Monday, May 18, 2015

Barnabas, Quentin and the Body Snatchers


(Not the real book cover.)
BARNABAS, QUENTIN AND THE BODY SNATCHERS. This book is legend. It’s basically a 1950s B sci-fi movie set in Collinsport. It’s amazing. It’s so amazing, in fact, that it deserves better than a review. It deserves commentary. And I am here to provide that service to the community.

The book’s set-up is a woman named Marjorie Gray and her space scientist father Murdoch going to Collinsport on an invitation from his old friend Roger, who has been replaced by a body-snatching alien (this is all on the back cover). That’s really all you need to know.

Our story begins with Murdoch trying to talk Marjorie into joining him on his trip to Maine, during which he reveals that the space project he’s been working on, planning a mission to the planet Velva, has made a shocking discovery: life!
“But what are the messages about?”

Her father’s face clouded. “We have not been able to decode the messages yet. We’re working on them now.”

Marjorie’s eyes widened. “I know! They’ve discovered your project and resent it,” she exclaimed. “They don’t wish to be invaded by us.” (Ross, 10-11)
Page 10 and Marjorie’s figured it out. Way to kill the suspense.

Meanwhile Marjorie happens to be dating a pop star named Jim James (no, not Jim Jones) who her father doesn’t like and who is definitely Quentin. He’s not thrilled with the Collinsport thing, but has to go do pop star things, so he warns her about Barnabas and gives her a ring before leaving her to her fate.

Only after she waved back did she take the time to examine the engagement ring he’d slipped on her finger. And she saw that it was a perfectly shaped wolf’s head of gold, containing two diamond eyes which seemed to glare at her menacingly. (Ross, 17)

Quentin, we need to talk about your taste in jewelry.

Here we get a bit of an interlude with Elizabeth and Barnabas talking about their impending guests, some weird noises Elizabeth heard, and doesn’t Roger seem a little off?

“I’ve become obsessed with the thought that some sort of plane did land in the fields near here that night. And that there was someone on it who entered this house and took Roger captive. Then this mysterious someone had Roger sent away on that plane while he installed himself here in his place.” (Ross, 21)

Because Collinsport is the kind of town where that’s the only logical conclusion.

But aside from Roger clearly being an evil alien impostor, things are going pretty well right up until Marjorie, within a couple of hours of arrival, is attacked by Barnabas. Because it wouldn’t be a Ross novel if Barnabas didn’t go straight for the heroine without thinking through the consequences of his actions. But Carolyn talks her out of telling anyone about the incident, so whatever.

When the light came on, [Carolyn] discovered it was her cousin Barnabas Collins standing there in the corner of her room in his caped coat.

“Did I frighten you?” he asked.

“Of course you did.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You attacked that girl! Our visitor!”

“I’m sorry about that, too.” (Ross, 36)
Yes, I’m sure you are. The remorse here is truly heartfelt.

I want to take a moment to talk about Ross!Barnabas. He is very much his own character. While he does seek out a cure for his vampirism, he’s a lot less tortured about it. He was never locked in the casket, so he’s spent the past century and a half or so being slick, charming, and more overtly sinister than his counterpart on the show. It gives the novels a different vibe.

Later on in the Carolyn conversation, we get the following exchange:

“But then why all the stories?” [About Quentin]

“I could ask why all the stories about me.”

“You mean they aren’t true?”

“I mean they are only partly true,” Barnabas said. “A great deal of what is told about us is pure legend. Or maybe libel would be a better word. I don’t say we are benign characters going around doing nothing but good. We have our compulsions. Occasionally they get the best of us.”

“As yours did with Marjorie tonight,” she reminded him.

“I’ll admit it,” Barnabas said calmly. (Ross, 38)
He can be pretty sanguine about the whole living dead thing, honestly. He says he hates his cursed existence and would like a cure someday, but if anything he seems more offended that the villagers hate him. In some of the books, including Body Snatchers, he seems about one bad impulse away from becoming a villain and he isn’t much of a romantic lead. It’s an interesting, more horror-esque, take on the character.

