That’s what makes Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, whose first season finale airs Sunday, such a delight. It’s scary, and it has managed to put a new spin on classic horror tales without betraying them. If the literature were a song, Penny Dreadful is an addictive remix instead of a cover that loses the potency and point.
Penny Dreadful takes its name from the cheap sensationalist fiction of 1800s Britain, but its characters and story owes more to the great gothic literature of the Victorian era. John Logan, who created and wrote the entire show, strings together Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and elements from other works into one shared narrative.
Throwing a bunch of literary characters together in a story isn’t new. The monster mash goes back to the Universal Monster movies starting in the ‘20s. At the turn of the recent century, Alan Moore brought Victorian heroes together in his comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, that series quickly turned into an exercise of deconstruction, while the film adaptation went for un-nuanced camp. The Van Helsing movie mixed genre homage with an action film and disappointed in both efforts. But Penny Dreadful assembles its cast of literary characters and icons to stage an entirely straight-faced horror show.
The show’s main plot is quite simple: Obliquely it’s a Dracula adaptation, with psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) recruiting a band of literary archetypes to rescue Malcolm’s daughter Mina from vampires. But then it throws in the experiments of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a manipulative demon, the Grand Guignol theater, and a heavy dose of Egyptian mythology. The Dracula plot is still the anchor—and still closer to Bram Stoker’s novel than NBC’s recent, campy miniseries—but the overall story is quite new, and weaved together in such a way that even moments from the books surprise.
That story works because the show embraces its genre unapologetically. Instead of trying to change or downplay the tone or signal self-awareness about it, Penny Dreadful gives the audience actual dark and stormy nights, and makes them actually scary and foreboding.
Unlike the publications it’s named for, the show focuses not on the lurid but on existential ideas and atmosphere. More than anything, Penny Dreadful is a mediation on the naturalness of death. Stuffed animals, corpses, and run-down buildings fill the backgrounds and often the foregrounds of the show, with the living, breathing protagonists are the oddity, not the norm. Any attempt at cheating or manipulating death—reanimation, Egyptian blood curses, or deals with the devil in the form of portraits—has a malevolent nature and might ultimately be futile. In Penny Dreadful, death is the only answer. How intensely and delightfully gothic.
The gothic genre started as an offshoot of Romanticism, weaving stories rife with ancient horrors, dark passions, and doom. It was bloody, but the focus was never on the gore. Nor was it the seeping unease and otherworldly cosmic horror that defined HP Lovecraft’s work. Rather, it was about atmosphere—oppressive, lush settings where the drama and horror was intimate. Surprisingly, the Industrial Age didn’t kill the genre, but gave it new life. Technological advances created even more dark shadows in urban areas, and in literature, the townhouses of the city replaced the haunted castles of the countryside.
The cultural norms and standards of the Victorian era added complexity to the genre. Immigrants brought new folklore into the English-speaking culture, and popular interest in Ancient Egypt and other realms of “the exotic” rose. Widespread disease came to symbolize some cultural malady, while vampires and other creatures were used as metaphors for everything from sexuality to greed. In the age of the expanding British empire and a prudish society, the gothic literature of the Victorian era offered great, if sometimes over-the-top, commentary. Even the cheaper penny dreadfuls got into the mix.
All of that comes through in the show. Vanessa has the facade of the prim and proper Victorian lady, but her dark desires underneath could attract very evil supernatural spirits. Although she isn’t based on any specific character from Victorian literature—elements of Lucy Westenra and even Sherlock Holmes come to mind though—she has quickly become the standout of the cast. Eva Green is at her best when Vanessa gets to play host to a number of demons and ghosts at a séance.
She’s an amazing partner to Malcolm, who’s more restrained than her but just as fascinating. Sir Malcolm is the renowned explorer, the Great White Hunter going after a new prey, and unleashing his ruthless style of exploration onto the streets of London. Dalton is particularly electrifying, all burning turmoil and rage hidden behind a calm demeanor. His presence on screen rivals that of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. Both he and Green give some of the best performances of their careers, and Logan’s scripting keeps the characters from seeming like metaphors rather than human beings.
