm presently revisiting the early days of DARK SHADOWS, and thought it was a good time to take another look at the early Marilyn Ross novels. Published a few months after the launch of the television show in 1966 (and running until after the cancellation of DARK SHADOWS in 1971), fans of the program have an uneasy relationship these books. They kinda-sorta feel like the DARK SHADOWS we know and love, but suffer from a manic sense of continuity and arbitrary deviations from the television's story. The original series produced some of the wildest, craziest programming to ever be broadcast on television, but the books felt like the daytime show's heavily medicated sibling. Once in a while the books forget to take their meds (resulting in stories like the batshit insane BARNABAS, QUENTIN AND THE BODY SNATCHERS) but too often they're a snooze.

Part of the problem of the first book in this series, simply titled DARK SHADOWS, is that it's tired ground. Victoria Winters arriving at Collinwood and discovering it's mysterious inhabitants? Been there. Done that. Can we just get to Barnabas Collins already?

As is the case with the other Marilyn Ross books in this series, the novel reads like the second-generation retread that it is. Ross lived in Canada and didn't get to watch the television show, so the books have the uneven desperation of a bad liar. The usual cast of characters is present and accounted for, only their literary  interpretations are significantly muted. David Collins suffers the most, and is downgraded from juvenile sociopath to a milquetoast brat. Burke Devlin gets mentioned for reasons that are anybody's guess (he plays no role in the story) while a few new characters are added to the mix to serve as exposition machines.

Inhabiting the spooky halls of Collins House (I know) are Elizabeth Stoddard, her daughter Carolyn, her brother Roger and his son, David, and Ernest Collins. Yes, Ernest Collins. He's a professional violinist and some kind of cousin to Elizabeth and Roger, though it's never quite explained how he's related to the central family. I pictured him as the mutant offspring of Ted McGinley and Robbie Rist.

The other details are mostly the same as the television show. Victoria is invited by the Collins family to become the governess for David. The mystery of her past is touched on once or twice, but the suspense in this book is tepid and unfocused. Victoria mostly just wanders from scene to scene as the "plot" unfolds.

Upon her arrival at Collins House (ugh) Victoria strikes up a seriously inappropriate relationship with Ernest Collins. Bad shit tends to happen around cousin Ernest. His first wife, Elaine, was killed in a car crash. A girlfriend jumped off Widow's Hill. Another girlfriend got her face smashed in by someone with a grudge and a length of chain. It should come as no surprise that similarly bad shit starts to happen to/around Victoria, though with a much lower rate of success. Someone knocks her unconscious while exploring the west wing, her car suffers mechanical failure and crashes on the way into town, someone breaks into her bedroom and vandalizes it, etc. She survives these attempts on her life through her wits, and is constantly one step ahead of ... nevermind. That's Clarice Starling I'm thinking of. The literary Victoria Winters survives these attempts on her life through blind luck and having an especially thick skull.

As in it's television counterpart, Liz is protective of something hidden in the cellar. Unlike the TV show, though, Liz doesn't believe she's hiding the body of her dead husband. Instead, the family is keeping Ernest's first wife locked up. She not only survived the car crash that "killed" her, but she came out of the accident stark-raving insane, too. Rather than putting her in a medical institution where she could receive proper healthcare, the Collins family opted to keep her locked in the basement of Collins House (ugh.) And by "locked," I mean she pretty much comes and goes as she pleases. All the bad shit that happened to Ernest's other ladies was the work of this lunatic.

The end of the book coincidentally resembles the final episode of the TV series. Elaine walks Victoria at knifepoint to a terrace at the top of Collins House (sigh) where she plans to make the governess leap to her death. Because this is a Marilyn Ross book, Ernest shows up at the last minute and saves the day. Nobody much gives a shit. Skip this one and move directly to #6 in the series, BARNABAS COLLINS.


Anonymous said...

i wish i could find those books again. i grew up on them, and loved reading them. lof course i am a great fan of victoria winters, anyway. so anything with her is super to me. Then I noticed that as the books increased they started getting more charactors from the show in them. like when victoria winters left the show, so did she leave the novels.
i think she was in the first 9 or 10. Then it went to maggie evans as the lead star, and carolyn. I used to read those all the time. i had the whole series, and i wish i had them now! If anyone knows where i can find them, let me know. and thank u.

Cousin Barnabas said...

The easiest places to find these books are Amazon and Ebay. The last few books in the series are pretty rare (and expensive) but the first 20+ can usually be found for less than the cost of a new paperback.

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