Tuesday, February 9, 2016

DARK SHADOWS: Re-imagined as a generic gothic pulp

On April 1, 1987, author Dan Ross was among the guests on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN. It wasn’t the quality of his work that made Ross, a purveyor of gothic pulp novels since the early 1960s, an interesting guest for the show. In Letterman’s eyes Ross was a bit of a weirdo, a man with the will power to carve out a niche for himself in an unlikely market. He probably admired that quality and thought it would be funny to let him share the couch that night with Dolly Parton.

“To tell you the truth, (Letterman) didn't really stress any particular books,” Ross told writer Craig Hamrick a few years later. “He stressed the number of books I had written, which seemed to be most interesting to him. But as far as I can remember, there wasn't any mention made of DARK SHADOWS at all.”

Under the pseudonym Marilyn Ross, he wrote 32 original novels in the DARK SHADOWS series, as well as the “novelization” of MGM’s feature film, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. That’s a lot of work, but pales in comparison to his lifetime output: The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia says Ross published 358 novels, 12 plays, and more than 600 short stories in his lifetime.

The original book jacket, left, was redesigned the following year. Barnabas Collins does not appear in this book, though.
But those numbers are a little misleading. Ross was a believer in working smart, not hard. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he didn’t write 358 individual novels as much as he wrote the same book 358 times. As with his spiritual predecessors (people like Lester Dent, Walter Gibson and Norvell Page) Ross frequently worked from a formula. He was obliged to generate a certain number of books every year, meaning that perspiration would always trump inspiration. There's a samey-ness to his work that's unavoidable.

Still, there were glimmers of greatness peppered through his novels. While I’d stop short of calling them "good," I love these stupid, wonderful, plodding romance books. Unencumbered by logic, there’s something sweet and dreamlike about them.

The first book in the series, simply titled “Dark Shadows,” hit stands in December, 1966, about six months after the show debuted on daytime television. The release of this book, as well as the second installment the following March, tells us a lot about producer Dan Curtis’ arrangement with ABC. DARK SHADOWS replaced a teen soap opera called NEVER TOO YOUNG, which starred Tony Dow of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Tommy Rettig of LASSIE and Dack Rambo. That series was axed after a year, airing 192 episodes. Curtis probably felt like he had exactly that long to make DARK SHADOWS work, which is what led to the introduction of Barnabas Collins at roughly the same point in the series that NEVER TOO YOUNG was cancelled.

Ross was not given much to work with when developing the novels, but he was provided a lot of latitude. He was obviously forbidden from resolving any of the show’s long-standing mysteries within the pages of the novels, and many of the supporting players make only obligatory cameos in the first book.  Overall, it gets the story more-of-less right, while also getting most of the specific details wrong.
“The ominous clouds of the October afternoon had warned of bad weather on the way and now the threat was being fulfilled. Victoria Winters sat huddled in a corner of the shabby back seat of the taxi that she'd hired in the village to take her to Collins House, aware of the driving rain and high wind that had come with the darkness of early evening.”
These are the words that introduced Victoria Winters to readers in “Dark Shadows,” and already the imagery of the series has been distorted. Victoria’s haunting midnight train ride is mentioned only in passing, while her destination still clings to an early — and ultimately abandoned — creative decision made during the production of the show’s first episode. The name “Collins House” is one of a few holdovers from the series bible to survive into Ross’ books, while the relative absence of Burke Devlin (described here as a “wealthy, retired eccentric,”) Joe Haskell and Maggie Evans suggests he didn't know how important these characters were supposed to be.

Roger, Elizabeth, David and Carolyn (referred to as “Caroline” in the early chapters before inexplicably changing to the preferred spelling) are all introduced during the first chapter. Matthew Morgan is also hanging around, being creepy … and he’s not alone.