In an age when so many new adaptations must play homage to the shared cultural idea of a famous character, Penny Dreadful deftly uses its source material. There are no painfully aware winks at the audience when a character’s name is revealed, nor does the show go out of the way to shout out to some other adaptation at the expense of tone.
It changes some details and plays with archetypes, respecting the canon without being a slave to it. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is still plagued by the Creature he created and abandoned, and he is once again adapted into the Victorian era from the book’s late 1700s setting. But in a clever twist, instead of being the Industrial-minded figure in a Romantic age, he’s reimagined as a poetry-loving Romantic in the cold industrial London of the 1890s. The Creature isn’t the Byronic figure of Mary Shelley’s book, nor the mute brute of the Universal films, but reimagined as a Phantom of the Opera-like character obsessed with progress.
Perhaps as an amusing nod to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film’s addition of a gunslinging Tom Sawyer to the mix, Penny Dreadful gives us Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a swaggering American sharpshooter. But instead of being the hero of the story, he’s constantly left out of the loop, treated mostly as a useful tool by the story’s more cerebral heroes. The only failure in adaptation is Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray. Although he’s gotten better over the course of the show, his unkempt, greasy lout is too unlike from the cultured seducer of Oscar Wilde’s novel. That fact is especially disappointing in light of Alexander Vlahos’s marvelous and recent turn as the hedonist in The Confessions of Dorian Gray.
Although it avoids the sensationalism of the real penny dreadfuls, the show does borrow the serial format, and to great effect. The plot and melodrama feed a more intense adventure, and the story is always moving forward. Cliffhangers, reveals, and dramatic shifts in relationships fill the show, stringing audiences along for the next week just as readers in the 1800s would wait for the next installment of their favorite serial.
Many of today’s best TV series are serials as well, of course, but Penny Dreadful’s use of the format feels more like a continuation of the literary tradition it draws from. The show’s a rare example of how to reimagine classic ideas without losing their spirit. And it’s a reminder of why this genre of horror is so compelling. Everyone need a good scare.
Friday, June 6, 2014
Originally published on The Guardian
In a large dark Victorian house on Barton Street, Westminster, something dreadful is happening. The gas lamps are dead. Screams are rising from the next room – sounds of ordeal and agony. You wouldn’t run in to help; you’d knot sheets together and escape through the window.
I know it’s all confected for the cameras. I’ve read all the scripts. We’re in Ardmore Studios – a cluster of hangars on the edge of the Wicklow mountains – and I’ve been walking around them all day. I’ve examined the maps of the Belgian Congo pinned to the drawing room wall; goggled at the batteries in Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory; ducked low to inspect the cogs and pulleys under the stage of the Grand Guignol theatre. I know the rats heaped in the prosthetics store have been moulded in latex; that, contrary to small print on the bills pasted on the walls, no Victorian playwright called Michael Grandage ever wrote a play called Emperor of the Universe; that the people gathered beside me – Timothy Dalton and Josh Hartnett – are actors, watching the business of another actor – Eva Green – being relayed from a camera in the next room. The performance she’s giving, though, is so intense, so out-there, so Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, that even these two rugged old turns are exchanging glances. And, hunkered down over the monitor, the man who unleashed this madness is grinning from ear to ear.
