Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Dark Shadows, The 1973 Tapes: The House by the Sea


This is my SPOILERS AHEAD. There are many like it but this one is mine.

“Every story has a beginning…”

A funny thing happened the other day here at the Collinsport Historical Society. I had just gotten off the phone with the Mayor of Innsmouth’s assistant. Since that God forsaken burg is our sister city, I have been trying to coordinate more civic events for both towns, in the spirit of macabre community. After both my ideas for a deep sea fishing festival and town genealogy survey were violently shouted down by the man, who sounded like he was talking through a bloody fishtank, one of our couriers dropped off a mysterious box. It had a note from Head Office pinned to the top and the number 1973 stamped on the side.

I looked at the note. It was written in Wallace’s frustratingly precise handwriting. “Sort this.”, it said simply. So, naturally, I opened the box and looked upon its contents; dozens and dozens of audio cassette tapes. After schlepping down to the local library and smooth talking an old player from old man Zarovich, I popped on of the tapes on to see what was on it. I was astonished to find a completely unrecorded swath of Collinsport’s history! Just sitting and waiting for some poor mug to document them all.

I am here to say that I AM THAT POOR MUG and these are the 1973 Tapes! My studious and hopefully fun foray into a previously unwritten about portion of Collinsport history for your reading pleasure, this being the first entry of a new nine part series here at the CHS. Today we are starting with The House by the Sea! Written by James Goss, directed by Joseph Lidster, and starring a personal favorite Doctor of mine (@ me all you want) Colin Baker! The goal of this new column is to not only keep me busy so I don’t keep prank calling Innsmouth pizza joints on the clock (they are weirdly defensive when you order anchovies on stuff) but to also fill in some much needed gaps in my own Dark Shadows knowledge. Hopefully this will provide some pre-Bloodlust context for me in the lead up to it’s sequel! Plus this series was the most requested arc from fans, listeners, and even some members of the Big Finish production staff so if I don’t cover it, I fear we may have a riot on our hands. Anywhoozlebee, let’s get started, shall we!? 

Meet Gerald Conway. He’s a mess. He has suffered a heart attack, lost his law practice, and was recently dumped by his wife. On top of all of that, for months he has been plagued with dreams. Dreams of a house by the ocean in a sleepy Maine town called Collinsport. On the urging of his therapist, Gerald has decided to go to Collinsport and engage in some good old fashioned immersion therapy, recording the whole trip so he can discuss it with his doctor afterward.

At first I was struck at the similarities between this story and Snowflake. Both featured doomed men recording their final days in Collinsport, having been summoned there by supernatural means. But as I found, this story is far nastier and far, far more entrenched in Dark Shadows lore than that prequel story was. It is that nastiness and the deep continuity that it makes great use do that sets this story apart. Lidster’s direction here also gets a lot more out of the concept than Snowflake did. Throughout the story, the sound design makes meal out of the idea, assaulting listeners with all manner of analog clicks and pops from Gerald’s recorder and microphone. The latter actually providing some low-fi realism to the tale as sometimes Gerald will futz and fiddle with the microphone, but instead of cutting around or even doing away with these sometimes harsh sounds, Lidster leans into it, heightening the eerieness of the script.

And speaking of script, Goss’ is a real belter. I was somewhat worried going into this one that it wouldn’t hold my attention as well as a full cast story would, but Goss delivers plenty for listeners to chew on even with its solo narrator and centralized setting. Given a dynamic life by Baker, Goss’ script delves into the richly creepy history of Seaview, the sad history of Tom Jennings, and the evil machinations of Nicolas Blair, culminating in a finale that seems ripped straight from a creepypasta forum. I am also guessing that Blair’s reintroduction sets up some more stuff that will hopefully be paid off in the rest of this arc and I for one am really excited. We don’t really get much mention of Seaview outside of the TV canon (at least not to my knowledge) so it is really refreshing for a layman like me to get to experience other landmarks of Collinsport instead of just the biggest “tourist” destinations like Collinwood and the Old House.

And there is also the matter of Colin Baker, who seriously impresses from start to finish. We get some vague hints of his doom during the production heavy opening, but Baker charms early on, even with that knowledge. Baker even goes a step further, branching out from his own performance into, for lack of a better term, impressions of some of Collinsport’s best known figures like Dr. Julia Hoffman, Elizabeth Stoddard, and even Barnabas Collins! That may sound a bit hammy on paper, but Baker sells it well, mimicking the original actor’s cadences and tones with uncanny accuracy. I didn’t know I needed to hear the Sixth Doctor talking like Grayson Hall before I heard The House by the Sea, but I am really, really glad I did.

And with that, I can safely declare The House by the Sea a rousing success. Accessible, but also drenched in that trademark Dark Shadows dread, this story really cuts to the horrifying heart of the property with a clever framing device, a canny script, and a powerhouse leading man. I wanted to cover this story based on the novelty of hearing Colin Baker playing around in the Dark Shadows sandbox, but I was delighted to find a genuinely creepy and well produced story. Pretty much the best case scenario when it comes to opening a new column.

One down, eight more to go, creeps! Covering Bloodlust was really fun, but I might be more excited about this arc than I was doing Bloodlust. Just from the tone of this one, I think these stories will bring that sweet, sweet pulp that I so crave, while also finally filling in all the gaps I had in my experience having gone into Bloodlust relatively cold. Here in a second I will post the whole list that I plan to cover, should you want to follow along with me! And if you do, don’t be a stranger! Shoot me an e-mail or @ me on Twitter to let me know how I’m doing or even to just say hello! Everybody loves getting mail. All these stories are available in both digital and physical formats on the Big Finish website. Wallace and I are also going to try and repost some older reviews of these stories with the new reviews as I think we are going to overlap just a touch during this new column. I sincerely cannot wait.

#34. Beneath the Veil (NEXT TIME!)
#35. The Enemy Within
#36. The Lucifer Gambit.
#37. The Flip Side
#38. Beyond the Grave (starring light of my life Kate Ripperton!)
#40. The Harvest of Souls
#41. The Happier Dead (which I have been told it super duper scary)
#42. Carriage of the Damned

The complete 1973 saga:

Justin Partridge has always loved monsters and he thinks that explains a lot about him. When he isn’t over analyzing comics at Newsarama or ranting about Tom Clancy over at Rogues Portal, he is building Call of Cthulhu games, spreading the good word of Anti-Life, or rewatching Garth Marenghi's Darkplace for the dozenth time. He can be reached at the gasping Lovecraftian void that is Twitter @j_partridgeIII or via e-mail at justin@betweenthepanels.com Odds are he will want to talk about Hellblazer.

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