Penny Dreadful: A Supernatural Mashup

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 3, 2017

I’ve begun watching Penny Dreadful (3 seasons, 2014-16) on Netflix. The show is a delicious mashup of classic horror tales Dracula (1897), Frankenstein (1818), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Eventually, the series will incorporate The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). A penny dreadful refers to a cheap form of fiction published in mid-Victorian England. John Logan, the series creator, and executive producer explain the literary origins of his story:

I’ve never been a fan of horror, and growing up I always thought films with the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and other supernatural monsters were cheesy. Then a few years ago I read the original Bram Stoker novel, and after that Mary Shelley’s book, admiring both greatly. Especially Dracula. I was surprised how good the stories were after all those decades of silly movies. John Logan claims he wants to return to those literary sources for his inspiration for Penny Dreadful. The two episodes I’ve watched so far feels like he’s succeeded. He’s no Bram Stoker or even Mary Shelley, but I’m enjoying the heck out of his show. I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but watching PD is inspiring me to correct that mistake.

penny-dreadful_1

What I really love about Penny Dreadful is how well it steals from the 19th-century novels. Why do we love literary mashups so much? Penny Dreadful has had many precursors, including:

The older I get, the more I’m seduced by fiction set in 19th century England. Countless writers have revisited this past either to write original historical novels, sequels to famous stories and more commonly, to mashup several old stories from the past by putting famous characters into one new adventure. The measure of all these stories is how well they copy the styles of the period, both fiction and history, and the new conclusions they draw.

I wonder if anyone has done a mashup of literary novels from that time period? All these stories have to fudge their timeline overlaps, but isn’t  Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens, The Way We Live Now (1875) by Anthony Trollope, The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins close enough in time to blend them together in some way? Of course, the setting for these stories is a couple generations earlier than Penny Dreadful. We might need to use Henry James to blend in peaceful drawing-room society into Penny Dreadful’s to brighten its darkness.

Penny Dreadful has all the cliché details from late Victorian England that fans love. Personally, I wish it had less blood and gore, but that’s probably a requirement of the genre. The reason I admired the hell out of Stoker was his subtle approach to psychologically scaring his audience. He finessed the fear rather than beating us over our heads with body parts. Of course, his story was about Christianity. His character would prefer having their heads cut off than succumbing to Dracula’s seductions. I once wrote an essay, “The Secularization of the Undead” where I wondered why vampires have become sexually accepted partners.

If I had the time and energy, I’d like to deconstruct the characters in Penny Dreadful and map them to their closest literary/real life inspiration. For example, Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton reminds me of Sir Richard Burton, an actual 19th African explorer, and Allan Quatermain, H. Rider Haggard’s famous character. He also has a few traits that overlap with Arthur Holmwood in Dracula.

I have to wonder about recycling famous characters. Isn’t this just a cheap way to acquire an audience? Could someone write a historical novel set in 1891 London and create a story just as successful without using any famous characters or monsters from the 19th century?

JWH

8 thoughts on “Penny Dreadful: A Supernatural Mashup”

  1. I’m going to watch this. Thanks! Dickensian is coming on my PBS station next month. It is a series which is a mash up of all Dickens’ novels. As I have read them all, I think I will enjoy it greatly. I have read all of the Penny Dreadful ones, except for The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I saw as a movie. It stuck with me through years and years. So, I look forward to these as well.

    1. Yes, I have. Did you see the mini-series they made from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell? I thought it pretty good. And it is an example of writing something set in the 19th century that’s new.

      1. I saw the first episode but decided not to push through. It was okay, but as I try to limit my screen time, not good enough. The novel is impossible to do justice to, all things considered…

      2. I stuck with it and I thought the mini-series got better. I read the novel when it came out, so I had forgotten the details. I wasn’t sure if the mini-series stuck to the book well or not, but it gave me visuals I didn’t have for the story, and I liked that. I’ve thought about rereading the book since.

  2. Don’t forget Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonely October. Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer is sort of a meta-mash, although it’s historical persons in Conan Doyle’s Lost World.

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