“Death is a valid reason.”
TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? Writing about Dark Shadows every day has sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Well, not the whole story. There’s, like, 800 more episodes; we’d be here all night. But let’s see if we can focus on the next twenty-two minutes.
That first paragraph is stolen, of course, from the opening of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”. I figure it’s okay for me to borrow stuff from Poe, because Lord knows the Dark Shadows writers sure did.
We’ve heard faint echoes of “The Tell-Tale Heart” several times so far, starting with the pounding heartbeat sound that startled Willie Loomis when he unchained Barnabas’ coffin back in episode 210. The latest outbreak was just last Friday, when Reverend Trask was plagued by a spectral voice that only he could hear, mocking him and accusing him of persecuting the innocent.
Today, we’re doing an even more direct lift from Poe’s 1846 story, “The Cask of Amontillado”. If you don’t know the story, it’s basically a cautionary tale about hanging out with people who talk about wine all the time. I live in San Francisco, and you have no idea how helpful Poe’s warning has been for me.
The thing that’s interesting about both “Cask” and “Telltale Heart” — and the thing that makes them particularly relevant for Dark Shadows‘ appropriation — is that they’re character studies of insanity, told from the point of view of a cold-blooded, calculating murderer.
These aren’t mystery stories — you know right up front that the narrator is planning to take his revenge on the victim, although in both cases the specific motive for the crime is shadowy and unclear. The horror that the reader feels comes from the unsettling experience of sharing the maniac’s point of view, as he develops and executes his plan.
And boy, does that sound familiar; we’ve been doing ride-alongs with Barnabas for months, as he plots to destroy practically everyone he comes across. Today, it’s Reverend Trask’s turn in the role of victim.
This is somehow vaguely related to Trask’s successful conviction of governess Victoria Winters on charges of witchcraft, but it’s a tenuous connection. We’re really just doing this because torture is fun, and we didn’t have anything else to do today.
Trask tells Nathan about a dream that he had last night, where he saw the spirits of Abigail and Maude, and he was told to go to the Old House on the Collins estate to learn some terrifying secrets. Nathan’s been developing some theories about what’s been going on at the Old House, and he tries to warn Trask, leading to some extremely Dark Shadows-y dialogue.
Nathan: If I were to tell you that to go there would mean your certain destruction… would you still go?
Trask: What do you mean?
Nathan: Certainly you understand the meaning of the word “destruction”.
Trask: Are you sure you’re not the one who’s imagining things, or is there something you know that you’re not telling me?
Nathan: I just wouldn’t go there, if I were you.
Trask: But you give me no valid reason!
Nathan: Death is a valid reason.
And yeah, I guess it is at that. But obviously Trask isn’t going to follow Nathan’s advice, because this is a story, and if characters listened to sensible and cautious advice, we’d never get anything done. Warnings in horror stories are basically just a kind of sound effect that establishes atmosphere, like thunder, or dogs howling, or a Michael Giacchino score.
Over at the Old House, Barnabas is making complicated preparations for the evening’s entertainment, including writing a lengthy note about tombs and death and clocks, for Trask to read before he descends into the cellar.
The note’s a bit weird and time-wastey, but the “Cask of Amontillado” narrator goes on and on about his preparation too, so at least it’s true to the source material. Also, we’ve got 22 minutes to fill, so why not.
Trask is lured by Abigail’s ghostly voice, calling for him to come to the Old House. This is actually more Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion than Poe, but again, you have to do something.
At this point, they try a completely new kind of sound effect. Abigail’s voice is calling, “Trask… Trask…” He yells “No!” and the sound of his voice echoes, getting louder and more discordant until it suddenly cuts out. It’s not easy to describe this, because it really doesn’t sound like anything else on television. I have absolutely no reference point that I can use as an analogy.
They do the same sound effect later on — Trask cries out when he understands the fate in store for him, and you get the weird, loud reverberating echo effect. I don’t remember if they ever do this particular effect again; this may have been an experiment that didn’t quite work, so they dropped it. It’s definitely weird and distinctive, but it draws attention to itself as an artificial sound effect construction.
Trask makes his way to the cellar, where he finds Barnabas’ coffin, and they do the pounding heartbeat again, for bonus double Poe points. Can I get a Nevermore?
Barnabas finally appears, and gives Trask one of those lifetime performance reviews that he’s been offering his victims lately, as a kind of pre-death exit interview.
This is actually a departure from the “Cask” model. In Poe’s story, the victim doesn’t know that he’s walking towards his gruesome death. In fact, a great deal of the murderer’s pleasure comes from tricking his prey into participating in his own destruction without realizing it.
But let’s get to the main event, which is securing Trask to a brass ring in an alcove, and then building a brick wall to trap him inside.
This is the big visual set piece, and actually there’s not a lot else to Poe’s story. Once the last brick is in place, there’s only two more sentences, and one of them is in Latin. Really, the point of the story is over once the murder plan is complete.
So it turns out that throwing an Edgar Allan Poe tale into Dark Shadows creates a memorable moment with a fun visual hook, but it isn’t really very story-productive. There’s no second act to “The Cask of Amontillado”, no police investigation or stealthy cover-up. The killer is triumphant, Fortunato is punished, and that’s all.
Other literary influences on the show — Jane Eyre, Dracula, Frankenstein, even Varney the Vampire — are complete, full-length narratives, offering lots of room for surprise twists and ongoing story development. But it turns out that Poe’s stories are too limited in scope to offer more than a day’s worth of story.
It’s worth doing, because it gives the show a satisfying way to destroy Trask, and Dark Shadows will return to both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” later in the series. We’ll also see ideas borrowed from “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and “The Premature Burial”. Poe has definitely left some fingerprints on the show, but it’s not the perfect fit that you might expect.
Tomorrow: Fan Club.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the Trask/Nathan scene, there’s a moment when both actors lose their place in the script. It happens while Trask is sitting on his bed, right after he says “Lure me?” It’s hard to tell which one of them slips first, but there’s a long moment when it’s clear that neither one knows who’s supposed to talk next. They sweat through it, and get back on track.
When Barnabas appears in the cellar, Trask gasps, “Barnabas Collins! But — you’re dead!” How does Trask know that? The cover story was supposed to be that everyone thought Barnabas went to England. It appears to be the worst-kept secret in Collinsport, but a lot of Nathan’s current story depends on him thinking that Barnabas is alive, and hiding in the Old House.
Tomorrow: Fan Club.
— Danny Horn