Penny Dreadful, eight hours of gothic television filmed in and around Dublin, gathers a synod of monsters, criminals and lost souls – a vampire-hunter (Green), a sharpshooter (Hartnett), a grief-wracked explorer (Dalton), a prostitute (Billie Piper), Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). The story has been bubbling away inside John Logan – author of the Rothko play, Red, screenwriter of Hugo and The Aviator and Skyfall – for a decade or more. Ask him about its origins and he’ll talk about his regard for the Romantic poetry that crackled into life beside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the late-Victorian moment that brought Dracula, Dorian and Dr Moreau into being; the uses to which these creatures were put by Hollywood and Hammer. He’ll also talk about his own feelings of monstrosity and his sense of isolation as a young man. How it felt to make scarifying visits to New York’s Christopher Street in the 1970s, or to be young and gay in the years when America first became acquainted with HIV. Logan is keen to ensure that everybody involved in the series feels like part of his gang. If you’re there, you’re one of the Dreadfuls. When he says it, it feels good.
In the 19th century, “penny dreadful” was an unofficial literary category – used by its enemies and its fans to describe cheap serial fiction produced in weekly eight or 16-page instalments, which might, in the course of months or even years of publication, supply rambling narratives founded on poisoning, strangling, burglary, flagellation and hairbreadth escapes from drowning and sexual assault. Their titles generally gave away their natures: Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1845-7); Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7); The Night-Hawks of London; or, the Noble Highwayman and the Miser’s Daughter (1865). The semi-literate – who made up an important part of their market – were reeled in by the lurid woodcuts: Black Bess, rearing against the moon; the heroine, bare-breasted and manacled in a burning attic; a bloodsucking fiend scuttering over a four-poster bed.
Their authors, who might keep 10 of these stories spinning simultaneously, were paid at the rate of a penny a line, which had a legible effect on the text. Skilled practitioners knew that staccato sentences were the most profitable, and learned how to oblige the compositor to leave one or two words hanging at the end of a paragraph. The typography of the genre was as full of widows and orphans as its plots. Smart strategy, if you’re hungry.
Some writers pursued parallel careers of the sort that didn’t bleed lampblack all over your fingers. As Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) was being devoured by subscribers to Mudie’s Circulating Library, its author was staying up late to meet her deadlines on a rather less prestigious project: The Black Band; or The Mysteries of Midnight – a 240,000-word shocker about a bigamous noblewoman, a persecuted ballerina, a clique of Italian revolutionaries and an Austrian gangster whose brain is being slowly dissolved by poison.
Unsurprisingly, Braddon produced the keenest sketch of a “dreadful” writer at work. In The Doctor’s Wife (1864), itself a sophisticated heist on the plot of Madame Bovary, Braddon introduces the reader to the fictional Sigismund Smith, inky-fingered author of Count Montefiasco; or, The Brand Upon the Shoulder-Blade, a cheerful hack who specialises in pop-fiction plagiarism. “I’m doing a combination novel now,” he explains. “The Heart of Midlothian and The Wandering Jew. You’ve no idea how admirably the stories blend together.” Reality went one better: in 1884 the American newspaper Beadle’s Weekly published a story called Monte Cristo Afloat; or The Wandering Jew of the Sea: A Romance of Weird Mystery One Hundred Years Ago.
Wagner the Wehr-Wolf
Cheap, violent serial fiction had flourished since the 1830s, but its strongest, maddest phase of life was the product of a statutory lightning-strike: the 1861 repeal of the paper tax. The sudden rush of printing caused a type-famine that brought about the momentary return of the 18th-century’s long “S” letter, unpacked from dusty boxes in printshop backrooms. The hunger for stories sent writers back to old tropes, to folklore, to half-remembered figures from chapbooks and broadside ballads. In James Malcolm Rymer’s The Dark Woman; or Plot and Passion (1861) for instance, the fictional heroine (an organised crime boss and illegitimate royal) collides with two historical figures whose lifetimes did not overlap – the highwayman Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), and the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830). Logan’s TV series occupies the same dreamlike space: in Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein coexists with Dorian Gray and the survivors of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, who, over the course of the series, form a strangely familial alliance. Resurrection men remain busy, in defiance of the 1832 Anatomy Act. The Romantic era and fin-de-siècle seem to be occurring simultaneously, brought together by blood and electricity.
