“Does something evil change to good for no reason?”
Okay, time to hit the books again. The new Dark Shadows writing team has decided that it would be cool to introduce a new subplot every week, just to see what happens, and they’ve gone back to the library for material.
They’re not content to just do a simple Turn of the Screw time travel sequel starring Count Dracula, like normal people would. Over the last six weeks, they’ve also introduced characters and plot points from Jane Eyre, The Crucible, The Telltale Heart and Nancy Drew.
And just when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, there’s a knock at the door, and who walks in but a deluxe combo of Mr. Brocklehurst from Jane Eyre, and Mr. Squeers from Nicholas Nickelby. It’s like freshman English all over again; we should get course credit for this.
His name is Reverend Gregory Trask, a descendant of the witch hunter who brought Victoria Winters to justice back in 1795. This Trask runs a school, Worthington Hall, and he’s come to Collinwood to collect the children. And in a fortunate coincidence, he’s discovered that the children’s governess is already doing the story of Jane Eyre, but with Dracula and in the wrong order.
So, a quick lit review: Jane Eyre is an 1847 novel by Charlotte Brontë. So far, Dark Shadows has taken inspiration from chapters 20 and 26 — the mad woman living in the attic and setting people’s beds on fire, who turns out to be the wife of Jane’s employer and love interest. Now we’re skipping back to chapter 4, and plucking somebody out of Jane’s childhood.
Jane is an orphan, raised by an aunt who dislikes her. The aunt decides to get rid of the headstrong girl by sending her to Lowood Institution, a school for orphans and poor children. Here’s a passage from Jane’s first meeting with Mr. Brocklehurst, the proprietor of the establishment; see what it sounds like if you read his dialogue in Trask’s voice.
“Well, Jane Eyre, and are you a good child?”
Impossible to reply to this in the affirmative: my little world held a contrary opinion: I was silent. Mrs. Reed answered for me by an expressive shake of the head, adding soon, “Perhaps the less said on that subject the better, Mr. Brocklehurst.”
“Sorry indeed to hear it! She and I must have some talk;” and bending from the perpendicular, he installed his person in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Reed’s. “Come here,” he said.
I stepped across the rug; he placed me square and straight before him. What a face he had, now that it was almost on a level with mine! what a great nose! and what a mouth! and what large prominent teeth!
“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”
“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.
“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”
“A pit full of fire.”
“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”
“What must you do to avoid it?”
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”
Jane is awesome, by the way. Seriously, if you’ve never read the book, she’s fun.
So let’s compare that with Reverend Trask’s meeting with Jamison. Trask is talking to Judith about sending the boy to Worthington Hall, when Jamison bursts into the room, declaring, “I’m not going to your school, or any other!”
Trask throws the kid a crocodile smile, saying, “Now, Jamison, your aunt is certainly not going to send you, if you don’t want to go! Why, I wouldn’t let her do that. Miss Collins, have I your permission to speak with Jamison alone?”
Judith says yes, and Trask proclaims, “You will learn, Jamison, at Worthington Hall — if you decide to come — that we always discuss everything. Would you take me back to your room? I would like to talk with you there.” Judith says that Jamison would be delighted.
“Well, then,” Trask smiles, putting an arm around Jamison’s shoulders, “come along. What a nice chat we’re going to have!”
So that’s the “she and I must have some talk” part of the conversation, and now we get to the “naughty children fall into the pit of fire” part.
Up in Jamison’s room, Trask tells the defiant child, “I think that you and I should pray. Yes, pray that the Almighty sees in his infinite judgment that you need his help in changing your mind.” Jamison refuses, and Trask turns on him.
Trask: Do you want to grow up to be the disappointment to your father that you’re going to be?
Jamison: I’m not going to be a disappointment!
Trask: You’re disappointing him now!
Jamison: I don’t care!
Trask: Yes, you do! You MUST!
Jamison: My father loves me!
Trask: DOES he?
Jamison: Yes! I know he does!
Trask: Your father is very worried about your soul! And with some reason! You must be SAVED! Do you WANT to be saved?
Frightened, Jamison shouts, “Yes!” and falls to his knees in front of Trask, a super creepy image that we’ll come back to in a little bit.
When we return to the scene post-prayer, the mask of civility has slipped a bit; Trask is now barking orders at the kid. “Now, you know what you’re going to say,” the Reverend glowers. Jamison just stands there, anxiously twisting the sash of his robe. Trask barks, “Well, DO you, boy?”
Jamison doesn’t want to say it, and Trask says, “Stubbornness can be a sin, you know. Come here.” The boy doesn’t move.
