“What can that portrait have to do with time?”
She doesn’t jump, not this time. Barnabas knows that if he approaches a cornered Josette on Widow’s Hill, then she’ll jump to her death, because that’s what she did last time. So he sends her aunt Natalie as a neutral party, to get Josette to back away from the precipice.
Once everyone’s on dry land, Barnabas says that if Josette stops trying to kill herself, then he promises not to murder her. This is actually not an unusual arrangement, for gothic romances. She agrees, but only if he comes back when he says that he will. Then he gets delayed, so she gets fed up, and she takes poison and dies.
I don’t really know why Josette’s spirit drew Barnabas and Kitty back a hundred years into the past, just so that she could kill herself all over again; it seems unprofessional, and self-defeating. But I think after two successful suicide attempts, Josette DuPres has made it clear that she would prefer not to be alive. We really need to start respecting that point of view.
So this is the beginning of a new four-month-long storyline which Dark Shadows fans call the Leviathan story, where Barnabas gets kind-of captured and sort-of brainwashed and becomes the leader of a time-traveling death cult who want to unleash unspeakable horrors onto the world in the service of the Great Old Ones, vast and unknowable cosmic deities who apparently see Earth as some kind of transit hub in their endless Blood Space War.
Actually, now that I think of it, I might as well do the invocation. Here goes.
So from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
There, that ought to hold them for a minute. Quiet, you guys, I’m trying to introduce the story. Jesus, the Old Ones. You know?
Anyway, I’m going to come straight out and say that the Leviathan storyline is not especially popular among Dark Shadows fan circles, with some reason. It’s slow and weird and comes out of left field, a bunch of main characters suddenly turn evil for a while, we spend a lot of time on a single cramped set, and Quentin and Angelique don’t have very much to do. As a follow-up to the breakneck story-generation machine of 1897, it brings the audience down to earth with a bump.
In The Dark Shadows Companion, which is basically the closest thing we have to an official published history of the show, this is what they have to say about the Leviathan story:
The ratings were at an all-time high. What could they do next to hold the audience? Their decision, unfortunately, signaled the beginning of the end of Dark Shadows…
Once again Frid took the chance to explore a different facet of his character. Barnabas, under the Leviathan influence, was coldly amoral, showing no hint that Barnabas’ personality was struggling to re-emerge.
This unsympathetic portrayal was coupled with a storyline that, compared to the high-gear 1897 saga, quite simply dragged. An irate viewer, writing to one of the daytime soap magazines, complained that the actors seemed to have only half a script and then improvised for the rest of the episode about “how weird the people are down at the antique shop.”
And then a few pages later, they say: “After the disastrous Leviathan sequence, which resulted in a ratings drop, the writers had to come up with something to win back the numbers they had enjoyed only the year before.”
So: disastrous, ouch. And as we’ve discussed, this storyline is launched during a period of massive backstage turmoil. MGM has given the green light to make a feature film, House of Dark Shadows, while the show is still in daily production, and using the same cast and production staff — including the same writers, who have never written a film before.
Oh, and also, over the last seven weeks, they’ve been running on an accelerated production schedule, writing and taping six episodes a week, to build up a backlog of episodes and get a couple more weeks ahead of the airdate. That means that they’ve had even less time than usual to come up with workable story ideas, and it’s going to be harder for them to pivot quickly, if a story isn’t working.
That rapid response time has been crucial for the show so far, giving them the license to try out wacky new ideas, and then cut the ones that don’t work. And this isn’t just a theoretical advantage — it’s going to cause a real crisis for the show, six weeks from now, when they have to take emergency action to fix a sinking storyline.
That being said — the Leviathan story is another weird, reckless leap into the unknown, and I’m the last person to criticize Dark Shadows for trying something new. At the time, going to 1795 was a potentially disastrous idea, too. Ditto turning the show into an endless mad science experiment, and then becoming an action-adventure werewolf stunt show. Courting disaster is a core competency for Dark Shadows, and you can’t keep narrowly missing the iceberg forever. This is what you get, when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic.
So here’s the pitch: Barnabas is hurrying through the woods, to try and keep Josette from annihilating herself for another five minutes, when he takes a left turn and ends up in the Night Vale dog park.
