The monstrous concerns of Penny Dreadful

Feature Becky Lea 11 Jul 2014 - 06:45

As Penny Dreadful's superb first season reaches its close, Becky traces the literary origins of its monsters...

In the final episode of John Logan’s exceptional Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein’s Creature, here named Caliban, declares that ‘the monster is not in my face, but in my soul’. The concept of the monster is a key theme across the show’s narrative as each character not only wrestles with vampiric monstrosities, but also their own personal demons. In doing so, the show skilfully combines the concerns of the nineteenth century literature from which it draws its inspiration, but also the fascination with monsters of its twenty-first century audience.

One of the most interesting aspects of Penny Dreadful is how it has used various themes from the literature on which it is based to plumb the depths of its characters, both those from the novels and those invented for the show. Monsters have long been a key part of myths, legends and folklore, grotesque creatures that those who offend the gods are transformed into or for our heroes to destroy in a blaze of glory.

Over the course of the nineteenth century from Frankenstein (published first in 1818) to Dracula (published in 1897), the monster undergoes something of a transformation. It arguably began in Switzerland in 1815 when Mary Shelley conceived the idea of Frankenstein in a nightmare, and used it for a storytelling competition that took place amongst her companions, including her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley (they were not yet married), Lord Byron and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori. This storytelling competition not only unleashed Frankenstein and his Creature upon English literature, but also introduced into popular fiction the figure of the vampire, thanks to Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre.

Both the man-made monster and the vampire would become key figures in the Gothic fiction of the late nineteenth century, influenced by the technological and scientific advances of the age. Victorian society was fascinated with the idea of the monstrous, from the so-called ‘freak shows’ which exhibited people with biological rarities and became commercial successes to the literature of the period.

The rise of the literary phenomena, the penny dreadful, was a key part of this culture. Written very quickly and often rather haphazardly constructed as a result, penny dreadfuls drew on monstrous figures to scare and delight their readers. Stories such as Spring-Heeled Jack and The String Of Pearls (featuring the first appearance of Sweeney Todd) introduced the idea of the monster in our midst, ready to pounce from the dark alleyways of London. Another penny dreadful, Varney the Vampire (seen in Van Helsing’s possession during Penny Dreadful’s sixth episode) continued the success of Polidori’s The Vampyre in popularising fanged aristocratic creatures in pursuit of young maidens.

This was also present in the scientific advances of the age. Although evolutionary theory had been present for much of the century, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species in 1859 had a massive cultural impact as did his follow-up, focusing on human development, The Descent Of Man. Exploring ideas such as natural selection amongst animal and human populations, Darwin aligned the human with the bestial and therefore, the monstrous human suddenly became a more tangible reality. When the infamous killings of Jack the Ripper appeared across London’s press, it seemed to confirm this message; monsters didn’t just exist in far-off places, they could be right next door.

In the sixth episode, Penny Dreadful picks up on some of the language of Darwin’s work as well as combining it with that concept of monsters in our midst. Van Helsing refers to the vampires as creatures whose chief instinct is to survive. The battle against them, therefore, is not just to stop them claiming Mina or capturing Vanessa, but to stop the feral monsters spreading and increasing their numbers. In Stoker’s Dracula, the battle is much the same, fighting to prevent Mina from turned into a vampire and Dracula from gaining a foothold in London. The vampires of Penny Dreadful and Stoker’s Count (who has not yet made an appearance in the show) have much in common; they seek to possess and destroy with no apparent motive for doing so, other than to conquer and survive.

However, the other monsters in the series are much more complex creatures and are more importantly, found within the main characters. It is this concept that the horror and science fiction genres have played with ever since; the hubristic scientist creating something that he couldn’t control, a man unable to control his inner darkness or a demon seeking possession of a beautiful woman for his own ends. Logan’s use of the original mad scientist archetype in Frankenstein, combined with newly invented characters like Chandler and Vanessa explores these themes whilst also attempting to offer the monster’s perspective.

In the original novel, Shelley offers both Frankenstein and the Creature the opportunity to narrate their own stories and Logan adapts this to great effect in the third episode, Resurrection, as Caliban tells Frankenstein of his journey to London. We see much of Caliban’s struggles to fit in with his surroundings, but he is constantly rejected and judged on his visage. Yet he is still granted the opportunity to tell his story and offer his motivations. Likewise for Vanessa, an entire episode is devoted to explaining her past and why she must repress herself in such a way.

It is here that Penny Dreadful begins to differ from its Victorian counterparts who weren’t so much concerned with providing motivation as they were providing thrills. In combining the short, sharp shocks of the original penny dreadfuls and more the psychological concerns of its twenty-first century audience, Penny Dreadful shows how fascinated we still are as a society with the monstrous in all its forms. Wanting to understand the monster and empathising with them is a much more twenty-first century sensibility and one which is increasingly characterising new spins on these old tales.

