“What we did was bury Quentin’s bones. His spirit is still alive, isn’t it?”
There are eight turning points in the history of Dark Shadows — moments where the focus and direction of the show changes permanently. You can’t really talk about the development of the show without these eight pivotal events.
Four of the turning points are character introductions, and four of them are backstage developments. In order, they are:
- the introduction of Barnabas,
- Julia’s offer to cure Barnabas,
- writer Sam Hall joins the show,
- the introduction of Angelique,
- Jonathan Frid’s ten-city publicity tour,
- writer Ron Sproat leaves the show,
- the introduction of Quentin,
- and MGM greenlights House of Dark Shadows.
Today isn’t one of them, by the way. I just thought I’d mention it.
Today’s episode is the first appearance of David Selby playing the ghost of Quentin Collins, a 19th-century ancestor who is destined to become one of Dark Shadows’ MVPs, but at the moment is more of a haunting memory veiled in misty glow.
One of the important things about these turning point characters is that once they join the show, they’re never allowed to leave. In fact, Quentin becomes so crucial to the show that David Selby actually plays four different characters over the next couple years, all of them named Quentin.
If you’re familiar with the upcoming storylines, the roster is: 1897 Quentin, 1970 Parallel Time Quentin, 1840 Quentin, and 1841 Parallel Time Quentin. They’re all different people.
And you could argue that the ghost that we’re meeting today counts as a 5th Quentin, because he isn’t really like any of the others. The real “turning point” Quentin shows up in March, when we take another uncertain and frightening journey into the past.
But we’d better enjoy this ghost while we have him, because he’s not staying long. He only appears on screen for 42 seconds today, and then it’s more than a month before we see him again. They’re doing a storyline that’s kind of inspired by The Turn of the Screw, and the element that’s really faithful to the original story is that the ghosts are silent, and they don’t appear very often.
The two children, David and Amy, made first contact with Quentin using an antique telephone, and he’s led them through the abandoned west wing to find his room, sealed up and hidden behind a wall. For the next several months, the kids will be his spokespeople, relaying messages that they mostly receive telepathically.
Now, you could make the case that giving Quentin a brief appearance in the first scene of a Monday episode and then disappearing for a while makes the character mysterious and thrilling. The audience gets a little taste of the new monster, and then we spend the next month anxiously waiting for him to come back.
But, damn. Four weeks. In the four weeks after her introduction, Angelique was in 17 episodes, and she’d already killed Jeremiah, framed Vicki, forced Barnabas to propose to her, and turned Joshua into a cat. Four weeks is forever.
So here’s David Selby, all muttonchops and eye makeup, trying to figure out what this role is even supposed to be. He’d never heard of Dark Shadows before his audition, and he doesn’t really understand what he’s supposed to do, but he needs a job. David and his wife moved to New York City a couple years ago, and he’s been in some Off-Broadway plays, but he hasn’t clicked yet.
David auditioned for an agent in November 1968, who thought he might be right for a role on a soap opera. The agent sent him to a casting director, who brought him to meet Dan Curtis, the impulsive, impatient creator of Dark Shadows.
Here’s the story, as David wrote in his 2010 memoir, My Shadowed Past:
Dan was a character, a force of nature, a muscular man with a large head, which was topped by ringlets of dark brown hair. He did not like small talk. He had great passion for whatever he did, and he insisted on doing whatever he did his way. He gave me an appraising look and sort of half-smiled — or was it a sneer — it was hard to tell sometimes, but he could light up with a big smile, glad to see you.
Where Marion [the casting director] was warm and motherly, Dan appeared, that first meeting, a little gruff — make that a lot gruff. Maybe that’s why Marion came with me — to hold my hand, give me a reassuring smile. She had probably asked Dan to come to her office and meet some actors for the role he was casting, but he, no doubt, refused. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t need to see every actor in New York. Just bring me a couple.” It was luck, good timing, That’s the way it is sometimes, luck smiles on you. Quentin could have been played by any number of actors. Dan didn’t care where I went to school, if I went to school, or what plays I had been in. Nor did he care that I had no experience in television. Wasn’t interested, flicked it all away with a flip of the hand.
“Who the hell cares?”
So David did a scene from Summer and Smoke with a friend from acting class, and that was it. When he got back to his apartment, he got a message from his answering service that Dark Shadows wanted him to come in for a camera test.
The next afternoon, I walked down Colmbus Avenue, past Lincoln Center, and continued down a tired brown-gray 9th Avenue, winding up at a yellow-reddish brick building with a small sign identifying ABC… I was shown the way onto an empty living room set in front of a camera and cameraman. I was told through a loudspeaker, like a voice from God, to turn this way and that — not to speak, not to emote. After a few minutes, I was excused. The next day, I was told I had the job — doing what I wasn’t sure.
A few days later, David had a contract, a costume, and no lines.
The silence comes from The Turn of the Screw, the 1898 Henry James novella where it’s actually not clear whether the ghosts are meant to be real, or the hallucination of a high-strung governess, or a metaphor for the corruption inherent in a child’s journey toward adulthood.
