“Really, my good man, there is more to life than one monster’s power over another’s.”
In today’s episode of ABC-TV’s Dark Shadows, the utterly haunted Collins family of 1841 Parallel Time actually goes ahead and holds the lottery that they’ve been talking about for weeks and weeks, with a dramatic reveal and an off-screen high-speed chase, which should probably be attended to at some point. But the great thing about 1971 Dark Shadows is that even if I take the day off today to talk about something else, they’ll still be there tomorrow, doing more or less the same stuff. That has not always been the case on this show, but is definitely the case now.
So you won’t mind if I allow Gabriel to slip quietly out the door for the day, while I tackle another task that has been personally haunting me for months: the second installment of the Parkerverse continuity.
As you may recall, HarperCollins — ordinarily, a respectable publishing house — had a brief outbreak of Dark Shadows novels at the turn of the century, beginning with Lara Parker’s Angelique’s Descent in 1998. This book offered a behind-the-schemes look at the early life of sorceress and social climber Angelique Bouchard, as she grew from a child star on the Martinique voodoo beauty pageant circuit to become the wife of an early American eccentric millionaire vampire. In a modern-day framing sequence around Angelique’s story, Parker sketched out a future for Barnabas, Julia and the Collins family post-1971, which was overall fairly grim. On the plus side, Barnabas was engaged to Julia after what appeared to be a successful vampire cure. But he was also tormented by his memories of Angelique, which drove him to burn down the Old House just one day before they were planning to knock it down anyway.
At the end of Angelique’s Descent, a new character entered the scene — the wealthy Antoinette Harpignies, who bought the ruins of the Old House and planned to rebuild an exact replica, and who also happened to look just like Angelique. Parker left this dangling as a cliffhanger, hoping to continue in a second book, but unfortunately HarperCollins had made other plans.
HarperCollins did put out one more Dark Shadows book in 1999, the hilariously flawed Dreams of the Dark, and then they acquired another science-fiction imprint and decided not to bother with Dark Shadows anymore. A third proposed DS novel by S.E. Hinton was repurposed and published in 2004 as Hawkes Harbor, with all the names changed to avoid intellectual property infringement.
But Parker wasn’t finished, and in 2006, Tor Books published her sequel, The Salem Branch, which dives back even further into Angelique’s tangled past.
Prologue: Salem Village — 1692
The story opens, improbably, in the late seventeenth century, with a description of the final hours of Miranda du Val.
That autumn, as she rode in the wagon toward Gallows Hill, Miranda du Val was not thinking of the babe in her arms they had given her to suckle one last time, nor was she thinking of Andrew Merriweather, whom they had already broken and banished to the forest, nor of Judah Zachery, whose head was far from his body. She was thinking of her bright farm aflame with the Devil’s torches, the fiery maple trees against the sky, and the ribbon of stream that beavers had backed into a pond.
As you no doubt recall, Miranda du Val is a weird retcon of Angelique, created for the 1840 storyline to make the main villain, Judah Zachery, seem like a bigger deal than he actually was. In 1840, when Judah possesses the body of Gerard Stiles, he recognizes Angelique as “Miranda” from Bedford, and there’s a flashback to a trial in 1692. According to this new revelation, Angelique was originally called Miranda du Val, and she acquired her occult powers in Massachusetts, not Martinique.
She had no fear of what was to come. It would only be an instant, then darkness. Hanging was little more than humiliation. Burning witches, as they had done for centuries, was the only way to rid the land, and even that not always successful. Fire would have been something to remember: the faggots at her feet, heat rising, smoke swirling into breath, as the trees she loved returned her to her beginnings. Hanging was child’s play. But these townspeople were children, their reason as primitive and as spiteful as a child’s.
It was never made clear what the relationship was supposed to be between the “Miranda” that we met in 1970 and the “Angelique” that we were introduced to in 1967. Angelique already had a perfectly good backstory, as seen in Angelique’s Descent, and they didn’t bother to connect those dots for us on the show. There are some fans who believe that Miranda left Maine after Judah’s trial and sailed to the West Indies, waiting a hundred years or so until Barnabas Collins showed up, so that she could fall in love with him and then sail all the way back to Maine. It’s fine that people believe this, but it’s just a fan theory, not backed up by any specific evidence in the episodes. By the time Sam and Gordon introduced the concept of Miranda, they were already sick of the show, and they didn’t really care about logical sense anymore.
The wagon shifted in the ruts of the road and she fell against the rail. She could feel the life in the new pine at her back. She could ask it to pull itself loose from the nails, collapse over the wheels, or even burst into flame. But she was bound to the boards by her chains, chains she had been obliged to purchase — along with the hangman’s fee — with the meager sum they had offered for her land. She was weary of them all, this town of Salem with its hypocrisy and its hardheartedness. Better to go elsewhere now.
You may notice that this depiction of Miranda is pretty goddamn sure of herself, considering she’s about to be executed. This is very much in keeping with the girl we met in Angelique’s Descent, who was a child of the sea, a natural free spirit who could charm slave mammies, poisonous dogs and future vampires with ease. She had free converse with the loa, she could capture any man’s fancy unfortunately including her father’s, and she could recite Shakespeare and Milton, and write lyrical prose in her magical notebook that somehow stayed with her no matter how many tight scrapes she escaped from.
The Angelique of Angelique’s Descent was rock-solid the most fascinating person who ever lived, and in this book, Miranda takes that as a challenge, and decides to be even more awesome than that.
Besides, she would have her moment of revenge. All the preaching from all the pulpits in New England would not hold a candle to the sermon she would deliver from the scaffold. There were many things to empower a curse, but the blood of a child was the spellcaster’s delight.
Now, the fan theory about Miranda traveling from the US to the West Indies to turn into Angelique is specifically contradicted here in the prologue of The Salem Branch, where we see Miranda on her way to get hanged. You might ask how this book is going to connect Miranda to the history of Angelique, as we saw her in the previous book. The answer to that question is that I don’t know.
Meanwhile, in Collinsport 1971, we find Mr. Barnabas C, driving his hot new car.
The Bentley throbbed down the dark road through a long corridor of overhanging trees. Wet with a late evening rain, the pavement mirrored the headlights and sucked the speeding vehicle into a whirlwind of new-fallen leaves. Barnabas Collins loved the feel of this car, the muscle of it, the singing hum of the engine. It was one of the few things in his life that gave him pleasure.
We’re going to switch back and forth between the present and the past between chapters, and the present-day story is told from Barnabas’ point of view. As we left him in the previous volume, he’s pretty much cured of his vampire affliction, he’s engaged to Julia, and apparently, I’m afraid to say, there are not many things in his life that give him pleasure, which is bad news for all of us.
Since he had learned to drive, he had found solace in the hardened shine of black enamel folded like wings about him, enclosing him like a carapace — or a coffin.
As an author, Lara Parker loves a good turn of phrase, and this is a very written book. “The ribbon of stream that beavers had backed into a pond” is pretty much the standard here, as is “the blood of a child is the spellcaster’s delight”, and Barnabas’ black enamel carapace. Parker likes words and has fun with them, which makes this an interesting read, although I would like it more if she could create likeable characters or situations, which she can’t.
In The Salem Branch, the main thing that you need to know about Barnabas is that Barnabas is not having any fun. The world has not arranged itself to his satisfaction, and he is not shy about sharing his feelings with the reader.
“You ain’t gonna believe it, Barnabas. It don’t make sense. I mean when you think about it.” Willie sat in the passenger seat, leaning back against the leather, staring out the window. His hay fever had returned with the goldenrod, and his breathing was a shallow wheeze. Barnabas glanced over at Willie’s hands clutching the corners of his jacket, nails bitten to the quick.
“I can only assume she found an original set of plans.”
“No, that’s not it. It’s not just the same rooms and the same stairway. It’s really old; it’s hundreds of years old. Where are the plans for that?”
“That’s the purpose of a restoration, Willie. To produce as authentic a replica as possible.”
“Yeah, well, you ain’t seen it.” Willie extracted a filthy handkerchief from the pocket of his jacket and blew his nose.
So there you go, that’s how the book is going to treat every character that isn’t named Barnabas, Angelique or Miranda. Willie Loomis, a character who is universally liked by every Dark Shadows viewer without exception, can’t just sit there and be in the book without paying some kind of humiliating price, so we have to make a big deal about his hay fever and biting his nails and not washing his corduroys. A little further down the page, it says “Willie blurted a noisy sneeze into his handkerchief.” Jesus, excuse us for having bodily functions.
The current issue that the characters are discussing, if we can leave Willie’s nasal cavities alone for five seconds, is that this crazy blond chick named Antoinette, who looks exactly like Angelique, and probably is Angelique, except that we never actually find out for the entire book whether she’s Angelique or not, has bought the burned-up shell of the Old House for no particular reason except that she’s rich and is probably but never definitively established as Angelique, and she’s rebuilt it exactly the way that it was, including the cracks in the foundation and the half-empty jar of apricot preserves in the back of the fridge, again for absolutely no earthly reason that anyone ever explains for the entire course of the book.
Barnabas gripped the wheel, and his arms tingled with a peculiar pain as if they had fallen asleep. Although he had not spoken with the woman who had bought the Old House, had intentionally avoided her since that morning when Roger had introduced them in the study, she had nevertheless become as close to him as the rhythm of his breathing, the ebb and flow of her presence fixed deep in his brain.
She did not only resemble Angelique; he was convinced his old tormentor had returned.
So let me get this straight. Antoinette has been here, on property, for the last six months, and somehow Barnabas has managed to completely avoid ever bumping into a woman who is literally rebuilding his house, right next door to the house that he lives in. And yet the ebb and flow of her presence is fixed deep in his brain, right where you’d think that she wouldn’t be.
There is no explanation provided, here or at any point, for anything that Antoinette ever does. She just does stuff, and nobody really knows why, and that situation is not going to be resolved in even the slightest tiniest way for the entire course of this book, up to and including the ending. That is a thing that you should be aware of.
At the moment, Barnabas and Willie are driving up to the Old House, so that Willie can show Barnabas how uncanny the restoration is. It’s okay for them to go and prowl around the mansion under construction, because Antoinette doesn’t sleep there.
And now is the part of this blog post where I have to explain about Antoinette’s sleeping arrangements.
“What were you doing wandering around the Old House anyway?”
“Roger sent me to check on them hippies living in the woods back behind the cemetery. He wants them out.”
“Down… down by the stream, living in tents. She lets them live there. She even sleeps out there with them.”
“It’s her property.”
So I’m going to go ahead and admit that there’s a lot that I don’t understand about Antoinette and the hippies. Antoinette is apparently so colossally wealthy that she can buy the smoldering wreckage of an enormous mansion, and then build an exact replica of that mansion, which she doesn’t live in, because she’s sleeping down by the stream with a bunch of hippies.