But of course the plot thickens, as Murdoch is kidnapped by the aliens and, per the back cover blurb, replaced by a body snatcher.

Roger Collins told the still transfixed and staring Murdoch Gray, “I am no more Roger Collins than my friend here is you. But we will take your places and do our work here until we have destroyed any chances of your rocket landing on Velva.” (Ross, 43)

So, basically, Marjorie really did figure the whole thing out back on page 10.

What we get for the next while is a lot of Murdoch and Roger acting like creeps who are either having an affair, possessed, and/or aliens (you never know). We also are introduced to Carolyn’s sort-of boyfriend, Donald, who likes speedboats. It’s not the most subtle bit of foreshadowing ever, but not bad. The ladies go off to hang out, but no one in the Collins family knows how to act normal and the conversation isn’t exactly light and fluffy, up to and including an encounter with the body snatchers, who are terrible liars.

And then it’s time for Marjorie to meet Barnabas properly! Which goes about as well as you might expect. He pokes around in her life, accuses her boyfriend of lying about his identity, kisses her out of nowhere (sure, why not?), and when all is said and done she doesn’t seem all that sold.
“You’re a strange person. I can’t decide about you. You’re a mixture of good and evil.”

“Isn’t everyone?” he asked lightly.

“The separation is clear with most people,” she said. “They have made their decision to be on one side or the other. I don’t believe you have.” (Ross, 64)

Well spotted, Marjorie! My opinion of you has risen.

Except she turns right around and defends Barnabas to her father, insisting that he’s charming and not evil at all. So maybe not. Her feelings on the whole Barnabas subject are awfully conflicted considering they’ve only spent about 15 minutes in each other’s company.

As we continue moving right along, the next day Marjorie actually gets to meet Donald and he’s normal and uninteresting, which clearly means he’s slated for death. But we do get a truly fantastic moment of dialogue:

“Did you know some UFOs have been seen here?”

“UFOs?” [Marjorie] echoed, not understanding.

“Sure,” he said. “Unidentified flying objects. Like from Mars or something.”…
She smiled ruefully. “I don’t believe [Murdoch] accepts that there are such things as UFOs.” (Ross, 74)

Marjorie. Your father is responsible for a planned mission to a planet from which there have been what are obviously messages. And UFOs are off the table? Seriously? What the hell is wrong with you people?

But you know what’s not off the table? Vampires. Because Marjorie, in her quest to explore the inexplicably massive Collins estate, lets herself into the Old House cellar, finds Barnabas in his casket, and, despite the narrative saying she’s shattered by the revelation, takes it in stride. She’s way more upset by Roger showing up and acting crazy than by the fact that the guy who came on to her the night before is a member of the living dead. But she chases Roger off with a candle (more foreshadowing, perhaps?) and then heads back to Collinwood. As one does.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Body Snatchers (Part Two)

(The real book cover.)
Previously on BODY SNATCHERS: Murdoch and Roger have both been replaced by aliens (and apparently lying just isn’t a thing on Velva because they’re terrible at it), Marjorie has conflicted feelings about Barnabas, and, while vampires are totally believable, UFOs are beyond the pale.

But now, in a unique twist, Elizabeth heads off to Wyncliffe to see Julia, who usually isn’t a character in this series. And we promptly learn that everyone really does know what Barnabas is. Why and how? I have no idea. We’re more than halfway through this trip and I’m just going with it.

[Elizabeth] recalled the brave fight Julia Hoffman had made to cure Barnabas of his vampire curse. She had almost met with success in her experiments and then had a last-minute failure…Perhaps the saddest thing of all was the fact that the romance was a one-sided affair. Barnabas liked Julia but had never been in love with her. (Ross, 80)

None of that happened in the novels. Go home, Ross, you’re drunk. But I do feel strangely vindicated by this agreement with my take on Barnabas and Julia. Never mind, Ross, you can stay.

