I write paranormal mysteries and teach 19th century British literature. Who doesn’t love the British Gothics? Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and even Jane Austen’s spoof of the Gothic, Northanger Abbey.
The name “penny dreadful” comes from those serial stories featuring “lurid and sensational stories” supposedly aimed at adolescents and costing one old penny. I say supposedly, because science fiction (descended from the Gothic) was long touted to be read only by male adolescents, reflecting a prejudice against genre fiction held by academics and publishers. There’s genre fiction, then “real,” that is, literary fiction. Now I could go on and on about this, but I want to talk about the new show Penny Dreadful. My question about it is this. Does it work?
Showtime’s new psychological thriller is about as crowded with Gothic characters from these British novels as a Victorian parlor. I was upstairs watching either Da Vinci’s Demons or Game of Thrones, and my husband kept yelling, “Come down here. I think you’ll like this.” I told him I’d order it later. What caught his eye was the Egyptologist who worked in the British Museum and interpreted the hieroglyphs found beneath the skin of the vampire Victor autopsied. (I’ll explain in a minute.) Toward the end of the show, I hear him yell, “Oh, Frankenstein, too? For God’s sake.” Click. Then came the sound of sports.
Penny Dreadful weaves together Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and elements of the Dracula story with nods to Jack the Ripper. I’m sure I’ve missed a few references. Sir Malcolm searches for his daughter, abducted by vampires we presume, with the aid of psychic Vanessa Ives. They hire Dr. Frankenstein to perform an autopsy on a dead (we hope) vampire and American cowboy Ethan Chandler to be their muscle. Dorian appears at a party and tries to seduce Ms. Ives. He almost succeeds, which made me think less of her. Meanwhile, Victor is making people.
My husband said it started out good, but then they had to throw in Frankenstein on top of a Dracula rewrite. For him, it was too many storylines. I admit I was skeptical also. I remembering being in art class and adding color after color to my paint glob, hoping the mix would turn out some exotic, never-before-seen color, startling and new, but it just got browner and browner. My art teacher stood patiently by. She’d told me this would happen, then said, “Go ahead. You have to experience it for yourself.” I did. It was a very dull brown.
That’s partly how I feel about Penny Dreadful. I like to go deeply into characters, like HBO’s True Detective allows. Too many storylines, too many Gothic allusions, begins to feel like hype or a sort of right-brained literature exam. But I kept watching. After all, I love the paranormal.
After the first three episodes, the story is beginning to settle down. We’re getting to know three characters well—Vanessa Ives, Victor Frankenstein and maybe the cowboy, maybe Dorian. I can’t quite tell yet. I like the setting. The atmosphere is suffocating, dark, ominous. The fog true 19th century London. It is well acted, and I admit to enjoying the intellectual game of “find the reference” if that’s not the main focus. I just hope we get deeply into some metaphysical question and watch how the people are opened and changed by their quest. That’s what I want in a story.