“Absurd! Ha ha ha! Children’s chatter!”
Thanks to the flashback in yesterday’s episode, the Collins family of 1841 Parallel Time now knows that the terrible curse under which they live was invented by their terrible ancestor Brutus, who was mad at his wife and a guy that he worked with, who he killed and then was still pretty mad at.
Question: How does this information help the story progress forward? Answer: It does not do that at all.
I feel like that flashback was pretty much the last straw for late-stage Dark Shadows, demonstrating that the show’s most outrageous, innovative trick — going back in time to see Collins ancestors played by current cast members — has become worn-out and pointless. Yes, we got some new set dressing and costumes for a day, and there was a worthwhile Louis Edmonds character acting villainous and unhinged, but it didn’t tell us anything that we couldn’t already guess, and there was no real visual surprise, which is supposed to be Dark Shadows‘ core competency.
The best visual that the show has come up with lately was Morgan digging up the basement in the cottage and unearthing a skeleton with a wig, so you’d think they’d try to connect with that somehow, but they forgot all about it and just showed us Brutus strangling some people, which is not interesting or fun to watch.
So screw it, how about we go and read some comics instead? They may have run out of ideas at ABC Studio 16, but at Gold Key Collinwood, it’s just one crazy disaster after another.
Today, I’d like to look at issue #26, “The Witch Dolls”, which was published in June 1974. This is well past the end of the television show, so there are no new ideas coming from that direction, and the premise of the comic is pretty much settled: Barnabas and Quentin are heroic, cursed creatures who try to solve other people’s problems, while managing the everpresent threat of exposure and destruction.
Every issue ends where it began, so actual story progression is impossible, and the only way to give kids a reason to drop 20 cents on the next issue is to just be as bonkers as they possibly can. “The Witch Dolls” is the high point for that aesthetic, going beyond bonkers into the absolutely incoherent. This story may have been written entirely in the dark.
The story opens with Quentin, Elizabeth and a young blonde girl named Lenore who is apparently Liz’s niece somehow, visiting from Denver. Quentin has taken them out for a speedboat ride on a sunny day, and the caption says: “New England… summer… a day when sun and sea have conspired to deny the existence of evil…”
But no matter what the sun and the sea have to say about it, evil does still exist, probably, and Quentin is brooding upon it.
“Sorry, Elizabeth!” he says. “My mind’s on other things! Sybil Lennon is missing! Her dad owns the cannery at South Collinsport!”
“I know her!” Elizabeth chirps. “She won the national debating medal last year! Pretty thing, too!”
Quentin agrees, “My bet is Sybil’s gone off to New York or Hollywood to become an actress!” which if that’s the case then I don’t know why he’s upset about it. Personally, I didn’t realize that a national debating medal was the springboard to a sudden film career, but when somebody goes missing, it’s usually because they’ve gone to Hollywood. All of this exposition is going to matter later on, so try to absorb it as best you can.
On the way back to Collinwood, while still discussing the mysterious disappearance of a debating champion, the trio gets sidetracked by the mysterious appearance of a quaint storybook shack that calls itself Granny Bumpers’ Doll House, which is pure catnip for the young set.
It’s nice that the comic book is still acknowledging the existence of children, all the way out here on the outer rim of Dark Shadows, because the television show has utterly abandoned them. The kids running home from school used to be a major driver of the show’s success, but there’s honestly nothing on Dark Shadows these days that could be of the slightest interest to children. No vampires, no witches, no magic spells; it’s just sad people talking about how worried they are. If anybody’s running home from school at this point, that says more about school than anything else.
The Doll House is packed to the rafters with a wide variety of play people, all constructed by the twinkling Granny Bumpers, an eccentric old broad with an unstable business model. There can’t be that many hopelessly square kids in upstate Maine who want to collect wooden hand-painted firefighter dolls in this day and age, without being forced into it at gunpoint.