It’s not clear whether Antoinette has organized this group of hippies herself and invited them to stay on the grounds of her gigantic construction project, or whether they just showed up one day and she happened to strike up an acquaintance with them, or what. She’s just building herself a multimillion dollar mansion made of crushed clamshells and horsehair, with bricks imported from Holland and foundations made from rocks left behind by glaciers thousands of years ago, and she sleeps outdoors.
And I am very sorry, but the entire book is like this. We’re currently on page 5. The basic premise of this TV tie-in novel should not be this difficult to understand, this early in the game.
Anyway, Willie and Barnabas essentially break into the house which I guess is unlocked, and they’re astonished by the details of the restoration project.
The shadowed vestibule opened to the staircase, and the flashlight flickered across the wallpaper and moved on. Barnabas seized Willie’s arm and returned the light to the wall in front of them. The green hand-blocked pattern, with its stylized irises and running band of leaves, was identical to the one he had admired hundreds of times in the past.
“I told you,” Willie whispered.
When he entered the drawing room and saw the huge fireplace of chocolate marble — Rosso Francia marble from Italy — and the swell of the Empire mantel…
and so on, and so on. It’s the same house. There’s a lot more architecture talk, including the louvered doorway and the parquet floors and the old Tabriz well, whatever that is, and in the place where the portrait of Josette should be, there’s actually a portrait of Antoinette in a scarlet gown. Antoinette is the kind of person who owns oil paintings of herself, and buys green hand-blocked chocolate marble stuff, and that’s why she’s currently sleeping in a tent next to a cemetery.
This doesn’t occur to Barnabas, of course. There’s actually a moment in chapter 13 that goes like this: “He realized in a flash that Antoinette, whoever she was, came from wealth. How else would she have been capable of purchasing the Old House?” I wouldn’t say that taking thirteen chapters to figure out that basic fact counts as “realizing in a flash,” but hey, I owned a house once and I didn’t burn it down when I was done with it, so what do I know?
Then Willie and Barnabas decide to check out the basement, which is a whole other step into madness.
If it were there, then it would be proof undeniable. In the basement, in the room where he had slept, if his casket was there, then he would know that not only had she come for him, she had made preparations. All this she had done to rip away any shred of sanity he had gleaned from ten months of normalcy. Why else would she have recreated this pageant of their life together? How, in fact, could she have known to do it at all?
These are all good questions, which, again, are not answered during the course of this novel. And guess what? There is actually a coffin in the basement.
As his foot fell upon the stair, Barnabas heard the familiar clink of a loose brick, the same that had betrayed his step hundreds of times when he had returned, each daybreak, satiated from his nightly forays. He thrust the beam into the blackness, and it washed across the masonry arches. Cobwebs clung to the heavy joists that supported the floor above.
I hope you’re enjoying all this architecture talk, by the way, because there’s a lot of it; I’m just giving you a little taste. Whatever you can say about Lara Parker as an author, she does not skimp on the research. That is not one of the mistakes that Lara Parker makes.
There it lay, covered in dust, as though undisturbed for months. His coffin.
He handed the flashlight back to Willie, who held it nervously, the light playing across the carved mahogany.
“Let’s see if I am here.”
“Jeeze, Barnabas. It’s gotta be empty. That ain’t your coffin anymore.”
His fingers left glossy smears in the dust as he lifted the lid. How many times had he performed this weary gesture when the moment had come to escape the dawn? The squeak of the hinges was the music he remembered, inviting him to sleep. He pushed back, and Willie cast the light into the interior.
It was empty. The blue satin of his inner sanctum bore not even a faint silhouette of his slumbering form.
Okay, empty coffin. But then they hear a gurgling moan, and Barnabas follows his nose.
Barnabas breathed in. There was the smell of newly sanded wood, paint and lacquer, but beneath it two familiar odors intermingled: the reek of a predator and the stench of prey.
That’s another thing that you might want to know about this book, by the way, that Barnabas smells a lot of things. When they were in the car, Barnabas noticed that Willie smelled like oil, wood smoke and damp unwashed corduroys. Later on, he smells grease, stale smoke, decay, mothballs, dust, moldy velvet, aging canvas, a fragrance of ferns and hemlocks, cigarettes, aging varnish, more musty velvets, the “sleep odor” that fills David’s room, incense, sweat, damp concrete, meat and fried potatoes, winter snows, pine trees, balsam, his own vomit, lilies, tree sap, the musk of Antoinette’s perspiration, and, obviously, blood.
The man was still alive. He stared up with the helpless gaze of a dog struck by a car in the street, crushed inside but still breathing. From his heavy work boots he looked to be one of the laborers, left to clean up perhaps, after the others had gone home. He was jowly and unshaven and wore overalls and a flannel shirt which was soaked with blood. He sighed, and soft, sweet bubbles formed on his lips. It was a messy kill, careless and cruel. Wasted blood pooled on the floor behind the man’s head.
The ripped flesh laid bone and sinew bare, exposing the faint flutter of an artery, and Barnabas resisted an old urge as he lifted the man’s head, and gazed into his terrified eyes. He leaned closer, breathing in the scent of blood and saliva.
So let’s take a moment to reflect on where we are, two-thirds of the way into chapter 1 of this ridiculous novel. We are in the company of an ex-vampire and his unwashed oily friend, they’ve broken into somebody else’s house, walked down into the basement, and found a man who has had his artery torn to pieces very, very recently — so recently that you can even smell the saliva, a concept that is entirely new in my experience with both literature and salivary glands.
“Who did this to you?”
The man tried to speak but could only manage a wheezing, “Sh-h-h…”
Was the man warning him to be silent? Was the attacker still close by?
And that, I’m afraid, is the moment that reaches down my throat, grabs my will to live, and just runs away into the night. Was the attacker still close by?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say: Yes, the attacker is still close by. The narrator has just explained to us in detail that this jowly unshaven man has taken a weed whacker to the neck, and he’s still conscious enough to look at you and try to answer your idiotic question. He must have been dropped on the floor about eight seconds before you entered the room and started fussing with the empty coffin.
You are in a basement. There is only one exit, and it’s the way you just came in. You are currently in a room that has a vampire in it.
And here’s what happens next.
Willie tugged at his sleeve. “Barnabas…”
“Help me lift him… roll this tarp around him.” He pushed the body on its side.
“You crazy? What for?”
“He must be moved. The last thing we want is for the authorities to come snooping around here and suspect something.”
“But we got nothing to do with it.”
Barnabas suppressed the impulse to strike Willie.
Oh-kay, so that’s a reset on the Barnabas/Willie relationship, then. Watching the show, I was under the impression that maybe by 1971 these two had moved past the impulse-to-strike phase of their alliance.
Always his dim-witted servant opposed the simplest instruction, the most obvious choice of action. He was ruled by cowardice. But Barnabas had no one else he could trust, no one who knew of his past and still remained loyal.
So that’s the other thing about this book, is that Barnabas is a complete asshole. He basically has no friends; he doesn’t even like Julia that much, and they’re engaged to be married. He spends the entire book muttering under his breath about how much he dislikes almost everyone around him, except maybe David, and even he gets on Barnabas’ nerves a bit. So that’s something that we’re going to have to contend with.
He strove for patience. “As you have shown me, Willie, the house is now perfectly restored, and this basement room was —”
“Okay, Barnabas, okay, we’ll take him to the cliff and —”
“No, Willie, better the woods. We’ll bury him in the woods.”
And then they just wrap the dude up in the drop cloth, and carry him outside to the car, and drive him out to the woods, and bury him. Now you tell me one.
I mean, the logic here appears to be that Antoinette restored the house perfectly, including putting a coffin in the basement, which how would she know there used to be one unless she was Angelique, so fine, I guess she’s Angelique, but still, storing a coffin in the basement would incriminate her, not the guy who used to live here before it was burned down and rebuilt. If anyone noticed there was a coffin there, the only way they could connect it to Barnabas is if they asked Antoinette to explain the coffin, and if she said, well, it’s because the previous owner was a vampire and he used to keep one here, then Barnabas could just say that she’s out of her mind, which she obviously is.
Also, the workman who was just killed in the basement obviously saw there was a coffin there — he might have actually put it there, himself — and so would any of the other workers who helped him carry it down the stairs, so presumably there are several people who know that Antoinette instructed them to put the coffin there, and what was her explanation for that?
Okay, deep breath, because I am not done. Barnabas and Willie happen to break into the house and walk downstairs, just moments before a vampire kills the guy. Nobody knows that they were there, and if they hadn’t just happened to take a tour around the place at that particular moment on this particular night, then they wouldn’t have known there was a vampire kill there at all. They could just stroll casually away right now, and nobody would ever know they were anywhere near the place, except maybe for fingerprints on the coffin that they opened. But leaving a little forensics on the coffin lid would be nothing compared to the obvious trail of evidence that Barnabas and Willie must surely be leaving now, as they carry an artery-spurting freshly-murdered mess of a man all the way upstairs and out to their car. How all of this malarkey makes Barnabas and Willie appear less connected to the murder is anybody’s guess.
And that’s not even the worst thing about this utterly lunatic plot point. The worst thing is that they don’t even look around to see if the vampire is still in the house. I mean, you could make the case that the monster turned itself into mist and disembodied itself outside their field of view, but there must be at least some clues in the house that would point to the creature’s identity, especially because it’s so spectacularly reckless that it messily murders a guy several steps away from what I presume is its own coffin, while it can clearly hear prowlers walking around upstairs, and just leaves the bleeding body there, in a house that’s currently undergoing renovations.
It literally does not occur to Barnabas and Willie — two people who have had years of experience dealing with the undead — to even wonder for a moment about the identity of this killing machine. They just wrap up the body, and drag it out to the Bentley. And there are twenty-three more chapters left in this book.
Okay, back to 1692 and Salem Village, which is where Miranda and Judah live, because of history. Judah Zachery is actually from Bedford, Massachusetts, which we know because the show said that he was responsible for the Bedford Atrocity, but here we find that Miranda lives in Danvers, about twenty-four miles east of Bedford.
That’s where the Salem witch trials were, by the way, in Danvers and not in Salem. In the 1690s, “Salem” was a territory that included what is now four towns in Massachusetts — Salem, Danvers, Peabody and Beverly. “Salem Village”, which is where the witch trials took place, was incorporated as Danvers in 1757, named after Sir Danvers Osborn, the Colonial Governor of the Province of New York. The town that we know as Salem kept the name, and therefore the witch tourism, which started in the 1940s. “The Witch House” in Salem, which opened as a museum in 1948, was actually the home of one of the judges; that’s not where the witches lived. The real unpleasantness happened in Danvers, where there’s a little memorial that nobody visits.
Anyway, Miranda, and the spring day when she first began to suspect that she was in danger. She’s currently walking through the woods, and reminding herself that she can never let anyone discover that she can fly.
Oh, by the way, Miranda du Val can fly. That is now a fact that you know about Miranda du Val.
