Saturday 6 February 2016

Dr. Wotan's Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Dark Shadows - The Marilyn Ross Novels

2016 is proving to be a very exciting year for Dr. Wotan.    Coming up in April 2016 will be the publishing by HarperCollins of a new Tolkien book I have co-edited with the brilliant Dr. Dimitra Fimi - A Secret Vice - J.R.R. Tolkien On Invented Languages  which will include hitherto unpublished Tolkien material (a true 'staggerment' project indeed) - I am also currently teaching an online course on 'Language Invention through Tolkien' for Mythgard Institute/Signum University.

I am also due to give papers on various subjects around Tolkien and Language Invention in Fiction at

So if I can manage to limit my time on Lord of the Rings Online (I blame Professor Corey Olsen's recent brilliant 'Chicken Run' to raise funding for Signum University) I should get all this (and more!)  done.

But another project I have set myself for 2016 is one that will celebrate my favourite television show of all time and the body of mythology that has been developed from it - Dark Shadows.

2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of this unique pioneering show which debuted on June 27, 1966.  Americans had never before encountered on day-time television (the domain of game shows and weepy soap operas) this unique gothic tale which thanks to a dedicated team of writers and a stellar company of actors and actresses (many playing multiple roles in various time periods) created one of the most complex liminal worlds for a televisions series which had its focus on the brooding mansion on the hill - Collinwood - the great house which hosted ghosts, phoenixes, witches, vampires, werewolves and zombies.

The original show ran for over 1200 episodes (I am in my third cycle of watching the entire series on DVD) and drew from some of the greatest tropes of horror, fantasy, and weird literature as well as related science-fiction themes especially time travel and through inter-dimensions via parallel time.  It grew from the original television series, to movies, several reboots of the television series, games and trading cards.  Most recently additional 'texts' have added to and extended the mythology with the excellent Big Finish Audio Dramas and novels - several written by the original cast members - and we are very excited to hear that Lara Parker (aka Angelique the witch) has written a new one which is coming out later this year (recently released cover picture here)  

All of these texts and inter-texts work together in the minds of watchers and fans to create what I characterise as 'the mythos of Collinwood'.  This is an example of what Mark J.P. Wolf explores in his seminal text Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation; namely how different layers of 'texts' (in all forms) work together to build a secondary-world - in this case not an immersive world (like in Tolkien's legendarium) nor a portal world (as in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series) but a liminal world - in our world but not quite (for example, why were there no televisions at Collinwood in the 'modern-day story-lines?).

There is already some brilliant activities planned for the 50th Anniversary.  The foremost authority on Dark Shadows Jim Pierson has recently given two brilliant interviews on the Podcast Radio Retropolis and Big Finish is planning a new series of Dark Shadows Bloodlust (with original and new cast members) and more audio dramas.

What I thought would be interesting would be to go back and explore some of the earliest para-texts that were developed around the broadcast of the original television series (as audiences at the same time became familiar with the characters and story line).   One of the earliest examples of this extension of the narrative of the day-time television show - is a series of Paperback Library books.   Starting in December 1966 they began issuing books based on the TV series Dark Shadows which had just begun broadcasting in June of that year.  Paperback Library published 33 novels in this series through 1972 - all written by Marilyn Ross which is a pen name for William Edward Daniel Ross - a Canadian writer - who wrote mysteries, westerns and gothic fiction under many various pen names.  For the Dark Shadows novels Dan Ross (as he was known) used his wifes name Marilyn.  In the 1990's the author of the excellent Barnabas and Company Craig Hamrick interviewed him  - he said he watched enough of the show 'to keep up'.

I have been collecting these books over the years (my first one 'The Phantom and Barnabas Collins' was purchased at a Dark Shadows convention in New York and is signed by the legendary Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins) himself.  So I thought in this anniversary year it would be fun and interesting to read the Ross texts and use this blog to explore how they add to and contextualise the 'Dark Shadows mythos'.

The first book in the series is appropriately called 'Dark Shadows' and was published in December 1966 and reprinted several times - my edition is April 1969 (the eighth printing).

The cover of my edition clearly draws from the television series but what I found interesting is the cover has Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins and Alexander Moltke as Victoria Winters with a good grabber headline 'Mysterious Footsteps in the night terrify Victoria Winters at Collins House - a mansion haunted by legends of murder, madness and evil'.   Funny enough Barnabas Collins never appears in this story (apparently Willie Loomis had not unchained his coffin yet!), the picture is clearly taken in the Old House and in the text the name of the house on the hill in not 'Collinwood' but Collins House!  The picture itself looks like it comes from the post-1795 timeline when Barnabas bites Vicky (notice the scarf on her neck) to make her forget about her travel to 1795 and attempts to take her away (only to have an automobile accident and be 'cured' of his vampirism for a time by Dr. Lang).

According to the Paperback Library notes the first edition was printed with an illustrated cover (left) and then re-released in 1967 with a cover that had Victoria and Louis
Edmonds (Roger Collins) who is in the novel on it (right).

By the edition I have (from April 1969) the publishers were clearly using the popularity of the reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins to sell books (and the same would happen in later books with David Selby as Quentin Collins).

Interestingly the same picture from the eighth  edition (from a slightly different angle) was used on another volume in the series - Strangers at Collins House (to be reviewed in an upcoming post!)

