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“You hear the Almighty’s voice rather clearly, don’t you, Trask?”
“I do.”
“hmm…it’s an unpleasant calling you serve, Reverend.  It seems the Almighty is always telling you to lock people away…or burn them at the stake.”

I’ve likely said it before: I’ve been a Dark Shadows fan for years.

Growing up with my mother speaking of the series in hushed and reverent tones, punctuating occasional viewings of the fascinating Edge of Night with wistful comments that “oh, this is nothing…it’s too bad you missed out on Dark Shadows,” when the series did briefly appear in reruns on our local PBS station, I decided she was right (one of the rare times in my experience that she actually was, in fact).

Perhaps wisely starting with the introduction of Barnabas, this run barely lasted through his initial arc – even the first series flashback went unaired.  But it was enough, a tantalizing glimpse of a fascinating relic from bygone and presumably better days.

Later, I stumbled across a local video store which had a good run of the VHS.  While somewhat sporadic, with missing volumes punctuating even the run they carried, I was able to revisit the introduction of Barnabas and finally experience the 1797 flashback.  Their collection petered off during the Adam run, but to some extent, so did my interest – I still consider this one of the worst storylines of the series.

Not long thereafter, with our cable monopoly finally deigning to take on the Sci Fi channel, I was able to delve further on – Quentin the ghost, the endless 1897 flashback, the Leviathans, parallel time.  I gave up somewhere around the debut of Kate Jackson – all the new characters and time jumps were starting to get a bit old.

But even so, I had become a huge Dark Shadows fan, introducing friends (and later, my wife) to particular arcs of the series, even attending the 1997 convention (what is it about that hundred year mark, I ask?) and meeting some of the cast (though sadly, not all – Selby, Barrett and one or two others hadn’t showed, at least on the day I was there).

Last summer, my wife expressed interest in digging deeper into the series than the Barnabas run and 1797 flashback to which I’d previously exposed her, so we made the decision to start from episode 1 and blast straight through to the end of the series – many arcs for the umpteenth time on my part, but even so.  After a bit of a break around the holidays, we’ve currently finished up the (first) parallel time arc, and are closing in on the last days of the entire original run (and yes, I’d both enjoyed and already shared the early 90’s revival series with her previously, but while fun in its own right, there was clearly no comparison).

While most of my memories and impressions remained the same, there have been two surprising re-evaluations since the last time I’d been through these particular arcs.

In terms of the early days of the show prior to Barnabas, I’d always gone with popular consensus and brushed them off as “too slow” – even the Laura the phoenix arc wasn’t quite up to the level of Barnabas and Angelique’s shenanigans.

This time through, I find I really appreciated the grim atmosphere and haunted family secrets motif, much less the more real, less histrionic and even occasionally quite nasty performances of snarky waitress Maggie Evans, rude, blustering, vengeful (and quick to start a fistfight) Burke Devlin, paranoid, craven yet haughty Roger Collins and hopelessly drunken Sam Evans.

For one of the few times in the series, Caroline’s hysteria actually made narrative sense (the only other time was when her father came back during the Leviathan run).  It was more present, more real.  And if anything, the introduction of Laura the phoenix actually dragged things down – I found myself more fascinated with the conniving of Jason McGuire and the early, violent drifter take of John Karlen’s Willie Loomis (no, the original actor’s good ol’ boy version really did not work…Karlen was a godsend).

In fact, the only downside to the run was the centrality of Victoria Winters, a whining, snooping, self-righteously moralistic character who both I and my wife absolutely detested – removing her from the series was a true boon (shoehorning the formerly self-sufficient and sassy Maggie into that fainting victim role, however, was not…).

Then, and more apropos to the present discussion, I discovered that what I’d remembered as an endless, boring nigh-1969 long flashback to 1897 with Quentin…was actually quite engaging.

Remove Thayer David’s one failed role (as the ridiculously fright wig bedecked, fish eye lens glasses and rubber hand sporting Count Petofi) and the always annoying characters of Michael Stroka (which one was most unlikeable, Aristede?  Bruno?  Parallel Time Bruno with the horrible hairdo?), and it turns out to be a rather interesting, if admittedly relatively quiet, succession of twists and turns, with some of the best costumerie of the series and Grayson Hall’s standout role of Magda the gypsy.  I’d always liked her as the haughty Countess duPres, but Magda?  Hah! as she’d say with a toss of her hair and flounce of her skirt.  Hand on hip, she’d spit with disgust at the stammering nervous nellie likes of either iteration of Hoffman…

But all that aside, the entire 1897 flashback can be boiled down to a few wonderful characters.  Even alongside Quentin, Magda, the satanic Evan Handley and Charity as “Pansy Faye”, far and away the most entertaining character of the entire flashback (and for those who haven’t indulged, it’s a long one, boy…) was the Reverend Gregory Trask.

“It’s old Carl, remember?  So simple…so stupid.  And yet, I know all your secrets.”
“I have no secrets.  My life is an open Bible.”
“oh, by that you mean a tale of murder, idolatry and sin?”

While the original Rev. Trask from 1797 was certainly over the top, there is simply no comparison to his distant relation Gregory.