But Granny Bumpers knows how to keep the customers happy, apparently, by putting on personalized puppet shows about Roberto and Consuela arguing about centipedes. “Don’t move, Consuela!” the boy puppet says. “There’s a fly on your head — got it!” And then he hits her over the head with a baseball bat. This is good old-fashioned entertainment that even playboy popstar werewolves can enjoy.
Lenore is enchanted, naturally, by which I mean that she must be under an enchantment that makes her particularly susceptible to quirky local-access children’s show hosts. She’s got an inexplicable craving for Roberto and Consuela, even though it’s 1974 and Sesame Street has spent the last five years raising America’s expectations around quality puppet comedy. I could see Granny Bumpers making some coin on bootleg Ernie and Bert knockoffs, but Roberto and Consuela are clearly box office poison.
And then Granny actually gives away merchandise for free, which is the most unrealistic thing in this story. I can get on board with vampires and werewolves, but people who put on marionette shows need to keep a sharp eye on expenses.
Elizabeth says they need to hurry home: “Look at the time! Almost sundown! Barnabas will be done with his work and hungry as a bear!” This is an innovation in gothic fiction, a vampire who gets up from his coffin with a desperate urge for tuna casserole.
On cue, we cut to the basement vault at Collinwood, where eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins rises from his coffin with yet another mandatory woe-is-me monologue.
“I feel your flaming presence fading, mine enemy, the sun!” he emotes. “And the night that brings you death gives me life!” Gold Key Barnabas does this continually, it’s just one long litany of complaints. “It is centuries past my own grave-time,” he goes on, “yet the curse of Angelique denies me eternal rest!” Wait till he hears about the lamb chops.
Because that’s where we go next, for some reason, a full page of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard stopping off at the butcher’s shop, trying to score something tasty for dinner. We’re going to have to go into this in some depth, because it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and anyway I like commedia dell’arte butchers.
Mr. Mancuso: Lamb chops? Where I’m gonna get lamb chops, Signorina Collins? My Carlo, he don’ go to the wholesaler this morning! He don’ even come home las’ night! Tha’s a fact!
Elizabeth: Gone? But do you know where?
Mr. Mancuso: Shu’ I know! He’s gone off on his Japanese vroom-vroom! Every night up and down the hills on vroom-vroom! Morning, he’s too tired to lift a quarter-steer!
Elizabeth: Your son — is he a close friend of Sybil Lennon?
Mr. Mancuso: Ha-ha-ha-ha! You think he’s with Lennon girl?
Mr. Mancuso: You know who won — stole — national speech contest?… Lennon girl! Rich daddy gone to New York and buy her a speech! Tha’s a fact!
Elizabeth: Can you prove —
Mr. Mancuso: I don’ gotta prove! I know! Anyway — I don’ wan’ no speech maker! I wan’ my son — the butcher! You know what I do when he show up? First I kiss him… then I knock his dumb head off!
Elizabeth, in the car: But why would they be together if he hated her, Quentin?
Quentin: I don’t know! But the coincidence is far too strong!
So that’s… wait, what? Try and go back and make any sense of that conversation. Carlo’s off on his Japanese vroom-vroom, so Liz can’t score any lamb chops. Mr. Mancuso is furious that Sybil Lennon stole the national debating medal because her rich father bought her a fancy New York speech, in a competition where Carlo was also a competitor, which is quite a coincidence for a national contest, especially given that Carlo is a teenage butcher who’s expected to stay at home and lift quarter-steers.
And then Elizabeth comes out of that flurry of dialect with the idea that Sybil and Carlo hated each other, which they didn’t, and the butcher never said that they did. Tha’s a fact!
But the real point of that scene is to establish that the two-hundred-year-old vampire won’t be eating any lamb chops tonight. For all of his undead curse-lamenting, Barnabas appears to be a happy member of this weird family, delighted by the antics of little Lenore, who’s messing around with her terrible witch puppet at the dinner table.
Everyone is extremely jolly in this story, especially Barnabas, which offers quite a contrast to the way he was portrayed earlier in the comic book series.
Back in 1969, Gold Key Barnabas would spend the entire story trying to murder every other character.
