Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Dark Shadows Audi-O-Rama #1: The House of Despair

Audi-O-Rama #1: The House of Despair

By Justin Partridge 

Dark Shadows: The House of Despair 

Starring: David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, John Karlen, Ursula Burton, and Jamison Selby

Written by: Stuart Manning

Directed by: Gary Russell

Baby, Can Ya Dig Your SPOILERS AHEAD?

He’s a Righteous SPOILERS AHEAD.

Tell Me, Baby, Can Ya Dig Your SPOILERS AHEAD?

“I thought that if I ran fast enough I need never turn back, but now I find myself compelled to return. 

Just as I always knew I would be.” 

What’s this?! An audio review! From ME?!

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, dear readers. I have returned to the fake cobweb-encrusted shores of Collinsport. Much like Quentin Collins, I did so roam the world before my return to you now. I followed the Devil Hulk through his night-bound exploits in the desert. I followed Ol’ Shellhead, Iron Man, to the farthest reaches of space in pursuit of Korvac. And in between, I visited Gotham City (shockingly great public transit), Krakoa (shockingly great mutant coffee), and even Otherworld (shockingly awful magicks-based law enforcement).

But all the while, my heart yearned always for my beloved Collinsport. The rolling fog, the constant cosmic dread, it’s wobbly constructed interiors and exteriors. It left a real void in my heart not having all that with me every day. That longing was further stoked by my colleagues here at the CHS sending me regular correspondence and my still-active subscription to The Collinsport Star. But after a horrid layover weekend in accursed Bangor and quite a lot of impassioned persuasion (nee: tearful begging) to Upstairs, I have returned to my old desk here at the CHS! It’s even by one of the windows this time. I am very lucky.

And I fully plan on using it! The desk, not the window. It’s all terribly exciting, I’m sure. But I want it to be fun too! I have a lengthy plan on what we will be discussing here at Audi-O-Rama but I am trying to leave myself open to covering other things here too. Things that might slightly deviate from the list I have already, with approval from Upstairs, of course. 

As of now the general idea is a “Dark Shadows at Big Finish Retrospective” approach. Meaning I will be tackling every single Dark Shadows release from Big Finish Productions. Alongside some other coverage of things I’ve already started writing on. Such as the Marlyin Ross audiobooks and The Tony & Cassandra Mysteries.

Some we will be double-covering, like Bloodlust/Bloodline and the 1973 Storyline. But I think I definitely have more to say on the ones we’ve discussed before! Armed also with the broader experience tackling these (and more!) from the start. 

And speaking of the start, here we are now with a true blue blast from the early Aughts past; 2006’s The House of Despair. Big Finish Productions’ first time at-bat with Dark Shadows. And one that stands up pretty well as a functional and user-friendly reboot of the franchise. 

Spearheaded by Stuart Manning and Gary Russell, two names that should be very familiar to the Whovians amongst you, The House of Despair is a novel, if a bit basic “re-pilot” for this “new” era of Dark Shadows.

We open, as is tradition, on someone on a train. Bound for the town at the edge of the world. But this isn’t just any ol’ someone. It’s Quentin Collins, played once again by the immediately activated and charming David Selby. Forgive me a brief tangent, but I fully knew that a lot of these were going to be heavy on Selby’s Quentin, but I still got a total thrill and instant warmth hearing Selby inhabit the role. Quentin and Selby overall are both very, very important to me as a person and creative, so I think all of these audios will have a slight (and wholly unobjective) edge being so focused on him.

Better still, Selby totally comes back wholly reformed and confident in the part as well! Usually you would expect a bit of “ring rust” when it came to someone coming back to a role for the first time (2006 time, that is) since the 70s. But with Selby’s Quentin, from the first scene on the ever-implacable Collinsport Express on, he’s absolutely on. Charmingly anchoring the three-part, sixteen chapter serial and bantering beautifully with the rest of the returning cast. As if no time had passed between the final slate and now/2006.

EVEN BETTER, the whole production has allowed his own age to seep into his characterization. Manning and Russell do some dancing this serial around his immortal status in this first tale, as they are also somewhat dancing further around Collinsport’s whole deal in the wake of the final TV episode. Leaving it more nebulous in the now as to try and build it out later. But with that lack of plot, what comes shining through is Selby’s performance in concert with the rest of the returning vets. All of whom return to their roles with the same gusto and activation as Selby.

One of the great strengths of The House of Despair is how it’s not ignoring the dearth of time between the final TV episode and this “new” episode. Neither is it’s cast. Though everyone is positioned in a narratively sound starting position when we start (Maggie now owns The Inn and works there still while a new family owns the Blue Whale, Anqelique has “died” and haunts the Sea Cave, The Collins family are “missing”,and Barnabas is presumed dead) Russell, Manning, and their cast allow these icons to be actually older. Having changed and settled (for the most part) realistically in the time between those last credits and now.