In a clearing, there’s a huge stone altar, topped with the carved image of a four-headed snake. Barnabas is on the grounds of the great estate, where he’s lived his entire life, and he’s never seen this before. It’s an impossible new addition to the landscape.
As he stands there, trying to get his head around it, two hooded figures approach — a male and a female, apparently — and they kneel before him, and give him a salute.
Naturally, he asks who they are and what the hell is going on, and they reply with dour facial expressions and more hand signals. “What kind of sign is that?” he says, petulantly. “Do you expect me to understand?” The answer, apparently, is no; they don’t expect any of us to understand. This is just atmosphere.
On the soundtrack, they’re playing one of my favorite music cues — Cue 31: Drum Start, Goes Into Melody With Drums — a moody little affair which begins with a solid kettle-drum heartbeat, adds some plucked strings, and then tops it off with a snide woodwinds melody that sounds all slippery and snakey. They’ve been using this cue since the beginning of the show, but for me, this is and will always be the Leviathan theme song. It’s perfect for this brain-boggling left-field story point, a serpent slowly emerging from the darkness to swallow the show.
The hooded figures come closer to Barnabas and and then kneel again, taking turns to kiss his hand reverently. He tries to get away from this creepy pair, but finds that he can’t move — he’s stuck, and so are we, helpless in the midst of a bizarre ritual that we have no way to understand or prevent.
Rising to their feet, they make another sweeping hand gesture, and the man chants, “Earth — Earth — the mother Earth.” Barnabas waits to hear the rest of the sentence, but that’s all there is. The guy just wanted to get that off his chest. And then Barnabas feels a strange compulsion to walk towards the altar, and fall to his knees.
So what this is — not that you could really tell, from here — is another narrative collision, this time with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The Dark Shadows writers did this all the time, whenever they needed a new story idea — they’d take plot points from English lit or a popular movie, and throw it into the show to see what happens.
Just this year, during the 1897 storyline, they’ve used The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Dracula, Nicholas Nickleby, The Wolf Man, The Manchurian Candidate, The Monkey’s Paw, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. They’ve been burning through the bookshelf, actually, and now they’re combing the stacks for a new monster. And they’ve landed on Lovecraft, which is a wonderfully goofy decision.
H.P. Lovecraft was a pulp writer, who wrote short stories for magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding Stories. Between 1917 and 1937, he wrote four dozen vaguely interlinked stories about humans coming into contact with the Great Old Ones — vast, powerful, unearthly creatures from another dimension who currently sleep in hidden places, and will almost certainly destroy all life on our planet. This was an odd and gloomy thing to do, and it created a whole new style of horror fiction.
Lovecraft was almost unknown during his lifetime, only popular among people who read mags like Weird Tales. He died penniless in 1937. But his work was discovered and collected in the mid-1940s, and a surge of interest in the 50s led to him being recognized as one of the masters of science fiction and fantasy.
He’s been hugely influential, a major inspiration for Stephen King, Clive Barker, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, H.R. Giger and Welcome to Night Vale — anything with creeping terrors that you see out of the corner of your eye. Alien is basically an H.P. Lovecraft pastiche, set on a spaceship. If you like almost anything about modern horror fiction, then you like Lovecraft.
The typical Lovecraft story is told from the point of view of somebody just on the fringes of an encounter with something unspeakable. It’s often an academic working at Miskatonic University, in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. During the story, they piece together bizarre little bits of evidence that lead to the discovery of something horrible, hidden in the shadows. The experience usually ends in death, madness or something even worse. It’s more fun than it sounds.
The most interesting thing about Lovecraft’s creatures is that they aren’t alien invaders who plan to take over the world; they aren’t a metaphor for World War I, or the Antichrist. The Great Old Ones couldn’t care less about our world, or its irritating inhabitants.
Here’s how Lovecraft described it, in a letter to his editor:
“All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.
“To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes.
“To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”
So given that, the hooded figure’s line — Earth, Earth, the mother Earth — is actually one of the least Lovecraftian things that you can say, along with That smells amazing, I can’t remember the last time I saw tentacles, and I totally understand what’s going on. The whole point of Lovecraft is that mother Earth is ridiculously unimportant.