Shows like American Horror Story and Hannibal prove that we’re still fascinated by the idea of a monster in our midst, but rather than leaping out of the shadows, they work alongside us. That such a creature, intent on destruction, can exist without remorse in our society still terrifies us, even more so if they are human and not supernatural. The difference now is that we want to get to know these monsters, understand their motivations and witness trauma of their inner conflicts. Recently, fairytales have been the focus as Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent and Snow White’s Evil Queen both received explanatory origin stories in cinema whilst Dracula is set to receive his own in Dracula Untold. We’re not content to just fight off Dracula now, we want to understand what makes him tick.

Read our spoiler-filled reviews of Penny Dreadful's first season, here.

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Sounds interesting. I'm going to have to give this show a go now.

All in all, I like Penny Dreadful. It's a little hard for some people to get into because the story, at times, seems to be standing still. This is partially due to all the flashbacks. The enemy isn't so interesting either at this point. But the heroes are, as the review pointed out. I think this may be why it feels a little slow in some ways. The focus is on the inner struggle of the heroes, not so much their battle with the bad guys.

There were a few things I thought they could have done when I started watching it. Some of which they ended up doing at the very end (I won't go into it because of the spoilers). I find myself hoping they'll include Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at some point. :) But I had thought that a werewolf might also work.

At any rate, I hope we get more of Penny Dreadful.

Too bad the "monstrous concerns" about the show didn't include the rampant sexist and racist tones throughout.

Isn't that part of the monstrousness? (I don't think that's a word, but you know what I mean.) It is also generally consistent with the that time in history, is it not? It seems that, overall, this is a legitimate part of the reality the characters must deal with.

Complete BS.
My point was that this article didn't bring out that the show was extremely racist and sexist, but claiming that racism and sexism were daily life in Victorian times makes it acceptable now is BS, largely because modern perceptions of life in previous eras is factually wrong.
The lack of female characters and people of color and the way the few female characters and people of color in the show were treated has nothing to do with what life was actually like for them or how they should be portrayed now. Having more than 1 woman on the show, going beyond the Lady/whore dichotomy, having more than one 1 Black-man-as-manservant would have been far more factual. 50% of the population of the Victorian era was female, exact same as today, so the lack of female characters is unacceptable. Women also had more job options than Lady and whore. Black people (and Asians) also existed outside of the servant class.
It was true that women who enjoyed having sex were often diagnosed with "hysteria," not because they had anything wrong with them, but because of the rise of feminism and men feared women with authority over their own bodies and minds. But the shows doesn't go into that. In fact, it takes the position that Ives is actually possessed by the Devil, which was brought on by her "unnatural" interest in sex (because Ladies would never want sex for pleasure), so don't have sex, ladies, because your vagina leads to hell.
Also, IT'S FANTASY! There can be vampires and werewolves but not a black hero or god forbid more than two women in an episode? BS!

It'll be interesting to see how Billie Piper's character develops next season (but see earlier reply to Isaac - totally not cool with the character of Victor any more), but yes, this was a very traditional Gothic 'romance' in terms of the way it portrays women as Madonna or whore. Still enjoyed it a lot though.

If we accept the pretty awful treatment of Vanessa at the hands of Sir Malcolm and pretty much everyone else as part of the show's monstrosities that could fly.

*Spoilers...* I think made even worse by the fact that BP's character is literally murdered so her body can be used to please a man in death, as she used it in life.

I think that the dynamic between Victor and the Creature is also very Jekyll/Hyde-like (though I know that's the nature of their story anyway), so it might be interesting to distill that into one person.

Yes! I think BP's character was completely shafted in every way possible. She was so minimized in the whore/beautiful death trope it was nauseating to watch. I am really hoping that she gets A LOT more screentime next season and gets to develop her character. I think Caliban's character was probably the most interesting of the whole season, so there is a lot of potential for BP there.

*Spoilers from final episode*

I'm guessing that she'll reject Caliban rather quickly partly because her becoming his bride is just too obvious and partly because once she gets her memories back (as Proteus was beginning to) she'll have no interest in a relationship with him.

Sir Malcolm treated everyone in his family awfully really, from leaving his son to die to shooting his daughter without much hesitation (I realise it was to save Vanessa but it was still pretty cold). Also, he said he already has a daughter, that may be literal as we know he was having an affair with Vanessa's mother. That might go towards explain the way he treated her, he was ashamed and taking it out on the product of the affair.