As the forest grew darker, and she moved across the dappled shadows into the caves of green, she thought of the many nights she had spent in these woods as a child, living with the Wampanoags, before the Reverend Collins found her and took her back to Salem Village. Often she had slept high in the trees, rocked by the wind. Moths sometimes clung to her eyes, and one dawn a spider spun its web across her mouth. Another morning she woke to a sparrow building a nest in her hair. She was so at home in the trees her fingers were often stuck together with sap, and the bottoms of her feet grew rough as bark. She flew easily through the branches and across the canopy. Sooleawa, the Wampanoags called her. Sisika. “Tree Flying Girl.”
So where do I even begin with this? I mean, “moths sometimes clung to her eyes” seems like a good starting point, although having two Wampanoag names is an obvious red flag. Anybody who tells you right up front on the first date that they have two different Wampanoag names is bound to be a difficult person to extricate yourself from, if you’re not careful.
But both of Lara Parker’s odes to Angelique take this tack, imbuing the young girl with an uncanny affinity with the natural world. “She was a wild child who had never been curbed or threatened,” Parker wrote in Angelique’s Descent. “The sea had taught her caution — how to float with the breathing current and stay clear of the fire coral, how to avoid the scorpion fish that could sting with death and skirt the eel’s bite.” And so on.
In the first book, that innate connection to nature gave her a special place among the savage African slaves, who worshipped her as a white goddess because she was anointed by the loa. Now it’s the savage Wampanoags, who killed her parents and kidnapped her when she was three, during a raid on Salem Village.
Metacomet once told her that he regretted the killing of her family, but that the Wampanoags suffered much because of the settlers. He said that he had stolen her for ransom, or to make her a slave, but when he saw that she could fly, he let her stay, and kept her as one of his own. His hope was that she would become a great Medicine Woman one day.
So once again we need to have one of those long-overdue national conversations about race, where I point out that there are lots of non-white people in the world who do not feel the need to worship any random blue-eyed blonde girl that crosses their path, and consider her to be uniquely in touch with the wisdom of the earth, according to their uncivilized superstitions. One of these days, Lara Parker is going to learn to leave the uncivilized people alone.
But not today. Here’s what we’re currently up against.
When small birds began to follow her, she knew her farm was near, just beyond the rise. A woodchuck whistled in the leaves, and when she saw the snake her heart lifted, the pattern on his skin more intricate than clock springs. She followed his path through wild strawberry, and his design blended with the old leaf shapes, crimson and pale yellow and deep, brackish brown. The whispering sound he made, though faint, gave way to another, a broken twig, and then a silence came more quiet than a duck’s swimming, as birdsong ceased. She broke a vine across her path, and in the ruffled green she saw the doe’s eyes.
I mean, for fuck’s sake. What do you even do with people like this? And now we have two of them — or three, if you count Antoinette. The woods are thick with Disney princesses, everywhere you look; I wonder if those hippies she’s bunking with are short and sing “Hi-Ho” a lot.
But Miranda’s problem at the moment is that the men of Salem Village would like to take this farm that her father built, which she currently occupies alone. She’s planning to marry big dumb Andrew Merriweather in the spring — the narrator already said that this was spring five pages ago, but whatever — and they’ll farm the land together, if she doesn’t get tripped up by the elders of the town, who now make their odoriferous entrance.
She did not see them before she smelled them, a man’s pungent odor along with his horse’s, drifting over the water. She was hauling a branch up the bank when she saw them on the opposite side, two townsmen from Collinsport she recognized, Deodat Larson on his Morgan, and her master, Reverend Benajah Collins, on his sickly mare. Behind them was Judah Zachery, the schoolteacher from nearby Bedford, riding his mule. She felt a sour taste rise in her mouth when she saw Judah, because she knew at once that it was he who had brought them and, of the three, he was the one she feared.
Now, as I noted earlier, Bedford is about half an hour away by car, if you take I-95, so the fact that Judah rode all the way here to Salem Village on a mule says a lot about his enthusiasm for travel, but it’s even farther to Collinsport, Maine, which is at least fifty miles away if it’s located right at the southern tip of the state, which it’s probably not. Maybe Miranda’s ability to fly isn’t as unique as she thinks it is; these guys must wake up with spiderwebs across their mouths a couple times a week.
The conversation starts with “Good day, my child, what brings you out on the Sabbath,” and progresses quickly to “Would it not be better to spend the day in prayer and thanksgiving for all of God’s many bounties,” but Miranda isn’t having it. “God’s beauty and His bounty are here, sir,” she says, “and this woodland is as holy as any church.” Then they say that Isaac Collins wants to buy the land, and she says it’s not for sale, so stay tuned for the ensuing witch trial.
The schoolteacher’s voice was hard. “But what of your lessons, Miranda?” His legs hung low on his mule.
“Indeed they are all well mastered, sir. Would you think otherwise?” The hint of defiance in her response was not lost on him; she could tell by the cast of his eye, but he spoke to her in another tone, more intimate, that made her throat tighten and her teeth go numb.
“That is rude toil for such a tender girl. Need you not a man to help you?”
“Nay, Judah Zachery.” And then she added, if only to spite him, “And my days at the schoolhouse are numbered. I have learned all I care to know from you.”
And then she goes and spends five pages hanging out with beavers, and before you know it, it’s 1971 again.
Now it’s time for a little slice of life for the newly mortal Barnabas Collins, who wakes up early the next morning and decides not to eat breakfast.
His hands were trembling, and he hesitated, remembering Julia’s admonition to eat more often. But after decades of dining on blood alone, his craving for food was minimal. He drew a sweet roll out of the bread box and forced himself to take a bite of the sugary icing. His stomach heaved, and he threw the rest in the trash.
There’s going to be a lot of material like that, because not being a vampire sucks. Another example: on his way out, he takes a look at his 1790s portrait in the foyer.
The high cheekbones and deep hollows enhanced a face handsome as a Roman emperor’s, with dark eyes gazing out from beneath a curling fringe. The ringed hand rested on the silver wolfhead of the cane he no longer carried, for he had put it away when he ceased to walk the night.
That is the first time the word “handsome” is used to describe Barnabas, coming along right on time. In the Paperback Library gothic novels that I’ve been writing about every once in a while, I’ve been keeping track of how many “handsomes” Barnabas racks up in the course of each book, and so far, the average is 14.6 per book, with a high of 24 handsomes in Barnabas Collins, his first starring role in the series.
Sadly, the Parkerverse is not nearly as devoted to the party line re: Barnabas’ unstoppable handsomeness. Angelique’s Descent only called him handsome four times, and in this book, incredibly, he only gets one handsome, here in chapter 3. Quentin actually gets two handsomes over the course of the book, and Julia gets one.
The only other Dark Shadows novel that we’ve read to give Barnabas a single handsome is Dreams of the Dark, HarperCollins’ second and final effort. That is unfortunately not the only thing that The Salem Branch has in common with Dreams of the Dark, as we shall soon see when Barnabas looks in the mirror.
He was shocked at the change. It was as though a stranger looked back at him. The youthful vigor and arrogance he had come to expect had vanished. Instead the skin was drawn, the hair dull, and the dark circles under his eyes had swollen into bags. His ivory complexion was soiled by a blotched ruddiness. As he stared at his image, he had a fleeting thought that this was the type of victim he would have once pursued. In only a few months, years had taken their toll.
As you may recall, Dreams of the Dark’s male protagonist, the super-stud vampire Thomas Rathburn, was a non-stop proponent of the idea that reanimated corpses are smarter and stronger and better than living humans in every way, and Barnabas continues in that tradition. In this chapter, he drives back to the Old House to take a look at the carpet in the drawing room — I’ll come back to Barnabas’ carpet obsession later — and then he realizes that his mortal mind has betrayed him.
Back again in the Bentley, he remembered that he had forgotten to go to Julia’s room for his injection. His early departure had swept it from his mind. Lately he had begun to muse on the small and irritating changes which being human had brought. Forgetfulness was not the least of his annoyances. While a vampire, his mind had resembled a set of surgeon’s tools in a case, precise, finely tuned, and designed for the task. Over the years he had become accustomed to clarity of forethought, a photographic memory, and absolute confidence in his perceptions. Now, with his brain addled by conflicting sensations, he found that stern focus eluded him and the simplest tasks required a supreme effort at concentration.
So I don’t know who this guy thinks that he is, but the Barnabas that I know is not exactly a finely-tuned set of surgeon’s tools in the mental department. Blundering lunatic who makes nothing but dreadful mistakes is more what I have in mind. Still, if it makes him happy to reminisce about his Mensa-level decision making powers, then I don’t need to argue with him about it, except to say that burning down the Old House because it reminded him of Angelique in the previous book is exactly on par with pretty much everything else that he’s ever done since the mid 1790s.
So now it’s time to find out what Parkerverse Barnabas thinks of Julia these days.
When Dr. Julia Hoffman opened the door to her room back at Collinwood, Barnabas could see she was upset. She had been waiting for him. She was dressed for the office in a rust-colored suit, one that he admired since it complemented her fine brown eyes. But she was paler these days, thin and drawn. The gloss had leaked out of her copper hair, and her bright eyes, the most attractive thing about her, had grown muddy. She must have forgotten her makeup this morning, for her skin was sallow.
She gives him another injection, which makes him feel nauseous and uptight, and asks him about when they’re going to tell the family that they’re engaged, which he also doesn’t enjoy.
She had expected him to marry her by now. It was autumn, and he had proposed to her in the spring when the cure first took effect. She was a brilliant physician, and his admiration for her was unbounded. The formula she had invented, and administered every morning, kept him human. He knew her expertise had given him a new life, the life he fervently desired, and only her vigilance sustained him. But he was so completely dependent on her — not that she would ever abandon him. He decided that it was her vaguely critical air that annoyed him.
He thinks for a moment about telling her about the murdered workman in order to change the subject, but then decides not to, because once again, the world has made the same goddamn mistake that it always makes, which is thinking that Barnabas Collins is the main character of Dark Shadows and that Julia Hoffman is optional.
I honestly cannot understand where people get this idea; it’s certainly not from watching the show. Yes, they only made model kits for Barnabas and the Werewolf, and not for the Oscar-nominated character actress, but if you take marketing out of the equation and just look at the story structure, you would know that Julia Hoffman is the one who saves Collinwood from destruction; Barnabas just strangles people and falls in love with dimwits. The show works best when the two of them are together, especially when he gives her information and then waits for her to make the decisions.
And yet the entire history of Dark Shadows spin-off storytelling ignores the actual star of the show, and only pays attention to her bumbling sidekick. It’s like if every Sherlock Holmes adaptation was about Dr. Watson, and didn’t even mention Holmes most of the time. In the case of The Salem Branch, Watson pays a visit to 221B Baker Street, decides that Holmes is an annoying know-it-all, and then spends the rest of the book falling down manholes.
It’s even worse knowing that Lara Parker is writing the book, casting herself in the role of the breathtaking blue-eyed eternal seductress, who effortlessly captivates vampires, Wampanoags and small fucking birds, while Grayson Hall’s character is thin and drawn, with leaky copper hair and muddy eyes, and Barnabas only proposed to her out of pity and respect for her intellect.
