Penny Dreadful season 3 rode to a close with the double creature features “Perpetual Night” and “The Blessed Dark.” The arcs of all the characters ended fairly neatly, though there were enough splinters to prick the skin for some new blood. The blood is the life, after all. Most fans would like to see Penny Dreadful rise from the grave to continue haunting small screens internationally, but should it? Three is a lucky number. The original Star Trek series only lasted three seasons and it became a cult TV phenomenon reprieved by motion pictures.
The original Penny Dreadfuls were also short, as were the lives of most of the Romantic poets the series celebrated. The Penny Dreadfuls were the comic books of their time, gothic novels printed on pulp paper and sold for as little as currency would allow. The magazines appealed to popularly emerging sordid tastes. In England in the 1800s they churned out dreadful horror stories for a penny apiece. Varney the Vampire was published as a penny dreadful. That’s also where Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, came to be. Stories filled with dread printed on cheap pulp paper, throwaways. Not meant to last. Born to die. Like Vanessa Ives.
Penny Dreadful offered up its main character, the magnetic Vanessa Ives played by the mesmerizing Eva Green, as a sacrificial lamb to save the world from endless night. Dr. Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway, could dig her up in the middle of the night, insert the trademarked Frankenstein knobs into her neck and shock her back into existence. Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) would decry that as unfair to the woman he loves. Penny Dreadful creator John Logan agrees.
“She’s a character desperately in need of peace, and the mortal realm was not going to give it to her,” Logan told Variety in a post-mortem of the series. “The options were the realm of the devil or the realm of God. And her way to achieve apotheosis, to achieve God, was to die and go to Heaven, and find the peace of the grave. That seems appropriate to the tone of the show.
What I find remarkable about the ending is that she gets what she wants, which is to die and go to Heaven and be with God. That’s a shocking message for 2016, to tell that story, but that’s what it is. It’s about a woman who believes in something deeply, and is willing to sacrifice her life to attain it.”
That’s pretty heady stuff for emo horror, but it reflected the conflict of the times the series is set. The late nineteenth century was a high point in spiritualist history. Madame Helena Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society died in 1891. Arthur Conan Doyle was attending séances and founding the Fortean Society. Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson were all busy turning future movie ideas into novels. Inventing science fiction. Inventing horror. Oscar Wilde was reinventing Goth fashion. France had a museum of the grotesque. It would soon house the precursor to the grindhouse film, the Grand Guignol. Everybody who was anybody was getting into the darker side of existence.
The 1890s were a lot like the 1990s. People expected the end of the world, a phenomenon that happened with every centennial turning of the calendar. New technology was changing the social landscape. Still images were being projected in flash serial form to create moving pictures. Soon these pictures would need stories and short terrifying tales were a natural marriage.
“Penny bloods” started publishing in the 1830s to keep pacing with growing literacy. Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 publishers of penny-fiction. They were renamed “Penny Dreadfuls” in the 1860s. They were usually eight or 16 pages long. The series didn’t take these stories, they went straight to the heart of classic literature, rather than tawdry terror. The series title was misleading this way. It had a big budget and told only the most popular of horror stories.
Penny Dreadful treats these popular horror stories, and the low-budget thrillers of cinema, with the utmost respect. The series was House of Frankenstein mashed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and at least one extraordinary lady.
There are surely other stories to tell now that Vanessa Ives has moved onward and upward. The penny dreadfuls main fare was highwaymen, robbers who pillaged passing travelers. Now that Penny Dreadful tagged its season closer with the words “The End,” we have WGN’s Salem to look forward to. Both are supernatural thrillers, but they are completely different takes on the genre. Yet the two shows have so many similarities. While Salem is a spooky soap opera with Dark Shadows in its blood, Penny Dreadful has the traditions of Hammer and Universal Horror movies coursing through its spirit. They really like to scare. They thrill in the cerebral attack because the brain is properly vulnerable while looking the other way.
The two shows also killed off their main femme fatales. Salem survives the death of Mary Sibley. Penny Dreadful could explore the new Lord Hyde or follow Brona as she stages another rebellion. But why? As the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.