And this is the 1974 version, uttering the immortal line: “Ha-ha-ha! Very good, Lenore! But you must practice without moving your lips! … Ahhh! The tuna casserole!”
When the television show is over, when the comic strip sputters to an end, when the Paperback Library moves on to other governesses, this is what will remain: Barnabas Collins eating tuna casserole with his young niece. I don’t believe that we requested specifically this, but sometimes life works out that way.
There’s a knock at the door, and a messenger brings a package with two dolls from that Bumpers dame, a contemporary teenage boy and girl on strings which a) is not what they ordered, and b) has not been paid for in any way. This is what I’m telling you about the problem with Granny Bumpers’ business model; it can’t all be loss leaders. Every once in a while, you need to charge people.
Once Lenore’s in bed and the avuncular portion of the evening draws to a close, Barnabas and Quentin confer about the disappearance of Sybil and Carlo, which they keep coming back to despite the fact that it’s none of their business. But in this reframe of the Dark Shadows premise, Barnabas and Quentin are essentially supernatural buddy cops, sworn to investigate curious mysteries that come their way.
“When you or I have such a feeling, we must sniff it to its root!” Barnabas declares, upsettingly. “For we are… different!” You can say that again.
Meanwhile, in the upstairs bedroom where I bet you didn’t think we would be spending a lot of time, Lenore falls asleep with the witch puppet on her hand like a sap; this may be the first toy she’s ever been given in her lonely life. But it turns out that the witch puppet is itself a witch, and it calls forth the marionettes from their boxes to perform their dark deeds.
And then, get this. The dolls aren’t dolls at all; they’re tiny people in wooden doll shells, who can burst through their carapaces and roam free in the world.
It turns out, to no one’s surprise, that Granny Bumpers is actually a devious enchantress, who is posing as an elderly doll constructor in order to commit a crime that would have been much, much easier to accomplish in almost any other way.
I mean, imagine that you wanted to get a couple confederates inside someone else’s house, to work mischief of one kind or another, so your first move is to build dozens of little dolls, including a chef, a doctor, a bride, a fire fighter, a baseball player and a Buckingham Palace guard. Then you have to kidnap two teens and shrink them down to doll size and then build breakable wooden shells around them, and after all that, you’re still like, damn, I forgot to write the centipede jokes for Roberto and Consuela. There’s got to be an easier way to accomplish whatever the fuck you’re trying to do.
And now the witch puppet tells the kids to climb down the dresser to find equipment to drive a sharp point into vampire flesh, because if you’re battling a dangerous supernatural serial killer, you think, time to raid the toy shelf.
But once you’ve turned the vampire into a friendly root-sniffing uncle who eats tuna casserole and wears caution like a second skin, what other tools are available to you? It doesn’t seem like a chainsaw type situation anymore. This is clearly playtime.
Meanwhile, Barnabas’ investigation into the missing-teens case brings him to the father of Sybil Lennon, who’s just as angry with Mr. Mancuso as the butcher is with him. It’s the classic Montague-Capulet story, but with a financier and a butcher, plus the star-crossed lovers are turned into dolls so that a witch puppet can kill a vampire.
“Of course, she’s off with that Carlo Mancuso!” Mr. Lennon cries. “I’ll break him with my own two hands when—” and it’s good that there’s no such thing as the rule of law in Collinsport, because if this was a real civilization, you might not want to stand around shouting violent threats about a missing child.
“Then it would seem that we only have an elopement to be concerned with… not some strange mystery!” Barnabas deduces. “A mere family problem!”
This gets Mr. Lennon even hotter under the collar. “Mere?” he shouts. “there is nothing mere about the daughter of Peter Lennon! I’ll kill that boy — see if I don’t!” Dude, try to keep a lid on your overwhelming desire to murder a teenager.
Also meanwhile, Barnabas’ partner Quentin tries another angle on the investigation, heading down to the waterfront to case out the local hobby shops. “Barnabas is right,” he considers. “We must act upon our instinct for detecting strangeness!… and I felt it today in that doll shop!” I’m not sure whether that was before or after he watched the Roberto and Consuela show.