The rest of the Collins family doesn’t fare very well either. The next thing you know it’s after dinner in the drawing room, and Roger is ranting about the hippies in the woods.
“It’s your responsibility, dammit, not mine. I want them out of my woods! And the sooner the better.” His silver blond hair lay perfectly combed over his bald spot, but his aristocratic face was flushed with annoyance. While his sister Elizabeth poured his sherry, Carolyn, her daughter, golden hair shining in the firelight, sat curled on the stool beside the grate, blue eyes focused on a large jigsaw puzzle spread out on the coffee table. Opposite her on the floor, Roger’s son, David, was also concentrating on the reproduction of an impossible Manet, all leaves and dappled sunlight. Together they ignored their parents’ bickering and gave all their attention to the puzzle.
“Roger, dear, you must try and keep your temper.” Elizabeth Collins Stoddard’s patrician tones were soothing as she handed him a cordial. “What possible good can it do to become so distressed?”
That’s how things roll in The Salem Branch, where the Collins characters are diminished to their Paperback Library stereotypes. Roger is bossy and always complaining, Elizabeth is patrician and submissive, and Carolyn is a teenager with nothing in particular to do.
And just wait until you hear what they’ve done with Quentin.
Quentin Collins entered the room and quickly searched the liquor cabinet for a bottle of whiskey. Supposedly another distant relation, but of suspect genealogy, he had been enjoying the family’s hospitality for several months, taking full advantage. Finding a label to his liking, he turned towards Roger. “Oh, what harm do they do?” Quentin’s heavy sideburns framed an angular face, and the twist of a smile played upon his lips, as usual. “They call themselves ‘flower children’, and their makeshift commune they call ‘Paradise’. I think it’s all rather innocent.”
“Paradise!” Roger sputtered. Barnabas was surprised to hear Quentin, whose opinions of others often bordered on the contemptuous, defending the campers in the woods. Was it that he was tempted to antagonize Roger for amusement, to prick his bubble of self-satisfaction?
I don’t know why Parker chose to make every character in this book utterly unappealing, and leave Barnabas isolated and friendless. I guess it keeps the focus on his emotional turmoil, to make him easy pickings for Antoinette’s attentions, but it’s not particularly consistent with the tone of the show, the last time we saw the present-day family. For better or worse, by 1970 the family had settled down into a pleasant cordiality, and Barnabas and Quentin were friends. That is not the case in The Salem Branch.
“Well, that was an uncalled for display of bad humor,” said Quentin, pouring himself another drink. “Roger’s contempt for the peasant classes knows no bounds. As for myself, I must say, I think the Harpignies woman [Antoinette] is rather attractive.”
“You would say? Have you become acquainted with her?”
Quentin tipped his head forward and glowered at Barnabas from beneath dark brows and a mass of curly black hair. “I’ve taken her to dinner,” he said, and then added after a pause, “several times.”
Barnabas was surprised by the irritation that swept through him. Quentin resided at Collinwood when he was between adventures. An inveterate bachelor, he was the sort of philanderer whose facade, Barnabas knew, hid the soul of a man who secretly feared and despised women. He charmed them with ease, and abandoned them just as quickly once he became bored with them. And he made no apologies for his behavior. A sinister and elegant exterior hid an empty shell, callous and compassionless.
Yikes. Contemptuous, sinister, callous and compassionless: does that sound like the Quentin Collins that we knew in 1970?
I would actually be okay with this obvious character assassination if it was necessary in order to create conflict and drive interesting story progression, but honestly, none of these characters have anything to do with the plot of the book. There is no particular reason why Barnabas doesn’t like Quentin, or Willie, or Julia, or any of the people who we know as his most devoted friends. He just doesn’t like anyone. The Salem Branch takes place in a bleak parallel Collinwood where nobody has any actual problems, but everything just kind of generally sucks.
And then he goes upstairs to Julia’s room, and things get even more grim.
“Julia, I beg of you, don’t scold.” He was sorry the moment he said it, because she looked at him with such an expression of reproach that he was flooded with guilt.
She came and stood beside him, and he considered, with a growing sense of helplessness, her anemic complexion and her thinning frame. How much she had changed. As she leaned close to him, a stale odor rose from her hair, and he realized she must not have washed it for days.
“Will you hold me, Barnabas?”
He hesitated for a moment, then reached for her and pressed her body to his. She was stronger than he expected and seemed to gain energy from his embrace. She responded in her jerky way, encircling him with her arms, and he was unable to pull back for fear of insulting her. She lifted her face to look at him and he knew she wanted to be kissed. Overcoming an awkward feeling of aversion, he brushed her cold lips and tasted her thin mouth with his own. Finally he withdrew, all the while wondering how much of his reluctance she had sensed.
So goddamn, that is going to be one successful honeymoon, isn’t it? These lovebirds can’t keep their hands off each other.
I mean, “a stale odor rose from her hair.” What contribution does that make to American literature?
Then there’s a sequence where Barnabas gets into the Bentley and starts driving down to the docks, thinking maybe he’ll find the vampire prowling down there. That makes total sense, except for the fact that the only place he knows for sure that the vampire has been is in the Old House, where he categorically refuses to look for it. This is going to bother me all the way through the book.
And this inability to make effective plans also extends to his one-sided obsession with Antoinette, who he has apparently been stalking but has never just gone up and said hi, I live next door.
Even though he could feel her presence, at first he had done everything in his power to avoid her. At the same time he had waited in a state of anxiety for her to appear unexpectedly, or to attempt correspondence or a phone call. The innocuous letters on the hall table each morning mocked him, and the telephone’s infernal chime had played upon his nerves.
He caught a glimpse of her once, dashing out of the thrift shop in Collinsport on a hot summer afternoon. Her costume was peculiar and almost deceived him, a long lace petticoat and a sheer camisole — the delicate undergarments of another period in time, perhaps the early 1900s — worn without the dress which was meant to cover them. Such wanton apparel would never have been chosen by the Angelique he had known, who had been so fastidious and vain.
So I don’t know, I said earlier that she must be Angelique, but listening to that pathetic little story, I think it would be funnier if she isn’t Angelique; she’s a totally different person who doesn’t know or care about Barnabas Collins at all. She doesn’t write him or call him, because she’s only met him once, briefly, and he acted weird, and she’s forgotten his name.
He learned that she had become an amateur folksinger, an odd choice he would never have predicted, and that some nights she sang at the Blue Whale. She played rudimentary chords, kept appalling rhythm, and her voice had a tendency to go sharp. Yet her material was appropriate for Angelique. She sang Childe Ballads of love and abandonment, mountain songs of lovers who murdered their beloveds, and of faithless wives of noble gentry.
Her gaze fell on Barnabas, and his heart pitched. But there was never a flicker of recognition, and her eyes moved on. Discomforted, Barnabas rose and slipped out.
Again: pretty pathetic. And tonight, as he heads for the docks, he passes by the Blue Whale, and spots Antoinette.
He was parking the car when he braked, and froze. Antoinette dashed out the front door of the tavern. She was carrying her guitar case, and she seemed to be in a hurry, because she jumped into a truck and pulled away without looking back. Impulsively, Barnabas decided to follow her.
Yeah, no kidding, Barnabas Collins doing something impulsive. This must be one of those finely tuned surgeon’s tools that he was talking about before.
As he accelerated to keep her taillights within view, a plan formed itself in his mind. When she stopped, he would stop as well. When she got out of her car, he would confront her.
What follows is about a page and a half of crazy person imaginings, including:
He might convince her to leave Collinsport… Surely there was some legal angle… He must exercise the utmost tact… Of course she would refuse. Wasn’t that her nature?… If he made demands, she might treat him with scorn… The murdered worker in the basement of her house exposed her duplicity, proved beyond doubt that she had a vampire in her service, and that she intended to exercise her revenge at this moment in time when he was most vulnerable.
And so on. Then he sees her pull into the main gate of Windcliff Sanitarium, where she parks her car and enters the building. This trip has nothing to do with Barnabas.
He gets out of the car, and creeps closer to the sanitarium, accent on the creep. “How many other times in his other life,” asks The Salem Branch, “had he stalked an unwary prey, found its sanctuary, and waited until it reappeared, self-involved and oblivious.” Okay, I’ll bite. How many?
From one of the windows above his head, he heard voices. He recognized Antoinette’s fake English accent, her hysterical inflection. Moving closer, he heard her say, “But why? They know it doesn’t work.”
She was answered by the soft murmuring of a young girl, speaking in a pleading tone. He heard Antoinette say, “I never, never gave permission for that… it’s so cruel.” After that came the sound of weeping.
When Antoinette spoke again, he could make out few words, but she sounded determined. He heard her say, “Leave that. It’s not important,” then “… tell me I can trust you…” and, after another murmur, “… never mind… I have no choice.”
Moving quickly to the corner, Barnabas glanced towards a fire escape that ratcheted up the wall, and saw beneath it a heavy fire door standing open. Antoinette waited while a young girl slipped out and together they raced towards the truck, Antoinette holding the girl close, running as if they were one creature. Barnabas saw her glance back over her shoulder towards the portico, obviously worried should the guard become alarmed, and he shrank into the shadows. As soon as she had her charge in the passenger’s side, she ran around to the driver’s seat, jumped in, and started the engine. Dumbfounded, Barnabas watched them drive away.
See? Barnabas is a ridiculous excuse for a main character. Why do they even try?
Great, we’re back in Salem, where people are starting to suspect that Miranda is a witch, which I guess she is.
I’ve written before about how frustrating it is to me that everybody writes exactly the wrong story about Salem. The point of the Salem witch trial story is that there are no such things as witches, that the problem was the cruelty and false piety and wilful hysteria of the “good” people in authority. They pretended there were witches because they just wanted to punish people, in the most frantic and aggressive way they could think of. They put innocent people in chains, and then charged them rent for the use of the chains. That’s the kind of mentality we’re dealing with from the good Christians of Salem.
But every story about Salem features actual witches, including Vicki’s witch trial on Dark Shadows, which means that the Puritans were right, if possibly focused on the wrong suspects. This is a ghastly corruption of history that basically implicates you in the holocaust that took twenty-five lives. You might as well read a story about the Capitol riot in which Nancy Pelosi really was conspiring with Mike Pence and Hugo Chavez to have sex with children and drink their blood while illegally changing voting rules in Arizona. In general, you should try to avoid stories written from the Nazis’ point of view, and that’s what all these “real witches in Salem” stories are about.
But that’s just common or garden variety fantasy novel dumbness, while Miranda’s visit to Judah Zachery’s brutal lending library is something special. In this book, the infamous legendary warlock is a school teacher for some reason, and Miranda is his best and least favorite student. She’s on her way out of class, which I thought she’d said a couple chapters ago she didn’t need to go to anymore, and he stops her with the question, “Can you tell me you are pure and without taint?”
