The House of Despair sees immortal Quentin Collins (David Selby) returning to his ancestral home after years of wandering the world. He finds Collinsport a literal ghost town — except for a few long-time residents/survivors like Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and Willie Loomis (John Karlen) — and Collinwood overrun by a Stygian entity and its followers that displaced the rest of the Collinses to parts unknown. Realizing he needs supernatural help to defeat this squatter, Quentin quickly resurrects the treacherous-but-powerful witch Angélique (Lara Parker) and enlists her reluctant aid…
Like its vampiric lead character, Dark Shadows keeps rising from the grave to enthral new generations with its tales of supernatural intrigue and doomed romance. After MPI’s disappointing Return to Collinwood audio celebration of the show’s 40th anniversary, fans held little hope for a similar resurrection. Then Big Finish Productions stepped in and brought the slumbering franchise back from the dead with compelling stories capably performed by a close-knit group of surviving original actors.
Thanks to a convincing aural “landscape,” solid performances by the cast and a writer who knows the characters intimately, The House of Despair succeeds in imparting Dark Shadows’s basic premise to newcomers, and rewards long-term followers with several Easter eggs.
Although Collinwood was overrun by spirits a few times during the show’s original run, the remaining three stories explore supernatural subjects that Dark Shadows didn’t previously touch upon. The Book of Temptation concerns a tome so absorbing that it draws its reader’s essence into its very pages, and features a guest turn by Daphne Ashbrook as the book’s last victim.
The Christmas Presence features the return of an old family friend for the holiday — along with a very unwelcome, uninvited guest. With such memorable scenes as Angélique decorating a Christmas tree, and Maggie Evans being attacked by the reanimated turkey carcass she’s preparing for dinner, this story superbly brings the concept of Christmas ghost stories to the Dark Shadows universe.
Then in The Rage Beneath, a 200-year-old ship drifts into Collinsport’s docks during a colossal coastal storm. Naturally, this vessel comes complete with undead pirate crew and a revenant leader keen on vengeance with the Collins family for dark deeds committed against him long ago…
Since Dark Shadows typically relied on grandiloquent dialogue delivered via larger-than-life performances, it transitions to the audio medium more smoothly than might be expected. These four stories share good production values over strong frameworks, and re-capture their characters’ familiar essences while still revealing new facets of their pasts and personalities.
Judging by the actors’ voices and performances, one wouldn’t guess that four decades had passed since Dark Shadows left the airwaves, with Lara Parker and John Karlen putting in especially strong turns. The deaths and/or retirements of some key veteran actors is addressed cleverly, and doesn’t jar nearly as much as it could. With this season ending on a strong cliffhanger — albeit one punctuated by a not-extremely-convincing scream — Big Finish has capably proven that Dark Shadows still has plenty of bite left in it…
Verdict: Somewhat restrained and low-key, this quartet of stories capably brings back some beloved characters and sets the stage for further spectral goings-on for the Collins family. 7/10
John S. Hall