Standing, Trask announces, “I give each of my boys one chance. Remember that. Now, then, what are you going to tell your aunt?”
Jamison stays silent, and Trask looms over him, screaming, “WE JUST WENT OVER IT! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO TELL HER?”
The terrorized child says, “That I want to go to your school! That I want to leave tonight! That I think it’s best!”
At this, Trask smiles again. “What a fine, sensible boy you are,” he says, leading Jamison from the room.
Now, Jane’s experience at Lowood Institution is bad — the kids don’t eat much, their clothes aren’t warm enough, Jane gets mocked and shamed, and there’s a typhus epidemic — but it’s got nothing on Dotheboys Hall, which is basically built on a Hellmouth. The students at Dotheboys could only dream of being treated as well as the girls at Lowood.
Dotheboys Hall is from Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens’ 1839 serial, and it’s one of the notorious “Yorkshire schools,” which according to Dickens were an absolute nightmare.
Dotheboys is where you send any inconvenient kids you might have lying around the house. They’re mostly illegitimate children or step-children, who the parents or guardians want out of their way. Here’s a scene from chapter 4, where the proprietor, Mr. Squeers, is talking to a prospective client about the two little boys he’s brought to the train station.
‘Each boy is required to bring, sir, two suits of clothes, six shirts, six pair of stockings, two nightcaps, two pocket-handkerchiefs, two pair of shoes, two hats, and a razor.’
‘A razor!’ exclaimed Mr. Snawley, as they walked into the next box. ‘What for?’
‘To shave with,’ replied Squeers, in a slow and measured tone.
There was not much in these three words, but there must have been something in the manner in which they were said, to attract attention; for the schoolmaster and his companion looked steadily at each other for a few seconds, and then exchanged a very meaning smile.
‘Up to what age do you keep boys at your school then?’
‘Just as long as their friends make the quarterly payments to my agent in town, or until such time as they run away,’ replied Squeers. ‘Let us understand each other; I see we may safely do so. What are these boys;—natural children?’
‘No,’ rejoined Snawley, meeting the gaze of the schoolmaster’s one eye. ‘They ain’t. The fact is, I am not their father, Mr. Squeers. I’m only their father-in-law.’
‘Oh! Is that it?’ said the schoolmaster. ‘That explains it at once. I was wondering what the devil you were going to send them to Yorkshire for. Ha! ha! Oh, I understand now.’
‘You see I have married the mother,’ pursued Snawley; ‘it’s expensive keeping boys at home, and as she has a little money in her own right, I am afraid (women are so very foolish, Mr. Squeers) that she might be led to squander it on them, which would be their ruin, you know.’
‘I see,’ returned Squeers, throwing himself back in his chair, and waving his hand.
‘And this,’ resumed Snawley, ‘has made me anxious to put them to some school a good distance off, where there are no holidays—none of those ill-judged coming home twice a year that unsettle children’s minds so—and where they may rough it a little—you comprehend?’
‘The payments regular, and no questions asked,’ said Squeers, nodding his head.
‘That’s it, exactly,’ rejoined the other. ‘Morals strictly attended to, though.’
‘Strictly,’ said Squeers.
‘Not too much writing home allowed, I suppose?’ said the father-in-law, hesitating.
‘None, except a circular at Christmas, to say they never were so happy, and hope they may never be sent for,’ rejoined Squeers.
‘Nothing could be better,’ said the father-in-law, rubbing his hands.
So that’s where the “what are you going to tell your aunt” bit comes from; the kids at Dotheboys Hall are threatened with beatings if they tell anyone how they’re actually being treated.
Nicholas Nickelby is one of the lighter Dickens novels, but Dotheboys Hall is about the darkest place you can imagine; it’s basically a gulag for unwanted children. The boys are starved, beaten and put to work. Any money or clothes sent by the parents is used by the Squeers family; the boys dress in rags. And after months of this treatment, they’re so terrorized that they can’t even dream of freedom. Seriously, this part of Nicholas NIckleby is scarier than all the vampire, Frankenstein, werewolf and zombie movies we’ve discussed combined.
So where does Nicholas fit into this scenario? Well, he’s duped by his wicked uncle into taking a job as an assistant teacher at Dotheboys. He discovers the school’s true nature when he arrives, but by that point he’s far from home with no money in his pocket, and he can’t leave. He’s horrified by the cruel treatment of the children, and tries to give them some relief. He takes a special interest in Smike, a young man who was dropped off at the school when he was a child, and then forgotten. Smike’s guardians stopped paying, so he’s trapped, forced to work off an endlessly escalating debt as an indentured servant.