They stood at the door of the schoolroom and the children’s laughter floated over the field. Once more she looked up at Judah Zachery. The beak was more pronounced, and his neck was red and mottled where it rose out of his untidy white ruff, which sat like a feathered collar around the naked skin. His face was ruddy and round, with hollow eyes and haggard cheeks, and although the top of his head was bald, his hair hung in filthy locks to his shoulders and his ears protruded from the greasy strands. Back and forth he drew the rod between his fingers and it quivered, still green beneath the bark.
“Choose,” he said. “A whipping, or the closet.”
She sucked in her breath. “The closet.”
“Impudence!” He seized her by the arm, shoved her into the darkness, and locked the door. Now she was alone.
This is a thing that apparently happens with some regularity in Miranda’s life, her wicked school teacher locking her in a closet for hours based on no particular stimulus. But she knows about Judah and his Devil’s ways, which the good people of Salem Village apparently don’t, because she’s taken the time to fly to Bedford and spy on his coven of dim-witted widows and spinsters. I guess Salem Village doesn’t do a lot of background checks.
But: the closet. Of all the irritating things in this book, the closet is one of them.
She waited until her eyes became accustomed to the dark. The crack above the door and another at the floor gave light enough for her to amuse herself with his books. And Judah Zachery had many books — books he had brought with him from England, printed on coarse paper, nearly all in Latin or French. She could not read them, but the illustrations enthralled her: the intricate drawings and foreign designs.
So Miranda is Br’er Rabbit, begging Br’er Fox not to throw her into the briar patch, because being sent to lockup means she can take a break from talking to birds or whatever and curl up with a blasphemous book.
They were books that would shock the people in the town were they to see them, they so reeked of heresy. Books of anatomy showed naked bodies stripped of their skin. There were books of astrology depicting the creatures who lived in the heavens. She drew Hooke’s Micrographia into her lap, and marveled at etchings of insects as large as lobsters with ratcheted claws and jaws, and studied drawings of prehistoric beasts: a lion with wings and a pig with a man’s head. She shivered at sea monsters with long tentacles, unicorns, and dragons.
Now, I have no idea what edition of Micrographia they sell to demonic school teachers in Miranda’s world, but over here in reality it was a scientific book with detailed pictures of gnats and vine-mites; it doesn’t extend to sea monsters and unicorns. But apparently Judah Zachery’s not-so-secret book depository is full of pretty much anything that would have gotten him hanged: Galileo, Copernicus, a pamphlet called The Art of Swimming with detailed engravings of damp naked dudes.
And then there’s the mask.
Miranda reached into the back of the closet for the wooden box, opened it, and drew out the mask. She knew it for what it was, and shivered to think what power it possessed. The mask was crudely fashioned of gold and encrusted with jewels: fat rubies surrounded the eyes and sapphires studded the mouth. Gingerly she placed the mask over her own face and felt its heat on her cheeks, but only for a moment. Then she hid it away again and settled down with her favorite book, Milton’s Paradise Lost.
So again with the Milton, which amazes me that any of this got past an editor. Angelique’s Descent also gave a shout-out to Paradise Lost, which little Angelique learned to read at age nine while she was memorizing Shakespeare and learning to skirt eel bites. I don’t know where Lara Parker got the idea that Paradise Lost is a children’s book, but it’s been eight years since Angelique’s Descent and so far nobody has corrected her.
But the real problem, sense-wise, is that Judah Zachery keeps all of these treasures in a closet in his schoolhouse, rather than at home in a padlocked trunk. Storing it all in his schoolroom closet would already be an insane thing to do, even if he didn’t have the habit of shutting his students up in the closet for hours on end, with nothing to do but discover all the reasons why the village elders should burn him at the stake. I mean, what on earth is this about? I swear that this book is trying to kill me.
And then we have to go and drag Tituba into this as well. Miranda’s been invited to go out with the other girls tonight to a secret meeting in the forest, for deviltry.
The forest where they were to meet loomed beyond the field. Tituba had told them they would see their future husbands in the swirl of egg white, and they would dance, and conjure up Goody Larson’s dead babies again, and tonight they would all fly. But Tituba was an island woman, a voodoo-practicing slave brought over from Haiti. She could not save them from their foolishness. Only Miranda could do that.
Yes, of course she can, thank goodness Miranda is here, to save everyone from the primitive Haitian voodoo woman that we invented just to make the Salem story even more racist and insane. Yes, there was a real slave named Tituba in Salem Village, and yes, they beat her until she confessed to riding on broomsticks, but we might want to take a step back and not uncritically adopt the worldview of 1690s Puritans.
History-wise, it is almost certainly a lie that Tituba lured the girls of Salem Village out into the night to dance and perform occult rituals, because the young girls of Salem Village lived with fathers and mothers who kept a relentlessly close eye on their children. These are people who expected their kids to spend every idle hour reading the Bible. The idea that a whole crowd of adolescents could assemble in secret without any of the adults in town knowing about it and putting a stop to it is absurd. The idea that they then shouted and danced wildly to the sound of Tituba’s demonic island drumming is even less plausible. This whole episode is Puritan propaganda, which once again blames Black people for stuff that they have nothing to do with.
So Miranda swoops down and helps all the girls who are flinging themselves around and making twittering bird sounds, stopping them before they fall over the rim of a suddenly nearby gorge, except for one, who falls to her death. That is what this book is like.
Okay, five chapters down and we’re still alive. This chapter is about Barnabas hanging out with David, who is the only character that he actually enjoys spending time with. They’ve gone to the rebuilt Old House once again, so that Barnabas can look at the carpet, which is a whole other tedious thing about this book that I haven’t mentioned yet.
For some reason, Barnabas is obsessed with Persian carpets now; his profession appears to be collecting and trading them, which I don’t get how he suddenly acquired a taste for, and I especially don’t know how he could make money doing it.
The book says that “during years of travel and exposure to the great houses of England and America he had developed a sophisticated knowledge of antiques,” but as far as I know, Barnabas never went anywhere near the great houses of England. When would he have done that? He was murdered as a relatively young man, and spent the next two hundred years in a box. This book appears to be based on the Paperback Library version, where Barnabas was traveling the world all that time, exposing himself to things.
But whatever, let’s get to the trespassing.
It was the fake carpet he had come to see. A Tabriz as old and valuable as the rug which had once graced the drawing room did not exist in this country anymore. He remembered being fond of the rug and recalled the hours he had spent by the fire, gazing at the miraculous detail, searching out the carefully included mistakes in the pattern. Islam dictated that only God was perfect, and anything made by man must be intentionally flawed. Even though the original carpet in the Old House had been one of the family treasures, it was thought to be too threadbare to be moved to Collinwood when the new mansion was built in 1795. His untutored relations had failed to realize that the worn nap made it even more valuable.
As he had done the day before, he knelt by this rug and once again turned back the corner to inspect the warp. The fact that the rug was a fake had an odd effect on him and seemed to prove that this entire restoration was simply that and not, as Willie had insisted and he, Barnabas had feared, something fiendishly, even magically devised.
So that’s great, but then David insists on leading Barnabas upstairs, where he finds that the old playroom is locked. “I wanted to know if my toys were still there,” David says, which once again doesn’t make any sense. For one thing, this is a restoration and Antoinette wouldn’t have known or cared about David’s toys, and for another thing, why would David be keeping his toys in the Old House, especially when they were planning to knock it down? And what toys? This book hates me.
Then they run into a carpenter named Jason, who strikes up a conversation with the people who’ve broken into the house he’s working on.
“I assume you’re the carpenter who’s done all this remarkable renovation.”
“Well, I have a crew,” Jason said slowly, “but I call the shots.”
“I must say I am amazed at the verisimilitude.”
“It’s… so very much like the original.”
Ugh, go to hell, Barnabas.
“Yeah, well, that’s Toni for you. She’s got tons of old photographs, and she’s uh, how shall I say, very… demanding.” He laughed softly to himself and shook his head.
“And the furnishings?”
“Antique stores, man. Every day she brings in more stuff, she and Jackie. That is until she took her kid away to the loony bin.”
“And where is… Toni? Do you know?”
“Over at the camp. Or maybe she’s gone to Salem. She spends a lot of time there. Doing her research in the library.”
Then David asks if the guy likes living in the woods, and Barnabas realizes that he must be one of the hippies, because obviously professional contractors sleep in tents and take mushrooms all night.
“It has come to our attention that the campers in the woods are breaking the law, in fact, trespassing. My cousin, Mr. Roger Collins, would like to see the camp removed.”
“Now wait a minute. We have permission to be there. It’s fine with Toni and she owns the land.”
“But it is not… fine with the neighbors. There are restrictions against outdoor toilets, for instance. And I understand there is nudity.”
Jason laughed again, a low chuckle. “So you and the other uptight neighbors can’t stand to see anyone have a little fun.”
And I swear to God, I do not understand what anything in this book has to do with anything else. It just piles up random statements that don’t connect to each other. The carpets and the outdoor toilets and Tituba and the folksinging and the daughter in the loony bin… what is going on in this book?
Also I think Angelique is in charge of leaves, that’s a thing that I haven’t even mentioned before because I didn’t have the heart for it. Back when Willie and Barnabas were digging the grave for the slaughtered workman, there was a whole thing about dead leaves filling up the hole, as if it was purposeful, and when Barnabas was driving down to the docks two chapters ago, there are a bunch of dead leaves that get in his way and almost drive him off the road, and what are you supposed to do with that idea? But now here I am, in chapter 6, and it feels like I’m losing my mind.
Barnabas and David wander over to the hippie camp, where there’s a teenage girl named Charity that David’s apparently been hanging out with lately, and she gives him a necklace of glass beads and then kisses him on the mouth. David and Charity go skinny dipping with a bunch of other naked hippies, and Barnabas feels tired, so he sits against a tree and falls asleep, and when he wakes up it’s dusk and everybody is gone, including David who you’d think wouldn’t just leave his cousin unconscious in the woods, and then a vampire jumps on Barnabas’ back.
It clung to him with claws that pierced the fabric of his coat, and hot breath burned his cheek. Alarmed, he arched and grabbed for whatever was glued there, spinning to get hold of it, but it dug in and rode him. Then he felt pain such as he had never known. He roared an oath and batted at his back, thrashed about in the air, as the jabs moved into his hair. Terrified that his eyes might be next, he doubled over and rolled on the ground. But the fangs were in, and deep, and whatever it was rolled beneath him.
When he heard the sucking begin, he shuddered, then quivered, then fell into the dark.
So maybe he should have looked around the basement for a bit longer.
Barnabas wakes up in the woods and feels a terrible longing for blood, so he grabs a wood rat and bites into its belly, and then Julia and Willie find him and they drag him back to Collinwood and give him another injection, and then he feels really sick and thinks about Angelique for a while.
Back in Salem Village, Judah and Miranda have another tussle in the schoolroom, where he tries to rape her but does not succeed, so he asks her to sign the Devil’s book, but she says no, and then he says, “I will have you, even if I have to kill you. The Court has already called for you to be examined. You will come to me begging for support.” She says that she probably won’t.