When he arrives on the scene, good old Granny Bumpers invites him in for some tea, which he drinks, like a chump, and guess what happens.
So if you’re the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and thinks, I wish I could read a comic book in which debonair werewolf Quentin Collins drinks sassafras tea that shrinks him down to the size of a Smurf and gets put into a birdcage and menaced by a hungry cartoon cat, then have I got good news for you.
You know, as I’m writing this post, I keep thinking, okay, I can probably skip ahead a few panels and move a little quicker, and then I look at the page again, and I say, no. This is important. People need to understand what this is like.
So if anybody ever says to you that the Gold Key comic is not part of the Dark Shadows canon, then you need to ask yourself if that person should really be a part of your life.
Because, like all worthwhile Dark Shadows narrative, this comic challenges its readers to ask: Is it really that important if a story makes sense? Couldn’t there be more to life than that?
Now, as we have discussed before on several occasions, there is something terribly wrong with the moon in the Gold Key universe, which impacts the story’s supernatural creatures in unpredictable ways. We’ve seen evenings where Quentin becomes a werewolf for part of the night, and then the moon goes down and he turns back into a human, but Barnabas still has several hours before the sun comes up.
Tonight, the reverse happens: the moon goes down and Barnabas goes to bed, but Quentin still has plenty of time to run around and be a werewolf. “Back I must go,” Barnabas laments, “back to my coffin world, this eternal closet that acknowledges neither time nor hope!” Eternal closets can be like that, sometimes.
If you’ve been wondering what’s happening with the tiny teens of terror, the answer is that they’re using a pencil sharpener very carefully, so they can get a sharp point on a pencil without waking up the sleeping little girl. This is what’s happened to American storytelling.
The idea here is that they’re going to use the little toy hammer from the building set to drive this pencil into Barnabas’ heart. “The size of the stake is of no consequence,” says the witch puppet, “just so long as it is driven straight into the vampire heart!”
This is the moment where I have to break with my colleague, the witch puppet. I believe that the size of the stake is of some consequence. To my knowledge, I have never seen a vampire destroyed by school supplies, although I should probably binge a couple seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer before I make any definitive statements on the matter.
And then the witch puppet sends the Lilliputians off to do their dastardly work, running down the hallway as swiftly as tiny legs can carry them, pitta-pitta-pitta!
This is probably a good moment to note that this is possibly the least efficient use of resources that the witch puppet could possibly make. If you’re assembling a strike force to take down your enemies, my advice is to try to use full-sized people if you can; shrinking your associates to doll size means that it takes way longer for them to clamber down the stairs all the way to the secret basement vampire vault, and by the time they get there, they’ll be exhausted. I respect the out-of-the-box thinking, but sometimes you have to be practical.
Now it’s back to Quentin in the birdcage, where we find another unusual aspect of Gold Key moonlight: even when there isn’t a full moon, half-pint Quentin can turn into a werewolf if he stays out in the moonlight for too long. This is doubtless inconvenient for his usual evening activities, but it couldn’t be more fortunate here, because it turns him into an April Fools prank that this cat will never forget.
“You want my blood, cat!” the tiny werewolf cries. “But I’ll have yours first! YAWRRRR!”
Now take a moment to think about Morgan Collins waking up in his bedroom and asking his aunt Julia if he’s survived a night in the locked room and broken the family curse, and then ask yourself: which version of Dark Shadows would you prefer, right now? This is what I’m saying.
“Don’t run, little kitty! I have more plans for you!” the midget werewolf says, and then he picks up a fork and yells, “Here, feel my sting, cat!” Never before in the history of werewolf fiction.
Once he’s taken care of the cat, Quentin somehow scales the desk using the power of Joe Certa’s inability to draw perspective correctly, and he finds Granny Bumpers’ ye olde booke of spelles and ensorcellements, which is open to the page THE ANCIENT FORMULA FOR MAKING THE DEVIL’S LITTLE PEOPLE.
