Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Report: The Salem Branch

Reading a book written by an actress sounds about as much fun as watching a professional chef teach himself to play saxophone. I'm sure it's fun if you're the one holding the sax, but it's as satisfying as a lap dance for those of us in the audience. Regardless of how fond I might be of Lara Parker, I didn't have any interest in watching her (or anyone else) pass off their learning process as entertainment.

After a dozen Marilyn Ross novels, though, I ran out of reasons not to see what Parker had to bring to the table. A first-time novelist can't be any worse than a someone like Ross, who was more passionate about how fast he could crank out a story than in, you know, telling a good story. To paraphrase H.P. Lovecraft's thoughts on Robert Chambers, the most frustrating thing about Ross's DARK SHADOWS novels is how easily they could have been made better.

Circumstances eventually paved the way that made me a little more open to the idea of reading THE SALEM BRANCH.
For a few months in 2011 I had an hour-long commute to work in Lumberton, N.C. When you're driving at 3 a.m., you feel like the only person on the planet. Some people can't handle that level of placid isolation. As a card carrying misanthropist, though, I loved it. What I didn't love so much was the drive home in the afternoon. It was hot as hell and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the interstate at 80 mph. But, this wasn't the problem.

When you're awake at three in the morning, three in the afternoon feels like your biorhythms have been wrapped in a wet towel. When your body's ready to shut down, energy drinks, sunlight, danger and your least favorite Mรถtorhead album won't be enough to keep you awake. More than once I found myself nodding off behind the wheel as my car rocketed down the highway at 80 mph. I was too tired to be scared, but knew there was a problem.

Big Finish came to the rescue. I'd been interested in their products for a while, but didn't have a lot of time to sit and stare into space for an hour at a time to listen to their original audio dramas. The commute to Lumberton changed that and, within a few weeks, I'd breezed through about half of their DARK SHADOWS inventory. And that included the two releases that comprised the reading of Parker's first novel, ANGELIQUE'S DESCENT.

It ... wasn't great.

ANGELIQUE'S DESCENT wasn't a total waste of time, though. Big Finish wisely chopped the book into two volumes. The second contains Parker's retelling of the 1795 storyline, though its a version of the tale that's been gutted of nuance. It also includes a few ridiculous additions to the melodrama (Spoiler Alert: Angelique and Josette are really ... SISTERS!

But the first half of the story, the part that has no significant obligations to the television show's continuity, wasn't bad. It was fairly compelling, reading (at times) like Margaret Mitchell filtered through WEIRD TALES. It tells the story of Angelique's childhood, when she was held in bondage by a Caribbean farmer who used her as a figurehead "goddess" in voodoo rituals to keep his slaves docile. It was spooky and the stakes felt significant, but it never felt much like DARK SHADOWS. Afterward, I wasn't doing cartwheels about the idea of reading THE SALEM BRANCH.

I'm not made of stone. Put Jonathan Frid on the cover of a book and, sooner or later, I'm bound to read it. I'd probably abandon all of my values and read a Dan Brown novel if Barnabas made an appearance. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's true. (Note: STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM DARK SHADOWS, MR. BROWN.)

THE SALEM BRANCH represents a huge step forward for Parker as a writer. Set in two time periods, the book attempts to elaborate on the relationship between Angelique/Miranda DuVal and warlock Judah Zachary, while following "modern" Collinwood in the years after the original series ended in 1970. I never understood the connection between Miranda/Angelique (it always seemed like sloppy storytelling to me on the part of the show's writers) and THE SALEM BRANCH didn't do much to erase my confusion. Fortunately, the two time periods have little to do with each other narratively, but they created a decent amount of tension as the two tales unfolded.

What I liked about the book was Parker's grasp of characterization. While still sympathetic, Barnabas is painted as a man damned by his own contradictory nature. As the story begins he's once again human, though troubled by his own frailties. He's also beginning to regret promises made to his fiancee, Julia Hoffman, mostly because he knows he lacks the strength of character to follow through with them.

The crazy (sometimes silly) story elements are in keeping with the crazy silliness of the original show and don't feel out of place (as did the twists in ANGELIQUE'S DESCENT.) Barnabas and David unknowingly try pot brownies, vampires, zombies and (gasp!) hippies roam the grounds of Collinwood, and the rivalry between Barnabas and Quentin is revived as a woman who might be Angelique moves into town. The flashback story might be a little grim, but the "modern" stuff is a hoot.

Admittedly, I might be a little beaten down after 2012. The Tim Burton movie was a disappointment and the DARK SHADOWS comics from Dynamite have gone downhill faster (and nastier) than the contents of a ruptured sewage line at Mordor. I might have been easy pickings.

Still, THE SALEM BRANCH represents one of the few times we've been allowed to return to Collinwood than didn't make me want to cry myself to sleep in a dark room. It was good enough to make me look forward to her follow up, WOLF MOON RISING, though it appears to have been pushed back a year to October, 2013. I'd also be interested in reading a book from her that wasn't about DARK SHADOWS, hint hint if you're reading this, Mrs. Parker.

3 comments:

willmckinley said...

"if you're reading this, Mrs. Parker." HAHAHAHHAHA.

dollsandmagic said...

I agree! The Salem Branch was much better than Angelique's Descent. As an English teacher with umpteen Literature degrees, my opinion actually counts, for once! I read one of those old Ross books... How many did You read??? I think they were written with ten-year-olds in mind... Then again, I've read All but one of those Sookie Stackhouse books, and they aren't even that good. Why can't I put them down? I guess I'm just a sucker for the vampires!

Happy Holidays!

dollsandmagic said...

I agree! The Salem Branch was much better than Angelique's Descent. As an English teacher with umpteen Literature degrees, my opinion actually counts, for once! I read one of those old Ross books... How many did You read??? I think they were written with ten-year-olds in mind... Then again, I've read All but one of those Sookie Stackhouse books, and they aren't even that good. Why can't I put them down? I guess I'm just a sucker for the vampires!

Happy Holidays!

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