And then there’s a thing about Andrew, the big dumb guy that she’s hoping to marry so that he can protect her and help her keep the farm, so she gives him roofied huckleberry and molasses cake. He’s planning to join the raid of the Naumkeag tribe, and she asks him not to, but he says that the savages are bloody creatures who sin against God, and now we have all of that to deal with. The cake is supposed to rouse his passions so that he has sex with her and makes him feel like he has to marry her, but it doesn’t really work; he just gets angry and tells her to leave.
“I will not marry you, Andrew,” she says, “for you have shown me you do not care for me, and no longer wish to come to my farm with me.” I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel about this, but by this point I am too numb to care.
She goes out and walks in the damp woods for a while, and then suddenly Andrew is behind her, and he pushes her up against a tree and rapes her, which I guess is what she was hoping for.
This chapter is about Barnabas and David driving to Salem for some Halloween tourism, which takes them five hours by car, so how Judah Zachery ever managed the trip on a mule is beyond me.
Still in a weakened condition from the attack in the woods, Barnabas hit upon a trick to keep himself awake while he drove the final hours to Salem. He decided to compile a list of all the ways he found becoming human despicable.
Ugh, seriously? More Rathburn-style being-a-vampire-is-great material? It goes on for pages and pages of complaints and failures: the inability to lift or leap, emotional malaise, inability to stick to a decision, not being treated well by shop clerks (no idea), tooth decay, the agonizing process of digestion, embarrassment, his inability to simply glance at a young woman and have her instantly fall in love with him. Barnabas doesn’t like a single thing about being a human, which I’ve been for a long time and honestly it’s totally fine.
And then they stop off at a restaurant for lunch, and we meet the gay waiter.
Two pretty boys worked behind the bar, and they were in the process of assessing their lives as well. “Do you want to end up like our parents?” said one. Barnabas wondered if they were gay, as both were very good-looking in a thin, fragile sort of way, especially the blond boy with well-shaped arms and delicate hands.
Okay. So that’s a thing.
Before Barnabas could answer, the boy with the well-shaped arms brought their food. He looked at David with some interest. “You folks from around here, or are you tourists?”
They have a little conversation about what to do in Salem at Halloween time.
“What about the cemetery?” Barnabas added.
“Oh, the Old Burying Place? Sure, that’s the real thing. The problem is it’s surrounded by second-rate wax museums with decaying exhibits. But, you know what? There’s a local Circle Ceremony tomorrow night. You can dance with some real live witches.”
David laughed, and the young man drank him in with his eyes.
David is fifteen, by the way, and they’re playing him like he’s twelve, so why Parker is setting up a random gay waiter to perv on him is known only to herself. I’ve been thinking for a long time that I’d like it if there were more gay people in Dark Shadows stories but maybe we were better off without it.
There’s some more material about Salem’s tourist attractions, and then David and Barnabas go to the Old Burying Place, and they spot Antoinette.
Barnabas noticed a young woman who stood at the other side of the cemetery looking down at one of the inscriptions. She was tall and wore what at first seemed to be a costume, a cape of sky blue velvet which fell over her shoulders and a hood hiding all but a wayward lock of her golden hair. As he watched her, he thought she could have been from another century, with her straight back and slender form.
Then he heard David’s voice from behind.
“Barnabas, look. There’s Toni.” His blood rushed to his face. David seemed equally surprised at her appearance. But they both hesitated to approach her, and stood apart among the tombstones, checked by her mood, for she seemed wrapped in a veil of sadness.
Once she leaves, they look at the grave where she was standing, and it says “Infant of Miranda du Val — Born October 29 — Died October 31, 1692.” So that’s a clue, I guess, if you care about how this all fits together.
Barnabas stalks her for the rest of the day, and finally he sends David off to see a movie, and tracks her down at the Peabody Essex Museum’s library, where she’s looking up the Collins family and taking notes about Miranda du Val and the judge, Amadeus Collins, who sent her to be hanged.
So Barnabas and Antoinette finally have a scene together, and if you can understand it, then good for you.
Barnabas: I must have a word with you.
Antoinette: Well, okay. You want to go have some coffee?
Barnabas: My dear, I have no desire to make this a social engagement.
Antoinette: (smiles) My goodness, you are in a hurry. I didn’t realize you had been thinking about me in… that way. Why didn’t you let me know?
Barnabas: How can I help but think about you, as you say?
Antoinette: I’m afraid, as attractive as you are, I need a little more time. Not that I’m not intrigued, but you have to admit we hardly know each other.
Barnabas: How can you say that?
Antoinette: How can I say that? Because I have met you only once, in the drawing room at Collinwood.
Barnabas: You know, of course, I am not speaking of this life. Not this life where it is true we have only met once, but of the past, the past where you and I —
Antoinette: That’s terrific. Très bon, monsieur! That’s the best one I’ve heard in a long time.
It just goes on and on. Finally, he snaps.
Barnabas: Let’s end this charade. I know perfectly well why you came. I am not confounded by your cunning pretenses, your hippie disguise.
Antoinette: All right. I will tell you the truth. I am here because of my daughter —
Barnabas: Your daughter? A daughter no one has seen? Oh, come, let us draw away this curtain of deceit and at least acknowledge what we both know. You have returned to Collinwood to torture me once again, and if you remain here, my life will be a living hell —
And then she tells him that he’s insane, which he is, and that he doesn’t know anything about her or her daughter, which he doesn’t, and she wants him to stop stalking her. So that went great.
Then there’s a chapter about Miranda being tried for witchcraft, and they strip her clothes off and search for the Devil’s mark, and then she’s in prison for a while, and then they take her out to the pond for a trial by water, and instead of drowning, she swims away and takes refuge in a beaver’s dam, because she is a Disney princess who is beloved by forest animals.
And then a long chapter about Barnabas haggling with an Iranian carpet merchant for a rug, just page after page of bartering.
Chapter 13 is very confusing.
In this chapter, David helps Barnabas carry his long-haggled rug to the Old House, where Barnabas plans to break in, again, and replace the cheap imitation rug that Antoinette has with this new, superior carpet. He seems to think that this is a normal way for one to comport oneself. David warns him that this is a strange and pushy thing to do, but Barnabas never listens to anyone.
Meanwhile, David is still curious about the locked room upstairs where he inexplicably thinks his toys might be, so he’s brought some keys from the key rack at Collinwood to see if any of them will fit the door. Barnabas says they won’t fit the new locks, but David says they might, and one of them does, so whatever.
So David helps Barnabas move all the furniture and put down the new rug, and then he goes upstairs to take the trespassing to a whole new level.
Then Quentin shows up with a bouquet of roses for Antoinette, who he’s supposed to meet and take to dinner, but she’s late, so instead he finds another dude standing around inside her house, uninvited. Barnabas is annoyed that Quentin is dating Antoinette, when he knows full well that she’s Angelique and she’s meant to be torturing him.
Quentin chuckled and shrugged. He gestured with the bouquet as if it were a baton. “If she is, she does not know it. Some happy creatures are born again with no memory of their past lives. You and I are not so fortunate.”
“You don’t know that for certain. Angelique has always confounded us all with her duplicity. And you must be cognizant of the fact that, if she has returned, she has come for me.”
Quentin turned away and moved to the secretary, where a crystal decanter of brandy with four glasses adorned a silver tray. Laying the roses aside, he poured himself a drink. “Barnabas, I like you. I always have. But your egotism knows no limits. You are not the only man in her life.”
So I have a question: there’s a crystal decanter on a silver tray in the drawing room, and Antoinette still isn’t locking the front door of this house? I honestly have no idea how Barnabas keeps showing up and just letting himself in, any time he feels like it. Barnabas and David have an actual conversation about whether David’s keys will fit the locked room upstairs, exactly at the moment when they should be explaining why they don’t need any keys to get in through the front door and start redecorating.
I also don’t really get why Barnabas is so upset about Quentin dating Antoinette. Quentin is entirely correct: if Barnabas is worried that Angelique is going to come after him, then Quentin distracting her is a good thing.
Quentin sat in the wing chair and leaned back, his elegant body at ease. “At this moment she is Antoinette, and that is all I care about. I am attracted to her. And come now, who has more right to her? Think about it. She will fall in love with me. She will be deliriously happy, content and purring like a kitten. Whereas you will only betray her once again and ruin her life. Be a sport. Don’t you think it might be my turn?”
Barnabas moved to the window. A dull ache spread across his chest. “You know if I find your painting I can destroy you.”
“Destroy… destroy… Barnabas, do you never tire of these dire threats? Really, my good man, there is more to life than one monster’s power over another’s. The truth is I am weary of this depraved existence. I am prepared to go at any time.”
Again, completely unwarranted aggression and threats towards a guy who as far as I know is Barnabas’ friend. And then there’s the Chevy, and the leaves.
There was the sound of another car arriving and the unmistakably distinctive slamming of a Chevy door. Barnabas lifted the edge of the scarlet curtain. Antoinette walked quickly across the gravel, her bobbing gait acutely familiar. She stopped when she saw the Bentley, a quizzical expression upon her face. But it was the behavior of the leaves that caught his attention, the carpet of leaves that lay on the drive. Swirling up in the wind, they cleared a path for her, and she walked through the masses on bare pavement.
I told you before about the leaves, which I cannot explain at all. I guess if Miranda is Snow White with her woodland creatures, then Antoinette is Moana, beloved by the ocean, except instead of the ocean it’s dead leaves. Also, is the slamming of a Chevy door really unmistakable? I don’t know why I’m worrying about that at this stage, but I am anyway. Everything is bothering me at this point.
Antoinette enters and sees the new carpet, which not surprisingly she is not thrilled to have creepy strangers redecorate her mansion.
She sighed. “It’s just that… I don’t know. I do appreciate your generosity. But Jackie chose the other rug. The one that was here. She was insistent. I had to buy it even though, as you said, it wasn’t right.”
“Jackie?” Barnabas was at a loss.
“Don’t get me wrong. She’s been a big help with the restoration, at least until she had to go back in the hospital. Really wonderful. Going everywhere with me, tracking down paint, materials. She even found the chandelier and the clock. I have no idea how she did it. They are identical to the ones in the photos. But for some reason, she had to have that rug, and only that rug. She actually became a little manic.”
“Who is Jackie?”
“Jacqueline. My daughter.”
Quentin moved to take her arm. “We should go,” he said. “We have a reservation.”
“Sure,” and she smiled. She turned to Barnabas at the door. “I think I’d better keep the one I’ve got. Thanks anyway,” she said. And they were gone.
So, again: multiple concerns. To begin with, Barnabas has already heard about Antoinette’s daughter several times, including the last time they spoke, and the hippie carpenter said the name Jackie, and also Barnabas was stalking Antoinette when she ran out of Windcliff with a little girl, so why he didn’t realize that she was talking about her daughter is a mystery to all.