A tyrannical, abusive schoolmaster whose self righteousness is matched only by his hypocrisy, he doles out cruel psychological punishments and rather final sentencing to his victims (generally women and children) while proving himself further a gigolo, extortionist and murderer, not above blackmailing and manipulating others whom he can subsequently sit back and condemn for “their” actions…

If anything, Jerry Lacy gave even more of a floorboard-stomping performance than that he offered to his Matthew Hopkins-inspired predecessor, and the character was far more interesting and multifaceted than the earlier Trask could ever have been.

“You’re right, Trask.  There is evil here in Collinwood.  But my family is a victim of it.  Your kind is the cause.”

While the 1797 Reverend Trask was a self-aggrandizing phony and glory hound, accusing and bullying the innocent in the name of personal fame and recognition, Gregory Trask was involved in or associated with:

child abuse,
black magic,
bearing false witness,
the murder of his first wife,
making his second wife descend into “madness” and sending her off to an intended life stay at the local asylum,
inveigling his way into the hearts and bankrolls of rich widows and even more.

If you want to tick off a list of broken commandments, he’s got you covered – only to top it off with righteous arrogance and moralizing.  In effect, he’s Vicki Winters to the extreme, but with the scheming and selfishness of Angelique tossed into the mix.

So much did I find this particular character amusing – particularly given the obvious issue of how exactly he was able to seduce all these women, with all the sex appeal of a priggish “minister of God”(!) – that I’d fallen into the habit of dropping into random impersonations of his stentorian declamatory tones at the drop of a hat (much to the amusement of my wife).

And thus it was with great and pleasant surprise that I learned of Jerry Lacy’s having returned to the role he made infamous no less than three times under the auspices of the folks at Big Finish.

“The dead aren’t tired, Reverend.  They’re lonely.  And clerics make good company in hell.”

In The Wicked and the Dead, we pick up immediately where the televised series left off.  Trask awakens to find himself still walled up within Quentin’s room in the soon-to-be closed off East Wing.  But is he really there?  Or is he an unquiet spirit, returned to the place of his demise to atone for his past crimes?

Lacy is joined by the aforementioned John Karlen, here as the recently deceased practical joker (and lover of the original Pansy Faye) Carl Collins.  But Carl has something of a secret, and appears very interested in tormenting Trask and getting him to own up to his guilt as highlights from his past life come to light…

“Six women were accused of crimes against God…discovered reading questionable texts, the contents of which preached strange and unnatural practices…given of the belief that her sex were not made to be simply bearers of children…her corrupt notions held that the weaker sex had not only the desire, but the right to walk equally beside a man in all orders of commerce and civic responsibility.  Such ideas were poison in the well of matrimony…Like all good Christian men, Ezekiel knew that a chastened woman was a pious woman.”

Whoops, chalk up misogyny to the aforementioned list.  Boy, Trask is a real piece of work, ain’t he?

“Had it been an earlier era…the justice visited upon Elizabeth and her coven would have taken on the guise of purifying fire.  But, while they deserved as much, this was an enlightened age.  Upon my counsel, these harlots…or ‘suffragettes’, as they called themselves…were given the privilege of a life of comfort and ease at the Havenhurst sanitarium.

That their screams should belie the holiness their spirits recieved in that place is but a testament to the Lord’s wisdom.  For Havenhurst was a place where they could spend the rest of their lives in meditation.  Prayer.  And if necessary…eternal solitude.  It was a blessing those sinners hardly deserved.  But like the Creator, my mercy knows no bounds.”

Whew!  Well, this is the guy who pulled a similar trick on poor Judith Collins…

While the passing of time has left some mark on Lacy’s deliberately overdramatic tonality, this is clearly the same Gregory Trask we left off with so many years hence.

It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of forgiveness to hear the assuredly grim stage manner of the good Reverend herein.  The astonishing level of pomposity and willful self-delusion of the character is brought across with easy familiarity, even at nearly half a century’s remove.

“You’re a hypocrite – who finds sin everywhere except in the one place it dwells the most – in your own black heart.”

If anyone could stand up alongside Jerry Lacy’s wonderfully abhorrent portrayal herein without being utterly swept aside into the shadows, then John Karlen would appear to be that man.  Alternating with deftness between the hilariously childlike jokiness of the character as portrayed in the televised version and a far darker iteration, Karlen shifts tone from likeability to enraged and righteous vengeance to grim resignation, moving directly into madness and yes, evil within the course of a single couplet of line reading.

It’s positively eye opening to see the accomplished mastery of a seasoned thespian at work – particularly when so many of the televised portrayals fans of the series remember him for tripped directly into manic histrionics.  Sure, both actors are quite theatrical, as befits the series and roles they’re reliving and continuing the portrayal of.  But seriously.  It’s almost as if Karlen is on a mission to redeem the character and prove just how assured an actor he is here – if not set as balance against a portrayal quite as commanding as that of Lacy’s Trask, Karlen would most certainly have swept the floor with any lesser costar.

Perhaps the most surprising, if admittedly welcome bit of business in The Wicked and the Dead is the moment of existential clarity offered to Trask, where he owns up to his shortcomings and evildoing, however briefly.  But being a Big Finish Dark Shadows, you just know there isn’t going to be any true redemption, and even a grim and hazy dusk will turn to a rather darker shade of night before the end of the affair…

All told, I’m quite surprised Trask was brought back for two more adventures after this well crafted but quite self-sufficient offering.  The circle closes quite nicely, offering a welcome last look at one of the more diabolically entertaining characters of his era…

And yet…there’s more to come…