“That’s it!” says the teensy, multi-talented werewolf, who may kill cats with cutlery but is also proficient at research. “She left the book open when she was making that bitter brew I drank! But where is the antidote? Where?!” It’s probably on the page marked THE ANCIENT FORMULA FOR MAKING THE DEVIL’S BIG PEOPLE.
We finally get to the big dance number, where the enchanted children open up Barnabas’ coffin using kite string and a coat hanger. This is the sequence where you really appreciate why it was crucial that Sybil was established as a national debate medal winner.
And here’s the moment where we discover, once and for all, if it’s possible to murder a vampire with a pencil —
But then with an “EYYYARR! STOP! DON’T DO IT!” Quentin the full-sized werewolf runs in just at the last moment, and saves his vampire pal from the miniature marauders.
But guess what? These little criminals have some game after all; somewhere in the afterglow, a recently-slaughtered cat chirps a sliver of a satisfied purr.
Still, it turns out that in the long run, full-sized people have the advantage. Like everyone who runs a local hobby shop, Granny Bumpers is going to have to learn to live with failure.
Naturally, once the sun comes up, everything works itself out. Quentin turns back from mostly-human to fully-human, and gives the angry witch-ridden teens some ANCIENT FORMULA ANTIDOTE, which brings them back to their former size and temperament.
And happily, Sybil and Carlo don’t remember anything of their evening’s activities, so Quentin doesn’t have to murder them after all.
So what about Granny Bumpers? Well, as the sun comes up, she realizes that her evil plan has failed; now she’s going to have to find another national speech contest winner and start all over again.
She tries to make a break for her Japanese vroom-vroom, but Quentin finds her and says, “There is only one being in Heaven or Hell who would go to any end to destroy Barnabas Collins!”
And we discover that old Granny B is actually Angelique, she who first placed the curse of the vampire upon Barnabas, and who has clearly spent far too much time on this Bumpers boondoggle.
“And so you’ve lost again,” Quentin crows, “as you will always! You cannot buy or destroy him! And even in his greatest torment, he is a victory over all you represent!” I’m not sure what she’s supposed to represent.
“Absurd! Ha ha ha! Children’s chatter!” Angelique trills, and you have to admit she has a point. “Besides, I have eternity for my plans! Au revoir, cherie! We will meet again!” Just wait until she gets home and finds out that Quentin’s killed her cat with a fork.
This weird narrative deserves a weird conclusion, so here’s Sybil and Carlo reunited with their terrible fathers, all one big happy family. The feuding dads wanted to massacre each other earlier in the story, but now the kids are home and safe, following a tea party that they can’t quite remember, and everyone is super jolly. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” says Pop Mancuso, responding to the children’s chatter.
“I’d like to have Barnabas here!” says Mr. Lennon. “Somehow I think he was responsible for bringing them back!” He’s wrong, of course; Barnabas did nothing in this story except eat tuna casserole and go to bed. Still, I’m sure Quentin will tell him all about it tomorrow night, as they drive little Lenore to Windcliff Sanitarium, and leave her there forever.
Tomorrow: You Make Me Sick.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
It looks like the envelope that Josette is holding is addressed to “Bramwell Collins, Collingwood”, although the handwriting isn’t clear.
Morgan tells Julia, “I’d like to know my why wife isn’t here, where she belongs!”
When Bramwell says, “I do have feelings for her, very deep feelings,” there’s a glimpse of a studio light above.
Daphne says, “If you’re implying that Bramwell and Catherine have been unfaithful, I don’t believe it!” Morgan takes a moment, and a peek at the teleprompter, to reply, “You don’t, or you won’t?”
Daphne says she feels dizzy. Julia says, “Well, you’ll be better when we take you back to the Old House.” Daphne says she feels all right, and Julia says, “Well, you’ll be better off when you’re in bed.”
Morgan asks Julia how Daphne is, and Julia says she doesn’t know. Then there’s a thump in the studio, like something falling over.
Tomorrow: You Make Me Sick.
— Danny Horn