Also, why does Antoinette just turn and leave the house, with a creepy stranger still inside it? Am I the only one who’s worried about the crystal decanter? I mean, if you leave your mansion’s front door unlocked almost anything could happen, and in a moment, we’re going to discover that it already has.
Because there’s a slam and a crash upstairs, and David screams, “NO! Get away from me! Who the hell are you, you creep?” and then he screams again and then he’s running down the stairs and grabs Barnabas by the coat sleeve and screaming, “Come on! Run! Get in the car!” and then “Start the engine! Hurry, do it, hurry!” and they drive all the way away before Barnabas has any idea what’s going on.
Finally, he stops the car and asks David what happened.
David made a helpless gesture. “I don’t know. It was dark up there, no lights, heavy curtains over the windows, and I was in that room — someone lives in that room, you know, a girl — and the door opened and there was this… this thing… black and filthy and covered all over with dirt and grime and wet leaves. I saw some muddy work boots and a face, God… it was awful. The face was all decayed, ragged, the skin hanging off the bone.”
“You must have been hallucinating.”
“No, Barnabas, I swear I saw it.”
“Thank God you’re not hurt.”
Yeah, so maybe next time don’t go clambering around in somebody else’s house, trying to unlock doors that someone has already decided that they would prefer you don’t enter. I know that being menaced by a swamp creature isn’t normally the punishment for that particular offense, but somebody has to stand up for property rights.
David spoke again. “Actually I had a funny feeling it — that thing — was looking for someone else, not me.” After another moment he said, “The key worked. You know that? I went in the room and I saw… some clothes, a couple of blouses, and some shoes.”
“Toni’s, don’t you think?”
“They were… like a teenager’s. And there were some books, and a diary. I read a little bit of it. I know I shouldn’t have done that. It was private. But I was curious.”
And now the thing that Barnabas doesn’t say is, oh, I guess that must be Antoinette’s daughter Jackie, because he’s probably already forgotten who that is.
“Then I heard a noise in the hallway and this… awful… hideous… ghoul came through the door.”
“But who do you think it was?” Barnabas was beginning to panic.
“Jesus, I don’t know. A walking corpse.”
“Could it have been one of the workmen, drunk perhaps, and out of his mind?”
“Well, if it was, he was dead.”
Slow comprehension crept over Barnabas like a flood of ants loose on his skin.
That’s a nice metaphor, actually, the flood of ants. I recognize that sensation, and that’s a very compact way to describe it. I haven’t really said much about the writing style, because the plot and the characterization and the page-to-page discontinuity of it all is so helplessly terrible that it’s hard to focus on the language, but in general I think it’s better than Angelique’s Descent, which was a bit too in love with its own ability to use the word chiaroscuro, if you know what I mean.
But again, I can’t really focus on that, because of the absolute idiocy of the idea that a muck-encrusted mockery of an undead workman — killed in the basement, and buried in the woods by Willie and Barnabas before it had the chance to reanimate — would be able to enter the new Old House and get all the way upstairs without anybody noticing that somebody had tracked dirt and mud and wet leaves all over the foyer and up the stairs. I mean, it’s possible to shrug and say, well, that’s fiction for you, but they’ve just spent the last two chapters talking non-stop about carpets. Is it me?
So now Barnabas is out in the woods alone at night hunting for monsters, and he still refuses to consider the only obvious thing to do, which is to go back to the Old House and look around. The last known location of the creature was on the second floor, right before he and David drove away in a panic. Now Barnabas is concerned about the monster and wants to stop it, so he’s wandering around outside, instead of doing what he should have done in chapter 1, which is to search the Old House. I just don’t think I understand this book very well.
Then he runs across David and a girl making out in the forest somehow, and it makes him confused and embarrassed, so he goes back to Collinwood and ends up in the middle of a conversation between Elizabeth and Carolyn that doesn’t matter. Then he sees that Carolyn is playing with a stereopticon, and he takes it, and now this is a book about Barnabas Collins playing with a stereopticon.
Selecting a card, he slid it into the rack and peered into the eyepiece. The scene was so clear he might have been looking through a window. A woman in a black and white dress cleverly cut to accentuate her voluptuous figure stood in front of an arched doorway hung with an elaborate fringed curtain, beyond which stood a giant potted palm, and beyond that a woodland scene with a stream. The woman, who was very beautiful, and whose blond hair was piled high on her head in a Gibson girl bouffant, stood beside a small library table in the center of the photo, holding a rose. A vase of roses on the table indicated that she was in the process of arranging a bouquet.
I don’t know; I simply don’t know. It is no use asking me what is going on in this book because I do not understand it and I never will.
Then Barnabas gets a phone call from Antoinette.
“I wanted to let you know that Jackie saw that rug you gave us and she absolutely flipped. I’ve never seen her so excited.”
“She said it’s the most beautiful carpet she has ever seen.”
“Then you will be keeping it after all.”
“If that’s all right.” There was a pause. “I’m sorry I was rude.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I am grateful to you. Nothing means more to me than her happiness. I was afraid she would be insulted, you see, since she had chosen the other one. But she actually lay down on the new carpet, stroked it with her fingers, and fell asleep.”
First thing that Barnabas doesn’t say: “Who is Jackie?”
Another thing that Barnabas doesn’t say: “Oh my god is your daughter in that house, David just saw a terrifying muddy dirt monster upstairs and you need to get out of there, is there anything that you can use as a weapon that isn’t a crystal decanter, oh shit oh shit”
And later that night, Barnabas goes and walks out to the hippie camp, where the hippies are all dropping out and turning on, and there’s Antoinette with her guitar, along with Jason the carpenter, who’s teaching them all about peace.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude,” Barnabas began, but Jason placed a finger over his lips and whispered, “We are all friends here. What’s ours is yours, and you are welcome.”
So I guess we’re going to call a lid on the hunt for the dangerous monster, and just hang out and listen to Jason talk about the garbage that’s on TV, and all the poison that pollutes the land, and the boys in uniform, taught to hate gooks, their mind filled up with lies, and how we have to fill our minds with love, and let the love come down like rain. Personally, I don’t know what I’d do, if I were offered a choice between hunting for a swamp monster alone in the middle of the night or sitting around a fire listening to a talkative hippie explain the state of the world. I would probably take it on a case-by-case basis.
Then Antoinette came forward and took his hand, led him to her sleeping bag spread over a log, and pulled him down beside her. She eased her body close and whispered, “Jason is channeling Jesus. That’s so cool, don’t you think?” and she giggled softly.
Barnabas looked into her eyes and saw his own reflection, so huge were her pupils. “Here,” she said, looking down at something in her hand, “there’s one left.” She touched her finger to her tongue and lifted up and kissed him softly. His head spun when he felt her lips. Her kiss left a bitter taste in his mouth, and he heard the wind moan in the trees. There was far-off thunder.
One of the young men slapped a mosquito, and the slap was like a cap exploding.
“No, no, man,” said Jason. “Please. Don’t kill. Not a single living thing, not even a bug, man. Shit, they live here, too. It’s their forest. We’re the intruders. We’re the strangers. So we got to blend in. We got to blend into the love.”
Barnabas tries to warn them that there’s a monster on the loose in the woods killing people, but Jason says yeah, the monster is in all of us, and then he says something about your fear is what helps you see who you are, and then everyone starts taking their clothes off and having sex.
Barnabas and Antoinette make love in a tent, which is great, and then as the sun starts to come up, he sees a couple outside having sex, except that it turns out it’s actually the monster holding a girl down and biting on her neck, so Barnabas rushes out of the tent and grabs an ax and chops at the monster and then he tries to get a stake and push it through the guy’s heart but it doesn’t really work, and Barnabas loses consciousness, and when he wakes up, Antoinette tells him that he managed to fight off the monster, and then Jackie chased the creature, and it fell over a cliff and exploded. Seriously, that’s what she says.
“But then he ran towards the cliff, and Jackie saw him standing on the ledge, his shape against the moon, teetering there, and before she could get to him, he fell, all the way down on the rocks. She said he just sort of exploded, you know, on the sand, and the waves washed him away like he was driftwood.”
Jackie is there in the tent right now, asleep, and Antoinette tells Barnabas that he was bitten by the monster, which Barnabas doesn’t remember but then he touches his throat and yeah, there are bite marks there, and Barnabas thinks well, maybe I’ll just be a vampire again I guess, but he doesn’t really mind because now he’s in love with Antoinette.
Now, after suffering the day-to-day desperation that is the human condition, the dumb show, the helplessness, did he not see with stunning clarity what he was, who he was meant to be? Was he destined to remain a vampire, cold at heart, calculating, but with the power to shape his world? Or was this new love the answer? And was it worth it in the end?
Then there’s a confusing sort-of-breakup conversation with Julia where she tells him that she senses his reluctance, and he realizes that he can’t love her, but he doesn’t really say it out loud. This is what he says instead.
“I’ve been bitten again,” he said.
He heard her catch her breath.
“And this time I intend to let it stay.” A charge of excitement flowed through him as he spoke.
Her face went gray. “But that’s impossible — let me see.” Rising and moving to him, she leaned in and turned back his collar. “Where?” she said. “There is nothing there. Where were you bitten?”
Barnabas felt for the wound. To his amazement, it was healed. The skin was smooth to his touch. Had he imagined it? “But, I thought…” He floundered in confusion. “I meant to say…”
“I want to stop the injections.”
And then they talk about that for a while, and she says that if he does stop, then he won’t necessarily revert back to being a vampire; he might just die. And they kind of go back and forth about that for a while.
And I don’t know, here I am in the middle of Chapter 15 and I’m honestly starting to wonder if I’m doing anybody any good by trying to write about this book. Is this interesting to anyone?
I mean, I’m not really making any big point about Dark Shadows anymore, or vampire literature or whatever it is that I think I’m doing when I write posts like this. I can’t really come up with much of a theme for the post, because the book just keeps throwing one thing after another at me, and none of them really make sense. I mean, I’m thinking back to the Dreams of the Dark post, and how I thought that book was the worst Dark Shadows fiction I’ve ever read, but at least there was a story there that I could track from start to finish. It was a stupid, self-indulgent story about an obvious author stand-in being the coolest vampire in the world and fulfilling his long-sought dream of having sex with Vicki, but at least I understood what it was trying to do. I can’t get a grip on The Salem Branch at all.
I have been writing this post all weekend, and right now it’s Sunday night, and I’m nowhere near done. I’m really trying to get as many posts out as I can so that I can finish this project, but this book is just killing me, and I don’t want to spend another two days on it. I can’t just bail on the post now, but I honestly don’t know what I can do with it anymore. I need to go to sleep, and think it over in the morning.
The Next Morning
So it looks like I have hit a wall with this book, and I am finding it very difficult to move past it. These book posts are always long and take a while to write, but usually I enjoy them a lot, even when the book is terrible — actually, especially when the book is terrible, because those are usually funny posts. But The Salem Branch is so complicated and so stupid, and I’m finding myself really struggling to explain what’s going on.