But The Turn of the Screw is not a story about traveling back into the past so that Peter Quint can become a sexy teen idol with a trading card set and a hit record. It is the opposite of that.
So this isn’t QUENTIN COLLINS, the rising star of Dark Shadows. This is Quentin the unfriendly ghost, a short-term character like Barnabas, Julia and Angelique were supposed to be. All of the important characters stay past the point where they were supposed to leave. That’s the thing about turning points, you don’t notice them until after you’ve already turned.
Quentin’s not the only ghost debuting today; we also get 18 seconds of Beth, a former Collins family governess. She struts onto the set wearing a white gown and an imperious expression, Quentin’s previously unmentioned female counterpart. She doesn’t have any lines either.
Now, the time travellers reading the blog know that Beth isn’t actually the governess, but that’s obviously the intention here. If this storyline is Dark Shadows’ version of The Turn of the Screw — and it’s not, really, but let’s say it is for a minute — then Beth is a governess. Look at her clothes, and the way she carries herself. This is not a low-class domestic.
But you can’t run an exciting daily soap opera spookshow on the little fragments of backstory that The Turn of the Screw provides for Quint and Miss Jessel. They need some real secrets and props, to give everybody something to interact with.
So there’s a skeleton in this closet — the corpse of Quentin Collins, sealed up behind a wall and left to die. There’s also a cradle, which David and Amy collected at the Old House and brought here last week, plus a phonograph, a letter to Jamison, and a curse.
David, now speaking as Quentin, can fill in some of the backstory. “My family has made the two of us very unhappy,” he says. “They must be made to realize that. They must pay for what they’ve done to us.”
So fitting those clues together into the Turn of the Screw model — letter, skeleton, cradle and all — this is the version of the story that I would imagine at this point:
Quentin is a reprobate, the black sheep of the family. He lives on the edge of the west wing, as far away from the rest of the family as you can get and still be indoors. He’s fallen in love with the governess, Beth, but the family doesn’t approve.
Quentin and Beth have a child together, probably out of wedlock. Quentin has a good relationship with Jamison, who’s away from home, and he begs Jamison to come back and intercede with Oscar, the head of the family. Possibly, Jamison could have saved Quentin, Beth and/or the baby, but he came back too late. The family sealed Quentin up in his room somehow, and pretended that he’d gone away.
It’s not clear how Magda’s curse fits into that story. She’s probably a witch, like Angelique, but ethnic and remorseful. The curse may be related to why the ghosts are still in the house. The worst thing that can happen to a ghost on Dark Shadows is not being able to rest, so maybe they’re cursed to stalk the halls of Collinwood until — what? Until Jamison comes back? Until there’s a boy and girl to take their place?
We’ll find out the answers to all of those questions in due time, but first, the kids have to haul a trunk into the room, and clear away the debris.
Amy: This is never going to work.
David: Why not?
Amy: Well, look at it. It’s longer than the chest is.
David: I’ll think of a way to get it in there.
Amy: I don’t know why we have to do this anyway.
David is shocked.
David: When you die, do you want your bones to just rot away in a musty old room?
David: All right, then. All we’re doing is giving Quentin what his family refused to give him — a decent burial.
So these middle-school age children squeeze a rotted corpse into a little box, which must have been a fairly gruesome ordeal, and then they carry the body outside, and bury it in the woods.
This is one of those Dark Shadows moments that they do in such a casual, matter-of-fact way that you can almost forget how bizarre this is for a popular daytime soap opera on network television. It’s spooky, edgy and utterly ridiculous, all at the same time.
And that’s one more reason why David Selby is perfect for this role, because he sees the show in the same way that the audience does. He’s a stranger, just walking in off the street with no idea what this show is, or what he’s supposed to do about it. He just knows that he has one scene, and no dialogue.
We’ve only got 42 seconds, so look closely at his face. He’s supposed to be stern and cold, and he pulls it off, but there’s something else, just under the surface. Time travellers: knowing what you know about Quentin’s future — doesn’t it look like he’s trying really hard not to laugh?
That mouth is not made for sneering. Those eyes are twinkling with starlight. Just like Barnabas, Julia and Angelique — his co-stars, and fellow turning points — he’s giving us more than anybody expected. We’ve only got 42 seconds to catch it before it ducks offscreen for a while, but there’s something special there, something worth waiting for.
Tomorrow: The Wire.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The skeleton in Quentin’s room had a wig in the last episode; it’s bald today.
Roger tells Liz, “Well, I shall certainly talk to her, and get it stre-settled, once and for all.”
In act 3, after the scene switches from the woods to the storage room, somebody in the studio coughs.
David and Amy step on each other’s lines:
Amy: Well, I wish you’d tell me what it is you’re after.
David: You’ll see.
Amy: Well, I hope —
David: — as soon as I find it.
Amy: Well, I hope you find it soon.
The end credits are still crooked.
David Selby’s memoir, My Shadowed Past, is available on his website. He autographs each book, which is lovely. On the same page where he describes his audition with Dan, he also mentions that Tennessee Williams kissed him on the lips. It’s a great book; you should get it.
Tomorrow: The Wire.
— Danny Horn