So, yeah, this first sequence isn’t really set in Lovecraft country at all. The guy says, “He will know us when he rises from this sleep — and he shall show us the way to a new and everlasting life!” which is fine, but he should have found a way to stick Yog-Sothoth or the Black Goat of the Woods in there somewhere.
But the storyline that we’re about to see is actually a pretty faithful adaptation of The Dunwich Horror, a 1929 Lovecraft story about a mysterious boy who grows up too fast, and a horrible unseen thing in a boarded-up room that breaks out every once in a while and kills people. So we’re going to get to see what happens when you take that story, and stick it into the middle of a daytime soap opera, already in progress.
One interesting thing to note is that Lovecraft is one of the very few Dark Shadows literary influences who lived long enough to even know what soap operas are. Poe died in 1849, Shelley in 1851, Brontë in 1855, and Stoker in 1912. But the first nationally broadcast radio soap opera was Clara, Lu and Em, which premiered in 1931, six years before Lovecraft died.
So if you told Charlotte Brontë and Edgar Allen Poe that someday their work would be adapted for a daily soap opera, they would have no idea what you’re talking about. But if you told H.P. Lovecraft that someday his stories would be part of a soap opera, then he would still have no idea what you’re talking about, because it is an utterly insane thing to do.
Imagine Clara, Lu and Em browsing through forbidden texts, and squaring off against the crustaceans of Yuggoth. It defies explanation. And that’s what we’re going to be doing, for the next four months.
So, I urge you: Do not take poison! This is going to be fun, and even the parts that aren’t fun will be interesting to talk about. We’re not going to get deep into the Lovecraft stuff until next week, so you’ve got time to go and read The Dunwich Horror. It’s not very long, and it’s in the public domain, so you can read it for free on Gutenberg, or for 99 cents on Kindle.
Oh, and before I go, there’s one more thing about Lovecraft — in his story The Call of Cthulhu, he prophesied the cancellation date for Dark Shadows. Check this out:
“On April 2 at about 3 P.M. every trace of Wilcox’s malady suddenly ceased. He sat upright in bed, astonished to find himself at home and completely ignorant of what had happened in dream or reality… All traces of strange dreaming had vanished with his recovery.”
He nailed it, bang on April 2nd, 1971. I mean, the time is off a little bit — the strange dreaming doesn’t really end until 4:30 — but as prophecies go, that’s pretty impressive, don’t you think? Seriously, stop drinking poison.
Tomorrow: Whatever Comes Next.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, Josette is supposed to be screaming at the approaching figure, not realizing that it’s Natalie. But Natalie is standing in a pool of light, clearly visible, waiting for her cue.
Barnabas tells Josette, “I was in that time, in 1896, not four hours ago!”
When Barnabas asks if Josette still loves him, somebody in the studio coughs.
There’s a tape edit when Barnabas asks the hooded figures, “Who are you?”
When Oberon and Haza place leaves at Barnabas’ head and then walk to the other side of the altar, you can see two crew members at the bottom right of the frame, sitting on the floor and apparently talking to each other.
Behind the Scenes:
We just left 1897 two episodes ago, and now the Petofi box is sitting quietly on the mantelpiece in Millicent’s room.
The two hooded figures aren’t referred to by name in the episode, but in the credits, they’re called Oberon and Haza.
Oberon is played by Peter Lombard, who appears in four episodes — three this week, and then a final episode in January that has a flashback to this event. Lombard was a stage manager and understudy on several Broadway shows in the 60s and 70s, including Carnival!, Sweet Charity and 1776. He also had a small part in Woody Allen’s Radio Days in 1987.
Haza is played by Robin Lane; she only appears in today’s episode and tomorrow’s. Her only other credits are two grindhouse films: Teenage Tramp in 1973, and Incoming Freshmen in 1979.
Also: on the day this episode was filmed, October 29th, ABC-TV had a “pre-Halloween revels” party at a New York discotheque called The Cheetah, promoting ad sales for the ABC-TV daytime schedule. The party was attended by Joan Bennett, Jonathan Frid, David Selby, Grayson Hall, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Don Briscoe and Michael Stroka, and it must have been phenomenal.
Tomorrow: Whatever Comes Next.
— Danny Horn