Dark Shadows: Shadows of the Night – Performed by Nancy Barret, Christopher Pennock, Stephanie Ellyne & James Storm. Written by Nick Myles, Antoni Pearce, Daniel Hinchliffe and Lila Whelan & Directed by David Darlington and Jim Pierson – 2xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Recently, Big Finish has gone in a slightly different direction with their Dark Shadows releases. Rather than continue the gradual move toward full-cast dramas that was becoming synonymous with their “audiobook” range, they have, instead, been putting forth anthology-type releases consisting of several individual stories, each told by a different actor – collections of “Short Trips”, to use the Doctor Who vernacular. Shadows of the Night is one such release. Billed as “four tales of horror, romance and intrigue”, this collection consists of stories that may, on the surface, seem as different as night and day, and yet are connected through several common thematic elements. One of the most important of these is the devotion that we as humans have to one another. There are stories here about tightly-bound friendships, unconditional love, those connected through common afflictions, and relationships based on desperation above all other things.
In the first story, Trio, by Nick Myles, Nancy Barrett’s Caroline Stoddard goes back to her friendship with Amy Jennings and tells the story of their encounter with Jude, a mysterious, deformed piano player who they encounter during their university days. At first, Trio has all the hallmarks of a typical love triangle, albeit with a supernatural twist. But Jude is more than just a romantic diversion for Caroline and Amy; when they first encounter him, he is being accosted by a crowd of bullies. Grateful for the girls’ assistance, Jude invites them to his piano recital that evening. Initially, Caroline and Amy agree to come to the concert reluctantly; they are somewhat taken aback by this strange, almost hunchbacked character. But it’s at the piano recital where things really begin to change…
As Jude plays that evening, both Caroline and Amy find themselves absolutely mesmerized by his performance. Carolyn finds herself falling madly in love with this man she had almost detested just a few short hours earlier, and the listener becomes acutely aware that Amy has fallen under the same spell. What is interesting is that each woman is absolutely certain that their feelings of devotion are reciprocated by the enigmatic Jude. As a result, Caroline is sure that Amy’s feelings are unrequited, and she is certain that Jude will “let her down easily”. But their mystery man has more than a few surprises in him.
In many ways, Trio is more about friendship than love. Both Caroline and Amy find themselves viciously rejecting one another in favour of this mysterious new enigma in their lives – something they swore they would never do. Who – or what – Jude actually is, is unimportant. Rather, it’s what he does to the two women that forms the basis for the story’s central message.
Antoni Pearce’s Honeymoon from Hell takes us inside the head of Cyrus Longworth, the character from the audio The Enemy Within who had previously shared a body with John, the son of the Dark Lord himself. Celebrating their recent betrothal, he and his new bride, Sabrina Jennings, travel to Pforzheim, Germany, for their honeymoon. But almost immediately upon their arrival they are plagued by the image of a young man, staring at them from across streets, through restaurant windows and from the depths of crowds.
And then Sabrina vanishes. Cyrus is left all alone in a strange town, convinced that the machinations of the Dark Lord are playing with his life and his loved ones yet again. Immediately, Cyrus’ reactions are the same as anyone’s: he goes to the police to report what he believes to be an abduction. But, of course, the police are no help at all: Sabrina has only been missing for mere minutes, and although Cyrus is certain that there is some dark intent, the police are not going to be of any help with this one.
How Cyrus begins his search for Sabrina and where and why she has been taken forms the foundation of a story about the purest and most unconditional love. Cyrus, played by Dark Shadows stalwart Christopher Pennock, is an odd one to listen to; if any story in this collection feels absolutely “off-the-cuff’, it’s this one, as Pennock doesn’t sound for a minute like he’s reading from any script or short story. Instead, there is a strong “stream of consciousness” vibe to this story. Cyrus jumps from fleeting thought to fleeting thought, and the listener has no choice but to accompany him on his strange journey. In many ways, it’s as if his mind has been fractured from recent experiences, and more than anything it’s the presence of Sabrina that keeps him grounded. The idea of unconditional love is not so much a theme; it’s really more of a motif here – but Cyrus and Sabrina seem to have more than just a strong devotion to one another. Rather, their souls seem to be connected, sometimes over great distances – and this connection continuously reinforces to the listener the idea that sometimes out of great darkness can come a spark of pure light.
