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A Very Gothic Week: Dark Shadows and the Gothic Novel Genre

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Not by design, but just in time, anyway, this has become A Very Gothic Week here at Sweet Rocket. Yesterday was a review of the fabulous new gothic novel Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees. Today is Dark Shadows day.

Unfortunately, today’s post is inspired by the passing of Dark Shadows legend Jonathan Frid, who portrayed Barnabas Collins, arguably the most revolutionary vampire of the 20th century, on the gothic soap during  Dark Shadows’ original late 1960s-early 1970s run. Dark Shadows, and Frid’s characterization of Barnabas Collins in particular, transformed the popular notion of the vampire, turning vampires into romantic, heroic characters rather than horror movie monsters along the lines of Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde.

Dark Shadows did more than just turn Frid’s vampire and co-star David Selby’s werewolf Quentin Collins into sexy romantic leads. Despite its inauspicious beginnings as a half-hour afternoon soap, Dark Shadows became a cultural force, inspiring movies, comic books, records, and an entire genre of books, the Gothic novel.

One of the most popular and enduring of the cottage industries that sprung up around Dark Shadows’ characters was a series of Gothic paperback novels. According to Paperback Library, 33 Dark Shadows books were published between 1966 and 1973. All were authored by Canadian Dan Ross, but published under the pen name Marilyn Ross. Aside from House of Dark Shadows, which was a novelization of the movie of the same name, the Dark Shadows books were a series which featured an alternate storyline/history to that portrayed on the television show.

Like the show, the Dark Shadows books were written in the Gothic vein, although they did not always hew to the conventions of the Gothic-style first person narration and tight focus on the main character/narrator. More Gothic mystery than Gothic romance, the books fell into two categories: the early books featuring a mystery centered on a different Dark Shadows character with each volume, and the later books, which focused on Barnabas Collins and Quentin Collins as a sort-of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, solving paranormal and/or evil villian mysteries.

It’s not pure conjecture to state that Dark Shadows helped fuel the Gothic novel vogue of the 1960s and 1970s. The Gothic genre, which had fallen in and out of fashion like hemlines since the late 1700s, became a big deal in the wake of Dark Shadows’ success. While authors such as Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart had found success with their Gothic romances, publishers began to buy up Gothic stories in droves during the height of Dark Shadows’ popularity.  Many paperback publishers created lines especially for Gothics (including Paperback Library, which published the Dark Shadows novels), and Gothics became so popular during this period that the genre actually featured sub-genres, including historical Gothics, contemporary Gothics, paranormal Gothics, romantic Gothics and Gothic mysteries.

Meanwhile, Dark Shadows covered much of the same territory as the Gothic books published during (and after) its run, featuring mystery storylines, historical storylines set in the Victorian and Colonial periods and romantic storylines in addition to the show’s contemporary paranormal storyline. How influenced authors of Gothics were by Dark Shadows’ storylines and vice-versa is anyone’s guess, but it’s interesting to note that  Dan Ross – writing as Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross and Ann Gilmer, amongst other pseudonyms – published over 300 books (including the Dark Shadows books), many of them Gothics, during the 1960s and 1970s.

But as Dark Shadows’ fortunes went, so did the popularity of Gothic romances. After the cancellation of Dark Shadows in 1971, Gothics managed to hang on to their foothold in the paperback market for several years, but by the end of the 1970s, publication of Gothics had dwindled dramatically, supplanted by the surge in popularity of historical romance, especially that unique 1970s-1980s sub-genre of historical romance, the bodice-ripper. Many authors who’d first found success writing Gothic novels, including Barbara Michaels and Anne Stuart, moved on to subvert Gothic themes into romantic suspense or standard mysteries, while others, such as Mary Kay Simmons, moved on to bodice-rippers or other romance genres. Others simply drifted away.

The current popularity of paranormal romance would seem to create the perfect atmosphere for another Gothic revival, but alas. The one publisher that consistently published Gothics through the 1990s-2000s, Dorchester (under the Love Spell and Candleglow imprints), closed its physical doors in March of this year, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive as an electronic publisher.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Amanda DeWees’ wonderful Sea of Secrets has proven. Enduring Gothic classics, such as those by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, remain in print. E-books and self-publishing have revived many long-dead genres and writers who’d been unable to find a home with publishers.  There’s also hope that many of the 1960s-1970s Gothics may be republished as e-books; perhaps Gothics will experience the same e-book renaissance as older uber-traditional Regencies, which had slowly been phased out by publishers looking for books with more graphic sexuality and third-person narration, and are now re-emerging in e-book format. Belgrave House, which sprung up just to republish out-of-print books in e-book format, has done a wonderful job of bringing traditional Regencies back, and is beginning to add a few Gothics, as well.

If nothing else, maybe the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows reboot due out later this year will give new life to this sadly neglected genre. Long live Gothics!

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Author: J.E.

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

8 thoughts on “A Very Gothic Week: Dark Shadows and the Gothic Novel Genre

  1. This is a side of the gothic romance story that I wasn’t aware of. Thank you for an illuminating and enjoyable post–and for including Sea of Secrets in the discussion!

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  6. As a huge fan of both the original “Dark Shadows” and the 1960s gothics, I think it was the other way around — “Dark Shadows” tapped into a gothic-novel genre that was already a powerhouse. Victoria Holt’s “Mistress of Mellyn” (1960) was probably the first modern-era Gothic superhit (although there are some examples from the 1950s and some argue that Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca” really was the beginning). Anyway, Holt and such authors as Phyllis Whitney and Mary Stewart were enormously popular in the years right before the “Dark Shadows” debut in 1966. My mother, who wasn’t a fan of conventional soaps at all, absolutely loved gothic fiction and couldn’t believe her luck when a daytime TV serial arrived with the same creepy, atmospheric storylines as her favorite novels! “Dark Shadows” was an afternoon requirement in our house 🙂

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