I'm all for calling shows out when they are being sexist or racist. But I really think your reaching here. First of all the ratio of main cast is more 1:3 in terms of Female:Male. While that is not the 1:1 ration you were wanting, I think expecting writers to create characters to fill some sort of ratio or quota is asking for art to suffer. And of the three main women none of them were simpering weaklings and all of them had actual characteristics that made them unique people, with identifiable motives and a range of emotions. And while the three main female cast members served as either lady or whore. There was also a female actress who was vital to the story of Caliban, as well as the the other Spiritualist character, who had a very healthy view on sex it seemed and was not cheapened or chastised by the writers for it. In a very brief season with only a few speaking roles outside of the main nine characters that shows that the writers are somewhat mindful of showing a more diverse world. And your view on Miss Ives possession is either warped or a little misguided. She wasn't possessed because she was interested in sex. She was possessed because she was a selfish, cruel person, interested only in her own well being. Who's guilt eventual consumed and destroyed her. She had sex with her best friend's fiancee, the night before their wedding, just cause she wanted to. Just out of jealousy. That's not just a casual interest in sex. That's just $h!^y behavior. And to top it off when her friend walks in, she just gives her a cold stare and keeps on going. What the actual %^&#. Her possession has nothing to do with some misogynistic view of female sexuality. In fact none of the main characters, male or female, have a healthy sex life. As for the racism, I'll give you a bit on that. It does get a bit old seeing Asian people only being opium dealers and train yard workers in modern Victorian fiction. To some degree this story gets a pass in that like 90% of the story moves along in the aristocratic portion of society, with the lower and middle class serving as the backdrop for more of the action sequences.So seeing people of color being anything other than servants would be less likely. If they expand some of the racial opportunities for interesting characters in the expanded 2nd season (10 episodes as opposed to 8) I'll be much happier.

Why on earth would a show set in 1890s London have 'people of colour' in it? That wouldn't fit the genre remotely. Some people see racism everywhere.

No disrespect intended, but I think you're projecting more than a little here. And whether the show portrays this time period accurately or not isn't much of an issue to me either way, really, especially if that's how most people think it would have been. And as you mentioned, they do. That's really all the excuse the producers need. I only pointed out some of the issues I saw with your comments which I felt were unfair.

I agree that Vanessa's sexual urges are seen as "unnatural" within the world of Penny Dreadful. For me, this just highlights the obvious problems with this mentality. At least that was my reaction as I was watching the show. Your reaction was obviously different. But this isn't a show about how women's sexuality is seen by society at large or even about racism, although these things are present. It's about monsters and the demons within us all.

Note that there are at least 2 male bisexual characters in the series, yet their sexual activities only happen in private. Presumably, no one else knows about them and this is not considered "proper" behavior in the world of the TV show. And Vanessa's demons go far deeper than her sexuality. It is about powerful urges that she can barely contain. When she fails to control them - whether they be sexual or sadomasochistic - bad things happen. That, I think, is the larger issue for Vanessa. To me, there's clearly more going on here than a "women who like sex are bad" message. She bears the guilt of playing so central a role in Mina's downfall, which is a huge part of her character. To me, that just isn't about the issues you are concerned with; it's about a character bearing the weight of her actions. She, like all the heroes, is a very imperfect human being. No better than the others, but no worse. There are also other major characters with completely different problems that fill up much of the show's time. The show isn't all about Vanessa's need for sex.

These are just my opinions, obviously. To each their own. And I meant no disrespect with my comments. But I disagree with your calling them "Complete BS."

More bewbs and murder please. I especially enjoyed the *SPOLIER* ex-Bond on ex-Bond girl action. Creepy.

Apparently the extreme racism and sexism won't keep you from watching next season, then, eh?

I think you are trying to force the Victorian Era into modern times, and that just can't be done. When Ives and Sir Malcolm attend the gathering at The Egyptologist's home, there are many upper class women in attendance, when a woman is brutally slain, we see many lower class women who are clearly not whores talking on the street amongst themselves. Clearly there are more than two women portrayed and not only as "The Lady or The Whore." You can not deny that the plight of blacks in the Victorian Era was a far cry from what it is today. Blacks were treated as second class citizens in many countries, not just England or America. They were often servants, some were slaves. Some may have been able to rise above to a better life, most could not. I disagree that Sir Malcolm treats Sembene as just a "manservant." They appear to be close friends, one as willing to die for the other. They have had a deep friendship that may have began like that, but it is obvious that is not the case now, or Sembene would not have had the audacity to confront Sir Malcolm on the situation with Mina, when they are discussing what might happen if she could not be saved. Sir Malcolm sends the whole gang on errands, not just Sembene. He is the leader, his is the quest, his word is the law for all of them (except Dorian, of course, as he is not part of the gang). If you are going to make a series about Victorian Era London, don't try to force 21st Century values into it. There were very poor whites, blacks who were still slaves or servants, there were rich whites who held sway in London society. I love the show as it shows all of the character's weaknesses, but also shows their attempts to rise above those weaknesses and work together to fight the evils outside of them by suppressing the evils inside of themselves. I think the show is outstanding in its choice of cast, each of the episodes are beautifully filmed and keeps the attention of the viewer, as we are always guessing what will come next. I am sorry you can not see beyond the colour/gender of the cast members, and yes, it is a fantasy show, but one which is supposed to be based in some kind of reality of the times.

Interesting - I read his 'I already have a daughter' line as a response to Josh Harnett's 'You want a daughter? There she is!' line, but that would add a logical angle.

The show was all style and very little substance. The main storyline went nowhere. Won't be sticking around for series 2.

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