A police officer holds a photo of Jonathan Frid and a copy of Marilyn Ross's "The Curse of Collinwood."
Living on the Collins House estate is cousin Ernest Collins, a widowed concert violists suffering from depression and violent mood swings. He and Victoria meet in a gothic pulp’s twisted version of the Meet Cute: On her first approach to Collins House, Victoria spots a light in the darkness and moves to follow it. Ernest arrives just as she’s about to tumble into an uncovered well … during a thunder storm, no less.
“Bolt your doors well, Miss Winters,” Roger called after her drunkenly. “It’ll make you feel better, anyway, even if it doesn’t lock out all the ghosts!”
Ernest has also left behind him a trail of dead and/or disfigured women in his wake. His wife Elaine: DEAD. His next girlfriend was hit in the face with a LENGTH OF CHAIN. A third was PUSHED from the top of Widows’ Hill. Naturally, people get uncomfortable when Ernest aims his romantic interests at Victoria, a woman who has other problems to deal with.

Yes, we get a tidbit about Victoria’s mysterious heritage, but it’s just lip service. Ross has no intention of solving that riddle in this book, or any other, until after the proper series addresses it. But two plot points from the TV show carry over in some surprising ways. First up, Roger Collins is as menacing here as he was during the first few weeks of the TV series. The show’s bible explained that Roger was originally supposed to be outed as a murderer during the first storyline, which gave Ross permission to play up the character’s flaws. For example, Victoria is replacing the former governess, Mary Gordon, who quit after a rape-y “misunderstanding” with Roger. Victoria has real concerns about being attacked by the man, and comes close to leaving her employ after wondering about the presence of  a secret passage in her room.

Second: What is Elizabeth hiding in the basement? We spent a great many months watching Joan Bennett fondle that silver key around her neck, occasionally using it to check on the mysterious contents of a locked room in the basement of Collinwood. In the series, it’s revealed that Elizabeth and frenemy Paul Stoddard buried her husband’s body in the room (before later discovering they totally didn’t.)

In Ross’s version of the events, there's someone very different living in the locked basement room. The reports of the death of Ernest's first wife  were greatly exaggerated: Liz has been keeping the violent nutcase locked in the basement. You know, in the same house as her 17-year-old daughter and 9-year-old nephew. Parenting!
The sky had grown unusually dark and there was an eerie stillness in the air that warned of oncoming rain. He stood staring at her in the weird false twilight. Very softly he said, "Victoria, you're a remarkable young woman.”
Elaine has little problem with escaping from her room, thanks to the Scooby Doo network of secret passages riddling the mansion. It proves to be remarkable easy for Elaine to ambush Victoria in the halls one evening and frog march her — at knife point — to an observation platform at the top of the mansion. The plan is to push the new governess to her death. After a brief tussle during another convenient thunderstorm, Elaine falls to the rocks below, bring a quick end to this absurd tale.

And WOW, does it end. The romance between Victoria and Ernest blossoms in much the same was as two lovers in a Taylor Swift song: Their “love” had the oppressive desperation of a suicide pact, with no thought given to their lives beyond the moment. It’s incredibly creepy, but we get some measure of resolve when Ernest decides he's leaving town for a while.
The Collins family had come to seem like her own—perhaps one day she would discover this to be true. In any event, she looked forward to the weeks and months ahead. She could cope with Roger; Carolyn was lovable, and she could get to know the gracious Elizabeth Collins Stoddard better in the strange old, old mansion by the sea, Collins House!
Odds Bobbins
  • Isaac Collins arrived in the new world “before the Mayflower dropped anchor” and founded Collinsport.
  • Jeremiah Collins built Collins House in 1830.
  • Roger is pouring brandy when introduced in the book. 
  • Among the non-canon characters we meet here are “lantern jawed” cabbie Henry Jones, Foundling Home Director Charles Fairweather, and Collins family lawyer Will Grant.
  • The 1861 Victorian novel “East Lynne” is mentioned. Wikipedia says the book is “remembered chiefly for its elaborate and implausible plot, centering on infidelity and double identities.” This should give you some insight into Ross’ goals for his “Dark Shadows” novels.

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