Like Mr. Brocklehurst, Reverend Trask is pious and hypocritical; like Mr. Squeers, he’s mercenary and savage, with a mean-spirited wife and a crazy daughter. It’s not a great combination as far as the students are concerned.
So the Dark Shadows version of this story combines three characters into Rachel, the governess at Collinwood. Like Jane, she was an orphan, sent to an institution by her foster aunt. Like Smike, she was abandoned, and forced to work at the school to pay off her debts. And like Nicholas, she was a teacher who couldn’t bear what was happening to the children, and left the school with a friend to find her way in the outside world.
This sudden accumulation of backstory is an incredible gift for Rachel’s character. When she first arrived at Collinwood a few weeks ago, she was an empty-headed innocent — just a pleasant girl that happens to resemble Josette. Now she has a past, and relationships with other characters.
This is what narrative collision can do on Dark Shadows. It makes the stories richer, borrowing experiences and subtext, and then using them for different purposes.
And now, at last, Barnabas has a romance that makes sense. He was supposed to be stuck on Vicki for a year and a half, but those characters basically had nothing to do with each other. She fell in love with two different men during that time, neither of them named Barnabas, and he was never anything more than an intruder. They spent most of 1968 in completely divergent storylines, and only occasionally referenced Barnabas’ enduring passion for her.
But now Barnabas has a romantic partner who doesn’t just want to be friends, and he’s an important part of her story. The initial attraction was kick-started by her resemblance to Josette, which I was not impressed with, but the narrative collision is helping them to build a better story.
Rachel is being threatened by a deep bench of villains at the moment — Angelique, Jenny, Quentin and now the Trasks — and Barnabas is the only person she can turn to for help.
And the best thing about it is that Barnabas’ involvement is fueled by a sincere desire to help another human being, with no intention to kill her and turn her into somebody else. I know that it sounds ridiculous to say that a character is maturing because he’s not trying to kill his girlfriends anymore, but that’s Dark Shadows for you.
And there’s a part of this backstory that’s unique — not borrowed from Brocklehurst or Squeers. Gregory Trask is a sexual predator.
There are several creepy moments — regular human being creepy, not fake zombie creepy — where it’s implied that Trask is sexually interested in the pretty girl that he raised since she was a small child.
The clearest example is the first thing he says when he gets her alone in today’s episode. “What beautiful hair you have,” he purrs. “That is what I remember so well. When I thought badly of you, which I was often tempted to do, I thought about how you looked that last day, in my offiice.”
Then he suddenly frowns, and turns away, snapping, “You stole money from me!” It feels like he’s making a deliberate effort to break the spell she has on him, reminding himself that he should be angry and businesslike.
But there’s clearly something more going on than just a professional relationship. He’s thrilled when his daughter Charity discovers that Rachel is here, exulting over the opportunity to bring “the lost lamb” back to the fold. This isn’t just about work and money, there’s something weird going on.
And then there’s that upsetting Jamison sequence. They end the “do you want to be saved” scene with Trask putting his hands on Jamison’s shoulders, and saying “I think I can help you.” Then he pushes Jamison down to kneel on the floor in front of him.
The next time we see them, Jamison’s hands are twisting up the sash of his robe. They make a big deal of this, it’s the first shot in the scene. While we’re looking at that, Trask says, “Now, you know what you’re going to say? Well, DO you, boy?”
And then Jamison keeps messing with the sash for the entire scene, even keeping it up as he follows Trask out of the room, to go downstairs and tell his aunt that everything is totally fine.
Now, I can’t say for sure that director Lela Swift actually wanted to imply what I’m implying she wanted to imply. Nobody talked about priests sexually abusing kids in 1969, and it’s a weird thing to want to put in your vampire soap opera. But that’s what it looks like to me.
Naturally, Trask isn’t the only sexual predator on the show, and to prove it, here comes the main character, who closes today’s episode by sneaking into Charity’s bedroom and sucking body fluids out of her, in order to gain control over her. So there’s also that.
That’s what’s happening on the soap opera spook show this afternoon, as they pile even more layers onto this already complicated narrative. It’s amazing to think that this is a show that used to stall like crazy, because they didn’t have enough story to fill up a week. Now they have so many stories to tell, and all at the same time.
Tomorrow: The Pacer.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, when Barnabas interrupts Trask’s prayers, the boom mic can be seen at the top of the screen.
Rachel confides in Barnabas, “I was looking forward to it, really. I’d never — I’d always looked forward to being with other children.”
Barnabas tells Trask, “There’s nothing I can’t hear that you’d tell Rachel.”
Tomorrow: The Pacer.
— Danny Horn