In Retreat, by Daniel Hinchliffe, Stephanie Ellyne’s Amy Jennings, along with Elizabeth Stoddard, arrive at the Library d’Alexandria, a Parisian bookstore, in search of Roger Collins. But what begins as a physical search through a decidedly solid structure quickly becomes a pursuit through the mindscape of a man who has been cursed with a terrible, terrible affliction. On one hand, it’s an affliction that Amy knows only too well, but on the other, it’s more unique than she ever could have imagined.
The request that the hybrid-like figure known as Matthew makes of Amy is, initially, not one she expects or desires. For too long, Amy has been dealing with a terrible curse that has been running through the bloodlines of her family, and it is here, on this moonlit Parisian night, that she finally has the chance for some redemption.
And perhaps that’s the real message of this story: that, once in a blue moon (pardon the pun – you’ll get it when you hear the story), we are given a chance for salvation and deliverance. The point is to take it without asking too many questions. Here, Amy is given a chance at something she has never had with her family, and only by reaching across the gulf and connecting with someone who truly understands him is the mysterious Matthew able to feel human again. The message here seems to be that being human is more a state of mind rather than something determined by external appearances. As in Honeymoon from Hell, we once again learn that sometimes we can only see the light if we are prepared to look deep into the darkness.
And finally, in 1:53 a.m., James Storm returns to Dark Shadows, this time as Dr. Robert Harper, a researcher at the University of Maine’s parapsychology department Without a doubt the strongest entry in this collection, 1:53 a.m. is the story of the possession and subsequent exorcism of a young girl following a major family tragedy. Recruited by Carolyn Stoddard, Dr. Harper finds himself in one of the most dangerous locations of all: the typical suburban family home. The girl in question is Bethany, an eleven-year-old who is so bruised and emaciated when Harper first sees her that he thinks she is closer to eight or nine.
One of the major themes in the story is different notions of truth; like all exorcists, Robert Harper is deeply concerned about possible medical – or other – reasons for Bethany’s behaviour. In fact, it is this apprehension that eventually takes over, leading to the series of events that dominate the second half of the story.
As with the other stories in this anthology, 1:53 a.m. deals with certain kinds of relationships. Although Dr. Harper’s connection to Carolyn is strictly professional, there is every indication in the story that he wishes it was more than that. And then, more importantly, there’s his relationship with Bethany and her father, Douglas, a decidedly broken man who is still reeling from the family tragedy that occurred barely a few months ago. One might be tempted to categorize this connection as a kind of business relationship – the affiliation between an individual and those he works for. But it’s much more nuanced than that; Douglas and Bethany are people who quickly come to trust Dr. Harper absolutely; they put themselves entirely in his hands, and are the first to suffer when he begins to doubt himself. Writer Lila Whelan expertly weaves these various relationships around and through each other, and in the end it’s this interconnection that is ultimately responsible for the story’s twists, themes and surprises.
In the end, Shadows of the Night is nothing groundbreaking or world-changing, but it does provide a listener with a good deal of character insight and understanding. Personally, this reviewer is much more interested in full-cast dramas rather than readings of short stories but, admittedly, there is definitely something to be said for how readings such as these are able to get inside a character’s head in a way that a piece of dialogue simply cannot do.
And that’s really how many of these anthology projects should be seen: they will never tell stories of massive, earth-shattering events in the lives of these beloved characters. Rather, their purpose is more to “flesh out” the mystique, temperament and personality of some of Dark Shadows’ more interesting individuals. And that’s where Shadows of the Night really succeeds; as listeners, we go in not really knowing what to expect. But we come out the other end with a much greater understanding of what it means to be a resident of Collinsport (previously or currently), and what it’s like to deal with the supernatural on such a regular, day-to-day basis. Peter McAlpine