The text of this novel is a slightly revised telling of Victoria Winters arriving in Collinsport from the television series.  Ross sets the gothic mood from the start with 'The Ominous clouds of the October afternoon had warned of bad weather on the way and now the threat was being fulfilled' (5) (an echo of the shows leitmotiv of their never being good weather at Collinwood!).  The same themes of Victoria coming to Collinsport from the New York Foundling Home (placed there years before and possibly linked to the Collins) having been mysteriously offered a position to be the governess of the rascal David Collins by the matriarch of 'Collins-House' - Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (who herself has not left 'Collins House' for 18 years!) is all taken from the original plot of the television series.   Just as on the television series we have the scene of Victoria talking to the waitress Maggie Evans who tells Victoria 'I mean Collins House is a real kookie place!' (7) and she introduces Victoria, and the reader, to the cast of characters living at the mansion on the hill.   Historical depth in the narrative is established when Maggie tells Victoria that Jeremiah Collins built Collins House in 1830 (although entirely inconsistent with the later story-line of Joshua Collins building the 'New House' in 1795-6).   Later Elizabeth Collins tells Victoria as she looks at his picture in the drawing room of 'Collins House' 'that's the man who built Collins House, my great-grandfather, Jeremiah Collins.  He was one of the most outstanding of our line.  It was he who began the fishing firm as well.' (23)   The 'confusion' between Jeremiah and Joshua Collins as the founding patriarch is clearly taken from the earlier story-lines of Dark Shadows before the 1795 story-line which established Joshua Collins (played brilliantly by Louis Edmonds) as the patriarch and father to Barnabas Collins. The first Collins to land from the Mayflower Isaac Collins is mentioned by Roger Collins as well (26).

In terms of history one of the most interesting passages Ross writes actually goes to the heart of why there is a curse on the Collins Family (long before Judah Zachary and Miranda DuVal were thought up) and it is around the place of all tragedy in Dark Shadows - Widows' Hill:

'Long before Jeremiah Collins built his mansion here, this was a sort of common gathering ground....In those days all the men of the village were fisherman and they would put out to sea for their catch and remain away often for days at a time.  Often storms would come up unexpectedly and since this was the highest point of land, their wives would come up here and watch anxiously for the boats to return...Only too often they never did come back to Collinsport.  And it was on this very hill that the wives realised it had come their turn to be widows.  Many tears had been shed on this very point of land......When Jeremiah bought the land he refused to let any of the townspeople use it and so the waiting wives would come here no more.  They cursed my ancestor and wished bad luck on all his kin.
It seems the curse had power.  None of the families have been happy here.
First to suffer Josette, the French bride for whom Jeremiah built Collins-House.  She threw herself from this cliff, down the full hundred feet to her death.  And there have been others since then.' (43 - my emphasis)

An interesting passage grounding the curse that would plague the Collins family in the Widows (who are heard in the television series wailing 'Elizabeth!') Also notice the use of Jeremiah/Josette story line which would become fleshed out and revised by the arrival of Barnabas and the 1795 story line (by the time this book was first published Josette has appeared as a ghost in the Old House in episode 70 broadcast on September 30, 1966).  

While most of the characters remain the same as the television series (although the caretaker Matthew Morgan is known as Matt Morgan!).  Carolyn is written very much with the vivacious actress Nancy Barrett in mind, David is his early series mischievous self and there are brief mentions of 'his mother' (hinting at the Lara Colllins Phoenix story line which clearly Ross did not want to engage with in this novel).  Roger comes off a bit more sleazy than the way Louis Edmonds played him (although both the book and television Roger both endulge in the drawing room brandy snifter).  There are brief peripheral appearances for more involved television characters such as Joe Haskell and the mysterious Burke Devlin (who Ross brings in towards the end of the novel as a possible link to Victoria's own secret).

For me the most interesting addition to this text is the character of Ernest Collins who is an entirely made-up character (and tells Victoria the curse story above).  This character does not appear anywhere in the television texts.  Ernest Collins is a classical violinist (musicians are a rarity in Dark Shadows saving the Victorian music hall singer Pansy Faye and Bruno Hess in the 1970 Parallel time story-line based on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) who drives most of the plot of the story that follows and serves as one of two love-interests for Victoria in this story (the other is the lawyer Will Grant).  Ernest has several secrets around his former wife who supposedly fell to her death from Widow's Hill which serves as one of the possible sources of the 'mysterious footsteps' that threatens Victoria during her stay at Collin House. Ross is clever here as 'he' juxtaposes this new story line with the one that would have been more familiar to those who watched the show - namely the possible reason why Elizabeth Stoddard Collins had not left 'Collins House; for 18 years - with the suspicion that she killed her husband, Paul Stoddard, and buried his body in the cellar (a no-go area for Victoria).

This first story is a good engaging Gothic thriller that certainly draws from Jane Eyre for its spine tingling conclusion (there is more in Collins House than meets the eye!).  Readers would have recognised many of the characters and story-lines from the television series but this text not only offers a novelisation of the early story-line of the television series but also builds new texts into the mythos (such as the character of Ernest Collins).   Ross also established Victoria Winters at 'Collins-House' and sets up further stories with the concluding paragraph -

'In the meantime she would go on as governess to David.  She would live on here in this quaint village and try to pry further into her secret past.  She could not easily forget her meeting with the mysterious Burke Devlin and wondered if he might be able to help her.  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 loveable, and she could get to know the gracious Elizabeth Collins Stoddard better in the strange old mansion by the sea,  Collins House!' (159) 

And waiting on another part of the Estate behind a lion mouth guarded wall in the Collins Mausoleum  another member of the Collins family would eventually meet Victoria Winters - but that is for another posting!

My 50th Anniversary Dark Shadows exploration has begun!

Blog Archive