But the real reason for Elizabeth’s visit is the fact that Roger is clearly an alien impostor and that’s kind of a problem. Julia suspects he’s had a mental breakdown and reluctantly says she might be able to take an overnight trip to Collinwood to see what she can do. She’s really going because she wants to see Barnabas, but whatever gets her out there.

There’s more creepiness at Collinwood and Roger and Murdoch head out to check on their prisoners, who they’ve stashed in the convenient Collins swamp (if you walk long enough the Collins estate probably has a desert, too) along with the spaceship. But then, right about the time you were going to forget he was even in this book, not-Jim Jones rolls into town.

“They say he takes spells and looks like a wild animal. It’s my opinion that crazy people should be locked up and kept locked up.”

“That would never work here in Collinsport.”

“Why not?”

“It would mean about half the village would be under padlock constant.” (Ross, 88)

Seriously, how does everyone in Collinsport know so much? Is there a newsletter?

Meanwhile at Collinwood, Marjorie brings up Barnabas’ issues with Carolyn, who admits to knowing all about that non-secret. Marjorie has been surprisingly cool, but when she goes to meet up with Jim, she sees him turn into a wolf (just because, I guess) and faints. But Jim tells her she imagined it (dude, give it up, she’s handling the vampire thing with aplomb) and they talk about what’s been going on.

“I feel the only one I can depend on is Barnabas.”

“I warned you about him.”

She nodded. “I know his secret and I’m sorry for him…he fights against the curse as best he can.” (Ross, 95-96)
Marjorie, you have literally had one conversation with him ever. Oh yeah, and he attacked you the night you arrived. Just in case you forgot.

So now we have a pretty solid ensemble cast coming together. Barnabas and Quentin are officially both in town, Julia’s on her way, and we have two aliens in place. But we know there’s a third, having witnessed Roger and Murdoch talking to it, and the big confrontation can’t happen until all parties are accounted for. And that’s where Don comes in! The aliens sabotage his speedboat in a race and he dies, so they can replace him with a body snatcher.

Don Ardell replied firmly, “There will be no body. I was there with him until the last moment…And when the explosion came there was nothing left for him to be identified by." (Ross, 109)

That’s … surprisingly awful, actually. Couldn’t they kidnap him, too? But with the third body snatcher at Collinwood, the scene is set. Time for Barnabas and Quentin to put aside their unexplained differences and conquer the aliens.

The Barnabas and Quentin scenes are something Ross consistently does well in these books and the interaction between them is always fun to read. It’s a mystery why there’s so much animosity between them, but their barbed conversations are a joy, so it doesn’t matter.

“Your attack on [my landlady] nearly sent me to jail.”

Barnabas met his gaze directly. “It was not meant that you should be blamed.”

“But that was what happened. Fortunately Ms. Vale recovered quickly and made it clear to the sheriff I was innocent.”

“Had she not done so I would have found some way to clear you.”

“How generous of you!” (Ross, 116)
Did Barnabas attack her just to mess with him? I feel like he did.

But then they talk about the real problems at hand and Barnabas reveals that he found the alien spaceship out in the swamp and knows that Roger and Murdoch are alive in a cave. Quentin logically asks why he hasn’t done something with this information, but apparently Barnabas has a realistic assessment of his ability to act alone. Now he (reluctantly) is joining forces with Quentin and they’re heading off to check out that swamp, so you know it’s on.

Back at Collinwood, Carolyn has noticed that Don is different in a bad way, but since everyone thinks he survived a very near death experience, she’s trying to be understanding and let it go. Their relationship was already doomed, though, because out of nowhere we get a twist.

“You think Don is too reckless and headstrong for me?”

“I do,” Barnabas said. “You deserve much better.”

“I know,” she said earnestly, staring up at him. “Barnabas, when this is settled, please take me away with you. Marry me and take me away!” (Ross, 128)

Carolyn. Look at your life. Look at your choices.