However, while the returning cast members provide The House of Despair plenty of charge for the diehard fans while selling the “feel” of Dark Shadows for newbies, it’s plot is a mite thin when compared to the aforementioned charge. I think much of this is coming from the fact that Manning and Russell have so much stuff to set up for the incoming range. 

Quentin Collins has returned to Collinsport, but the strange happenings that have plagued the town have remained. Manifesting this time around as a gaggle of soulless and memory-less townspeople called “The Lost”, controlled by the creature known as Mr. Strix. Who has taken up residence in the abandoned Collinwood. The perfect place for an interdimentional demon in control of a massive murder of crows filled with the “Lost’s” human souls. 

In order to banish Strix from his ancestral home, Quentin enlists the help of Willie Loomis and a resurrected Angelique. The former being the only real connection left to the ancient house and the town that bears its name. Loomis being left in the wake of the Collins’ family exodus. John Karlen…he was just the best, y’all.

Naturally, this leads to a sonically pleasing showdown with the demon and our now assembled “new” cast. For physical and metaphysical ownership of the ancient mansion. Which is then bolstered further in favor of our anti-heroes by the debut of the “regenerated” Barnabas Collins. Played assuredly by the darkly charming Andrew Collins, one of my absolute favorite performers in all of Big Finish Productions. Alongside Ursla Burton and Jamison Selby’s Susan and Ed Griffin, new owners of The Blue Whale. Who we know grow to full on co-stars of the range later down the line. Burton, especially, transitioning from behind the mic to behind the scenes!

If this sounds like a lot of moving parts, it totally is. But worse still, it doesn’t really seem like the properly big ideas that the range became known for. Strix, his soul-birds, and The Lost are all neat ideas and could maybe serve as a serviceable “monster of the week” in another serial separately. But trying to jam them together on top of how much work is being put into resetting the core cast and Collinsport, post TV hiatus. It just seems like too-little butter scraped over too much bread. 

Especially when the REAL GOOD bread and butter is all the setting up of our legacy characters! Using such powerfully weird iconography such as Barnabas’ ring, Quentin’s “Graveyard of Memories” liminal space, and even the very real estate of Collinsport and Collinwood, Manning and Russell really bait the hook nicely for their resurrected take on Dark Shadows

Where they choose to pick up with our main cast members too shows a sort of canny and basic malleability. No one, save Barnabas really, is in a wholly unexpected place. Angelique still haunts the town. Maggie has transitioned from one pillar of the community (Collinwood) to another (Collinsport Inn). And now Quentin has returned, robbed of his memories largely and eager to build a new life as the primary Collins of the old great house. It’s a neat starting position to go from.

Which Manning and Russell waste little time upending slightly! Thanks to a timely bite from the brand new Barnabas to the injured neck of Willie! Being just a highly soused human facing a literal demon, Willie is waylaid in the battle of Collinwood. Forcing Barnabas, spurred on by the gloating Angelique, to spread his vampire curse to Willie. Now WHERE have we seen THIS before? This is Dark Shadows 1301. Facing us normal ham-and-eggers against actual monsters and various cosmic horrors interspersed with some choice high drama. This is basic stuff, people!

No, not basic. That’s not the right word. It’s comfortable. Both in terms of production and execution. The House of Despair eases us back into the dreary, but weirdly engaging world of Dark Shadows. Shepherded by voices, creatives, and characters we’ve known for years who seemingly haven’t lost a single step. 

It made me so, so happy to be back. And so, so excited to hear where we get to next. 


  • This is going to be something I try here, akin to the old AV Club “Stray Observations” sections. Basically just a spot for all the random junk I think of that I can’t fit into the review proper and/or direct appeals to y’all, our dear readers.
  • Gary Russell as a writer is someone I have a real personal connection to. It was nice seeing that he’s involved so heavily in this first stretch of audios. 
  • He wrote my first proper introduction to the Fifth Doctor. Divided Loyalties from the BBC Books Past Doctor Adventures novels. Which I read and reread like a thousand times before I ever saw frame one of a Peter Davison serial. I freaking loved that book and I am STILL trying to find a copy to rebuy that won’t cost me one of my kidneys. 
  • Also very happy to hear Robert Cobert’s original music pieces all over this opening serial. It’s baked into my whole idea of Dark Shadows at the DNA level, so I’m always happy to hear it. Doubly so to hear it used so well. 

Next Time: The Book of Temptation! A Maggie Evans story! Quentin/Angelique team ups! Dr. Grace Holloway from Doctor Who! Be seeing you, Spiders From Mars


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 Odds are he will want to talk about Hellblazer.

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