Showtime’s New Penny Dreadful

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.

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Author: Theresa Crater

Award-winning author Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her visionary fiction. In The Star Family, a Gothic mansion holds a secret spiritual group and a 400-year-old ritual that must be completed to save the day. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill. Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “The Judgment of Osiris” and “Bringing the Waters.” Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches writing and British lit in Denver.

16 thoughts on “Showtime’s New Penny Dreadful”

  1. I am a big fan of Fairy Tales and when Once Upon a Time started I was excited and then appalled…the first episode left a bad taste in my mouth from all of the layers I had to crunch through. And last week I literally threw my daughter’s baby doll at the screen as the third season finale played out…because I don’t want to wait to October for more!
    I hope that Penny Dreadful comes out the same way…although I won’t get to start watching just yet. Does Showtime funnel to Netflix?

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  2. Hi Estyree, I haven’t caught Once Upon a time, but it sounds like I’d like it. Yes, Showtime does funnel to Netflix, which I also need to check out because my cable bill is of mythic proportions.

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  3. I’m a netflixer too. I’ll add this to my queue. I also love Victorian gothic. You wouldn’t happen to know how to lay your hands on collected volumes of actual penny dreadfuls, would you? My library doesn’t seem to have them, or I’m not looking for the right keywords. Maybe they were too low-brow to be preserved. Frustrating for us fictioneers!

    Thanks for a fun post and a rec for that ever-expanding Netflix list.

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  4. I don’t get Showtime, so I’ve never seen Penny Dreadful (and I love your explanation of where that came from, yes genre vs. “real” fiction). I have not watched Once Upon a Time either. But I’m kind of the same. I don’t want to fight my way through layers and layers of stories. I want to connect to the characters and their journeys. Yes, there should be some layers, and references are always fun, but don’t overburden it.

    That said, perhaps I need to watch a couple of these shows and see what the buzz is about. Netflix here I come (or maybe this is finally an excuse to pay for Amazon Prime?).

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  5. Mary–Reducing my epic cable bill is on my list this summer.

    Anna–I hope Cynthia reads your post. She teaches a class called American Gothic and might know, although these texts are British for the most part (as far as I know). I’ll poke around when I get a chance.

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  6. I loved the first episode, thought the second was a mess, marking time, but was relieved that the series got back on track with the third. It’s a lovely, poetic mash-up of Victorian Gothic and I give the writers kudos for having so much fun without going for camp. And anyone who uses the marvelous Eva Green to such splendid effect scores points in my book. The series is also marked by flashes of dark wit and the character playing the Egyptologist has wonderful throwaway lines you might miss. Thanks to his affected accent, my spouse and I call the show Penny Dweddful.

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