For most of its history, the penny dreadful was a genre for lost boys. Boys were often its protagonists, its readers, and the figures who legislators and campaigners believed required protection from its pleasures. Wily publishers, keen to exploit a growing market for more self-consciously wholesome material, picked up their pitchforks in sympathy with this moral panic. “The police court reports in the newspapers are alone sufficient proof of the harm done by ‘penny dreadfuls’,” asserted Alfred Harmsworth, future owner of the Daily Mail, as he launched a new boys’ title, the Halfpenny Marvel, in 1893. “It is an almost daily occurrence with magistrates to have before them boys who, having read a number of ‘dreadfuls’, followed the examples set forth in such publications, robbed their employers, bought revolvers with the proceeds and finished by running away from home and installing themselves in the back streets as ‘highwaymen’. This and many other evils the ‘penny dreadful’ is responsible for. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols.” In August 1895 the MP for Leicester launched a campaign against the “grossly demoralising and corrupting character” of the penny dreadful. By a sweet coincidence, his name was John Logan.
The boys in whom this corruption was identified have left sad little footprints in the printed record. Thomas Richard Nash, a 15-year-old who, in September 1895, killed himself by drinking carbolic acid: the Leeds Times reported that his box of belongings contained “a number of books of the penny dreadful description, dealing with daggers and poisons, guillotines, scaffolds etc”. George Sharp, a young sailor, was, in 1904, reprimanded for threatening his stepfather with murder: “Sharp had in his possession a ‘penny dreadful’ and also a clasp-knife,” said the Dundee Evening Post. In 1892 Joseph Margerison and Robert Thompson, two teenage textile workers from Blackburn, robbed a local farmer while he was milking his cows. Under the headline “Effects of the Penny Dreadful”, the Grantham Journal claimed “the boys formed part of a gang who, led by sensational literature, had built a cave in a yard and filled it with firearms, knives, and the proceeds of robberies”.
Reading back over such reports, what strikes me is the breathless journalistic effort required to transform the penny dreadful into the cause of the crime. Nash left a suicide note that stated: “I wish you to know the reason I did it is because I could not work.” Sharp declared that his threats were made in protest against his stepfather’s violent treatment of his three-year-old sibling. Accounts of the Blackburn boys written by hacks closer to the scene supply sharper details of their lives. Margerison was a creeler – a boy who dodged under the whirring loom and replaced spent spools for a few shillings a week. A more considered description of their criminal activities mentions no bandits’ cave, no guns, no knives – just a loose sod in the Moss Street Corporation Yard that concealed cash tied in a handkerchief.
“No one in his senses,” wrote George Orwell in 1939, “would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a socialist tract.” A kind of radicalism, though, does haunt many of these stories. Its protagonists are outcasts and outlaws, its villains figures of privilege and authority. George WM Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-6) thrums with Chartism and thieves’ cant. The Boy Detective; or, The Crimes of London (1865-6) is led by a youth who assumes transvestite disguise to foil the plans of his wicked stepmother, Barbara, kingpin of a gang of counterfeiters. The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of the Night (1864-66) details the adventures of a gang of dangerously likable sewer-dwelling thieves. In 1877, copies were seized in police raids. Decades later, they were pored over by William S Burroughs, who populated his fiction with their criminal descendants.
They’re present, too, in Penny Dreadful – a drama about a group of wounded individuals who have a number of things in common – aching loneliness, a cognisance of their own sin, and knowledge of a supernatural world unseen by those they pass on the pavement. It would be against the rules of bloodcurdling serial fiction to reveal what was happening behind the wall in that house on Barton Street – except to say that the dreadful world has space in it for the possessed, as well as the dispossessed.
Matthew Sweet’s books include Inventing the Victorians.
Penny Dreadful Creator/Executive Producer John Logan says it was always his intention to create a setpiece for the “formidable” Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Get a closer look at the Séance scene and see how members of the visual effects, props, and stunts teams worked with Eva Green to shoot this over the course of 2 days.