I’m using more direct quotations than is usually necessary by this point in a book, because nothing the characters do makes sense. For example: Antoinette’s phone call two chapters ago, when she says that Jackie loves the new rug and she curled up on it and went to sleep. The question of what the hell is wrong with Jackie is pretty central to the book, but we’re more than halfway through, and we still haven’t seen the character on camera.
Antoinette took her daughter away from Windcliff all the way back in chapter 4, and it sounds like Jackie has some kind of autism spectrum issue, and is possibly manic-depressive or even paranoid schizophrenic, based on the very little we’ve heard about her since then. It also sounded like Windcliff was using a therapy that Antoinette thinks is cruel, so probably electroshock therapy. That means Jackie is having a pretty hard time. But most of the time that we’ve seen or heard about Antoinette, Jackie is nowhere in sight: Toni’s playing folk music at the Blue Whale, or researching the Collins family in Salem, or going on a date with Quentin.
So where is Jackie? Well, it appears that sometimes she’s in the “playroom” on the second floor of the Old House, because David said that he found her clothes and her diary there. But nobody’s actually living in the Old House, because it’s still under construction, and workmen and other intruders are walking in and out of it all day. So maybe she’s with the hippies, although that means she’s hanging out with people who take acid and have group sex, which might be fun but is probably not the best environment for an autistic child. Plus I guess she interrupted a zombie attack in the camp that killed at least one person and knocked Barnabas unconscious, and she drove the zombie off a cliff herself somehow, and then she went back to the tent where her mom was having sex with Barnabas and went to sleep, and Barnabas still hasn’t looked her in the eyes and said hello Jackie, it’s nice to meet you, so we have no idea what the girl is even like.
And somewhere in the near future, David is going to decide that he likes Jackie, possibly as a potential girlfriend, although I thought he was making out with a hippie girl named Charity. Also Jackie is Miranda, I think, and she’s the one who keeps blowing leaves around.
And then there’s chapter 20, where — hold on, let’s skip ahead to chapter 20.
People actually notice that the girl in the hippie camp is dead, and the police shut the camp down, which is a welcome sign that civilization still exists in the Parkerverse. David and Barnabas are looking for Antoinette and Jackie, and they track them down in Salem. Around midnight, Barnabas leaves David asleep in a hotel, and he finds Antoinette’s truck parked outside the Witch Education Bureau, where there’s a poster for a seance being held there tonight.
And then, for fuck’s sake, this:
At first he could see nothing inside the room but a red glow. A heavy odor of incense filled his nostrils and a dozen candles flickered in the gloom. A flash of lightning illuminated the arched gothic window on the back wall, exposing its tracery, and he saw a large circular table with a dozen or so black-robed individuals seated around it, their heads bowed. The table and its ring of worshipers seemed to float over a blood red carpet on the heavily polished floor. Coming from somewhere in the circle was the deep reverberation of an incantation.
“Once again we call upon the great powers locked in the shifting firmament, trapped in the membranes of memory. Take us back to this very spot, two hundred and eighty years ago, to Salem at its founding, to a simpler and purer time, that this woman and her daughter may search the far horizons of their past. The Salem we seek surrounds us now, its ghosts and its spirits. We call on those who lived then to come for us. Lead us, embrace us.”
Antoinette is in the circle, and so is Jackie.
Jacqueline’s stare pierced him to the bone. It was a look of recognition and contempt, and had he not known she was but a child, he would have said — a look of evil.
So, again, we have no reason to like or be interested in this terrible child who we have never seen in a good mood. But now Barnabas needs to sit down and take part in this stupid seance.
A man dressed in a black hood with slits for eyes — some sort of high priest, Barnabas assumed — took hold of Barnabas’ other hand and resumed his invocation.
Okay, what? Why is there a high priest, in the middle of Salem’s tourist attractions? Also, a high priest of what?
Barnabas looked at the other circle members He thought he recognized the two young waiters from the restaurant who had served him and David.
Wait, really? Why are we dragging the gay waiters back into this? How did anyone explain to them that they need help sending this woman and her daughter back in time 180 years? What the fuck is going on?
And then Barnabas sees Jackie stand up, and she screams, and then there’s lightning and the window explodes, and he reaches out for Antoinette and they all fall down, and when Barnabas wakes up it’s two chapters later, and he’s in 1692 Salem, because they traveled through time and now Barnabas and Antoinette appear at Miranda’s witch trial for all of chapter 22. He talks to Cotton Mather and everything. It’s frightful.
Oh, and remember Jason? The carpenter hippie guy? Barnabas decides that he’s a vampire for some reason, and then Willie runs in and says that Jason’s on the roof with a knife and he wants revenge for something, and then Barnabas sees Jason and goes up on the roof and thinks they’re going to fight, but then Barnabas discovers that Jason has actually been skewered on the lightning rod, with its point protruding from the top of his head. And who could have done that?
So he goes inside, and he checks that everyone is sleeping, but he finds Jackie in David’s room, kissing David, and Barnabas thinks that she’s the vampire, but actually she’s kissing his wounds away, because she’s a witch and her name is Miranda.
“Stay back,” she said, and her flinty eyes glittered. “Leave me here to care for him.”
“I can’t leave him with you, Jacqueline. Don’t you know that?”
“But he is in no danger. You were the one I came to destroy.”
“To destroy me?”
Her face grew hard, her voice bitter. “I hounded you. I trapped you with a phony carpet, and you took the bait. I bit you in my mother’s tent. Even a vampire’s bite is easy to fake. I followed you and I tormented you. Didn’t you know the leaves were meant to kill you? And they would have the next time.”
So — wait, what? The phony carpet was a trap?
I mean, yes, Barnabas noticed that the carpet wasn’t very good, and that inspired him to buy an extravagant present for Antoinette, but he wanted to get close to Antoinette anyway, and if it wasn’t the carpet then it would have been something else, so what are you talking about? And also how do you have power over leaves, and if you do have power over leaves, then how were you using that power to achieve any specific aim? If you wanted to kill Barnabas, why didn’t you just do it during one of the many, many times in the book when he’s been rendered unconscious? And who kills people with leaves? And if you’re Miranda, then what do you have against Barnabas, and how are you different from being Angelique?
This whole book is like a fever dream, throwing unpleasant events and images and sensations at you, constantly knocking you off balance as the characters make baffling decisions and nonsensical confessions, and everyone is just so angry, and mean. Nobody has friends, nobody makes jokes, and the plot points are scrambled and confused. If you think about it for too long, it drives you mad, and I have been thinking about it since 2006.
The Salem Branch is like one of those books in Lovecraft stories, filled with dangerous and head-cracking ideas. Once a generation, our fandom holds a lottery, and whoever is chosen has to spend a night writing a blog post about The Salem Branch. Over the last fifteen years, six people have tried to read this book; three of them died, and the other three have gone irretrievably insane. I think I’m gonna do both.
And then there’s Julia. I don’t really want to discuss what happens with Julia, but if I don’t write it down then you might be curious enough to go and read the book and find out what happens, and I cannot let you take that risk. There is something terribly wrong with this book, and I need to be the one who takes it down.
Stand back! Stand back, I say! I can do this myself — please don’t come any closer, I don’t want you to be harmed.
The casket was large, wide enough for two. Barnabas noticed with a flicker of envy that his adversary’s choice was elegant indeed. It gleamed — a polished ebony — and its curves were sumptuous. “I think — we have found our vampire,” he said.
“Who do you think it is?” Willie whispered.
Determined to end his quest, summoning all his strength and fighting a wave of dizziness, Barnabas grasped the stake tightly in his left hand and hefted the mallet.
“Open the casket. And stand back.”
For once, Willie obeyed. Perhaps he was curious as well, eager to end the uncertainty. Barnabas poised, knees shaking, legs apart, and the shaft raised at the ready. Slowly, Willie lifted the lid. It did not creak as Barnabas’ had always done — that old musical whine. Instead, it rose with a sigh.
Willie jumped out of the way and Barnabas lunged forwards but he heard Willie’s footsteps slapping on the stair. “I can’t watch it! Not her!”
When he saw what lay inside the coffin, he slowly lowered his tools.
Julia lay on a bed of saffron satin, her hands crossed over her breast. A single lily caught between her fingers had drooped slightly and scattered its crimson pollen on her gown. Her face was carved ivory, with deep shadows, and her skin a translucent amber hue. Her hair was once again a vibrant auburn, and her high cheekbones flared beneath cinnamon lashes. He wondered at her body, every voluptuous curve visible beneath the silken robe. She was beautiful.
Yes. That is the terrible secret buried at the heart of The Salem Branch, and by terrible I don’t mean that it induces terror; I mean that it doesn’t make any sense and it’s super depressing. Julia got the needles mixed up, and instead of curing Barnabas using her own blood, she got the vampire infection herself, and now she has become voluptuous and beautiful and undead. And she will rise from her coffin, and explain a whole bunch of useless plot points, and Barnabas will become her victim, and they will run off together, and that is actually the way that the book ends, with Barnabas perfectly content as Julia’s blood slave.
If you want to know what happens to Antoinette and Jackie then you are entirely out of luck, because nothing happens to them. The last time we see Toni, she’s on a date with Quentin, and Jackie becomes David’s girlfriend and we never really know which of them was supposed to be Angelique, if any of them were. It wouldn’t really matter one way or the other anyway.
The only thing that matters is that I love you. I really do. I’ve been writing this ridiculous blog for so long, and I have come so close to finishing it, and you have been here, traveling along this path with me, taking each step through this ritual that must never be completed. You’re watching the show while reading these posts, and you write funny comments and you say lovely things, and I cannot allow you to be hurt.
I am leaping, in slow motion, my body twisting, desperate to jump in front of this bullet, before it strikes you. Please allow me to do you this service. I will sacrifice myself, my life and my sanity, and I will do with it a smile. I am already so badly injured; there is nothing more that can be done for me. I just need you to get away, to live your life, so that mine will not be wasted. Remember that I love you.
And as I take my final jagged, shuddering breath, I beg you: do not read The Salem Branch. Allow me to be the final victim of this terrible, terrible curse.
Tomorrow: Violent Femmes.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Flora says, “Each one will draw a slip. Five them — of them are blanks.”
Gabriel cries, “I can’t bear this!” and Flora responds, “Be quiet, Quentin!” Then she catches herself and says, “Be quiet, Gabriel!”
Quentin offers a cryptic choice to Gabriel: “Now, either I hit you and I carry you back… but… tomorrow night, you’re going into that room!”
At the top of act 2, after Julia reacts to the sound of the door opening, someone in the studio coughs. A moment later, there’s a much louder cough as Quentin pushes Gabriel across the foyer.
Gabriel yells at Julia, “Oh, that’s fine for you to say, you were the, you didn’t get picked, did you?”
Julia tells Catherine, “You’re an ambition – an ambitious person.”
When Julia interrupts Morgan and Catherine’s conversation, he says, “Cath — uh, Julia, I want to speak to you about something.”
Tomorrow: Violent Femmes.
— Danny Horn