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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