But for a change, Barnabas is not down with ill-advised and creepy romance and gently tells her it’s not going to happen. So at least he has that going for him. It’s not a good night for romance, though, because at the same time Quentin is breaking Marjorie’s heart with the revelation that, yes, he really is Quentin. He distracts her from that bit of bad news with the even worse news that her father, Roger, and Don are aliens. Well played, sir.

As it turns out, everyone is having a bad night at the Collins estate because off in the swamp the aliens are struggling with Murdoch’s science notebooks (not feeling so advanced now, are you?) and Murdoch lets them in on a secret he should have told them days ago: that whole mission to Velva? Yeah, it’s not actually possible. Why that wasn’t the first thing he told them, I don’t know, but he waited so long that the aliens don’t totally buy it.

Fortunately for poor Marjorie, who’s about to be kidnapped, Barnabas has a plan: dinner by torchlight. No, really, that’s the plan. And Julia has arrived just in time for Barnabas to reject her, too. Love is just not in the cards in this book.

“I’ve been hoping you’d come to Wyncliffe. I’ve been doing some interesting work at the clinic.”

Barnabas showed a look of melancholy amusement. “Perhaps I’ll do that one day.”

“You don’t even try to sound convincing, do you?” (Ross, 147)

Hearts suitably broken, it’s time for that bit of fiery foreshadowing to come into play, as Barnabas and Quentin terrorize Roger and Murdoch with torches and accuse the body snatchers of being body snatchers. Roger tries to bluster his way out of it, but this is Collinsport where people are willing to believe crazy stuff, so Barnabas just goes for it and kills him.

Marjorie still gets kidnapped, though (of course she does), so the chase is on! This is the inevitable point in a Ross novel where everything happens very quickly. The books are never more than 160 pages and every time the whole thing wraps up in about five. Barnabas rescues Roger and Murdoch, the remaining alien uses Marjorie as a human shield so he can get back in his ship and take off, and there’s a moment when it seems like maybe Quentin is dead, but of course he lives on to break hearts another day.

“Take me with you,” [Marjorie] said, staring up at him.

“Not this time,” he said. “Maybe later. I’ll phone you when I reach New York.” (Ross, 155)

Translation: you will literally never hear from him again.

But hey, with the exception of Don and the three aliens, everybody lives!

Now, having walked you through the whole novel with a lot of snarky commentary, how do I really feel about it? True love. It’s so unique and special and, even when it makes absolutely no sense (why are UFOs so hard to believe, again?), it’s just fun. And fun is what I’m looking for in this series.

BODY SNATCHERS hits a lot of the usual Ross highlights: great dialogue from Barnabas and Quentin, a quirky premise, consistent character voices. It also does some things that are different and I like that about it. Barnabas is not the romantic lead–Marjorie is in love with Quentin and finds Barnabas simultaneously charming and (rightfully) creepy. Julia is actually in it, if only for maybe a dozen pages. There’s no strong central love story. The villains really are evil aliens.

When I said before that this book seems to take place in a pocket universe, I wasn’t kidding. It feels a little bit experimental, like Ross was trying to merge plot from the show (Julia trying and failing to cure Barnabas) with the rest of the book series (Barnabas never having been locked in the casket) with a B movie from the ’50s. I never figured out how and why the whole town knows everything about the Collins family, but eh, that’s fine. Internal continuity isn’t something this series has ever done very well.

Would I recommend reading this masterpiece for yourself? Yes, yes, and more yes. If you are a DARK SHADOWS fan, you should experience it firsthand. There are some dull books in this series, which I will continue to review as a public service (conveniently consolidated right here for your reading pleasure), but this one is a great time. I’ve spent hours with it and it was time well spent.

ALEXIS LATSHAW is a Seattle-based writer and editor who uses her background in literary academia to write essays about TV shows. She blogs about DARK SHADOWS at Josette’s Music Box.

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