Jonathan Frid is on the cover of "Barnabas Collins," the 1968 Dark Shadows novel by Marilyn Ross, but he's otherwise absent from the book. You might even argue that Barnabas Collins, at least the character you might know from the television show, is also absent from the tale. A vampire bearing that name makes his way through the course of the story but, unguided by Frid's peculiar wounded menace and a staff of writers that understood how to find humanity even in the most inhuman of characters, there's not much in the story will look familiar to fans of the television series.
And that's OK. It might even be a good thing, even if the results are often not that good.
Tie-in properties are so tightly managed today that they rarely ever surprise. There's no place for innovation in stories intentionally designed not to affect the events around it. No matter the level of crisis introduced, we'll find our plucky heroes right back at square one by the end of the story. A Hollywood studio spent $200 million on the next movie in their blockbuster series and they're certainly not going to have their narrative upended by some $5 book.
The rules were different for tie-in proprieties when Dark Shadows hit the airwaves in 1966. Back then, these things were just products to be dumped on shelves, and little thought was given to whether or not they were any good. There were efforts taken to maintain a basic level of continuity (if you did nothing else, you had to at least make sure Spock, Napoleon Solo and Will Robinson's names were all spelled correctly) but after that all bets were off. It's just too difficult to maintain continuity between a monthly comic series and a weekly television series. The people that should have been doing quality control on these products were otherwise occupied, leaving those details to lawyers only concerned with making sure the networks and production companies got paid.
Dark Shadows had the additional complication of being a daily series. Whole characters and storylines would be over before the the next Marilyn Ross novel would hit stands, no matter how quickly they were cranked out. Trying to make these narratives line up was impossible, so Ross didn't even try. Besides, Ross (actually Dan Ross, a one-man gothic romance factory who wrote more than 300 novels under a variety of pen names) couldn't watch the show at his home in Canada, anyway. The end result was a line of books that only occasionally resembled the television series, usually by accident.
The same was true (to various degrees) for the Dark Shadows comics published by Gold Key, the daily newspaper strip and the two feature films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. (Both movies killed off characters that were still appearing on the daily on the television series.) Just to make things even more difficult, the daytime serial even dabbled in parallel timelines, giving fans an almost endless buffet of interpretations.
While I've usually enjoyed seeing how the characters and situations from Dark Shadows might have developed in the hands of other creators, the differences can be quite jarring for even the most hardcore fan. And, if you don't already love the series, you might be less patience with Ross's seat-of-his-pants style of storytelling. He wrote more than 30 Dark Shadows novels in six years, as well as dozens of others during the same time frame. It's unsurprising that he was unable to maintain a continuity with the television series, but he was also unable to keep the facts straight in his own novels. The books frequently contradict each other. "Barnabas Collins" manages the stunning feat of contradicting itself.
This is the situation that Sara and Courtney wandered into with latest installment of the Bodice Tipplers podcast. To say they were confused is an understatement. If you're looking for an explanation for Dark Shadows' appeal, you ain't gonna find it in this book. It was kind of a lose-lose situation for everybody involved, not the least of which was Dan Ross. The novel was likely begun when Barnabas Collins was still intended to be a one-off villain on Dark Shadows in 1967. By the time the book hit the stands in November 1968, the character had become an unlikely pop idol and sex symbol. But the Barnabas Collins depicted in "Barnabas Collins" was a sexual predator with a penchant for grooming young girls into his service, a character that hardly earns the "America's grooviest ghoul" starburst plastered on the back cover. There's little fun to be had here, save for the archaeological kind.
To summarize: "Barnabas Collins" is a novel written by a man using a pseudonym about a television series he didn't watch, showcasing a character that had changed radically between the time the book was started and published, and features a supporting cast of characters that has almost nothing to do with anything seen on the daytime serial. Confused yet?
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