Geek Culture

Published on June 24th, 2015 | by Gloria Romano

The Literature of Penny Dreadful

Creating a gathering of literature characters and placing them together into one storyline has been used time and time again in storytelling. The comic series “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore places characters from classic adventure stories, such as Allan Quatermain and Captain Nemo, and creates a team of steampunk heroes. In literature, you have Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, where classic literary characters like Mrs. Havisham and Mr. Rochester are able to exist side by side with normal people and even assist them in solving crimes. What these authors have done is create an original story using famous characters from older tales. But the literary world is not the only platform for this fusion. Television has create shows with this formula, drawing in viewers who have read the original tale or are interested in the new concoction. One network has created such a show, bringing together gothic novels of the Victorian era and elements of the supernatural.

Already in its second season on the movie network Showtime, “Penny Dreadful” brings together classic horror characters from notable literary works such as “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as they dive deep into the supernatural world hidden within Victorian England. The first season introduces viewers to a unique host of characters from classic tales but also original characters with their own dark backstories and parts to play. There is Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature that goes by many aliases, such as Caliban and John Clare, the father of Mina Murray Sir Malcolm Murray, the sexual and sensual Dorian Gray, sharpshooter Ethan Chandler, and mysterious Vanessa Ives. Even if you never read the classics, a few of these names should ring a bell. Along with this mix of characters, the show’s storylines, vivid imagery of death and darkness, and its homage to the works of the Romantic Era and the original penny dreadfuls, bring everything together and create a terrifying, suspenseful show where anything is possible. But how many of these literary characters and genres are mentioned in this show? Who are these characters and what parts do they play?

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Unfortunately, the infamous Count Dracula does not make a formal appearance in “Penny Dreadful” but his minions and targets certainly do. In Stoker’s story, Dracula seduces Mina Harker, aka Mina Murray, who is close to becoming a vampire until her husband and Abraham Van Helsing kill the vampire. The same storyline is seen in “Penny Dreadful” but it is a bit differently than the original novel. Mina is taken by a powerful vampire but it is her father Malcolm Murray and her closet friend Vanessa Ives who venture into darkness in order to find her. With assistance from the rest of the cast, including Van Helsing, they discover a minion of the master vampire, the nature of the vampires and how to defeat them. This is the major plotline of season one, bringing together a majority of the cast and introducing viewers to a dark world where anything is possible, if you knew where to look.



Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Monster have a troubling relationship that has lasted since the original novel’s publication. Even in “Penny Dreadful”, their interaction is uncomfortable and filled with tension. Frankenstein’s creation is a constant reminder to the doctor of his ambition to unlock the mysteries of life and death and the consequences of his actions. As for the creature, he struggles to integrate himself into London society and constantly demands from his “father” a mate similar to him (aka The Bride of Frankenstein). Their connection and history is very similar in the show and the classic novel but on the show, they each have different roles. The doctor becomes an important addition to the cast and the search for Mina Murray with his knowledge of medical science. As for the creature, he is still the lonely soul seeking comfort and understanding but his travels around London expose viewers to Victorian entertainment and the underground world.



The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The original story by Oscar Wilde is about a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth but as he stays young, his self-portrait ages year after year. This same story is present within the show but it has not been explored as of yet. Only little clues about his immortality can be shown here and there. Dorian Gray is not involved in the search for Mina Murray but he still plays a key role in the series. With his sensual nature, he is able to entice Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler for one night of passion and can also intrigue other individuals in joining in with his unique tastes and desires. Similar to his literary version, Dorian Gray aims to experience everything from entertainment, to new inventions, and to those of a sexual nature. The mysterious history of Dorian Gray and his elaborate lifestyle has its own storyline but in some instances, he draws out the dark desires of the rest of the cast.



The Romantics

Creator John Logan has stated that the poetry of the Romantic Era influenced the creation and writing of “Penny Dreadful”. Writers of the Romantic Era were influenced by nature and the dark beauty of life, as well as the supernatural. They believed in the importance of individualism, opposition towards the political events at the time, and freedom in their writing. Most of the poets of this time used visual imagery to create poems to describe the dark despair of life and the mysterious beauty that surrounds death. A few of these poems are recited by most of the main characters in the show, especially by Dr. Frankenstein, Vanessa Ives, and the Creature (one of his aliases is John Clare, the name of a famous poet from the era). Some notable poems that have been recited so far include William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”, and John Clare’s “I Am!” and “An Invite, to Eternity”. The imagery and language from these poems, as well as others from the same era, invoke the dark imagery of the show and the tormented souls of the characters.



The Original Penny Dreadfuls

During Victorian England, gothic short stories that contained controversial and dark content were called penny dreadfuls. These stories were short, cheap, and published weekly. Even though most of its content and themes were unpleasant, there were devoted readers who bought copies weekly, which resulted in the publication’s popularity. The stories usually included the supernatural, thieves, pirates, assaults, poisoning, murder, and other similar subjects and themes. These stories are still available today and have been retold for book and screen. A good example would be “The String of Pearls”, which introduced readers to Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street and his partner Mrs. Lovett. The show “Penny Dreadful” takes a lot of inspiration from its namesake. The original short stories are briefly mentioned as a valuable resource for Dr. Frankenstein, when his friend Abraham Van Helsing hands him “Varney, the Vampire” to assist his vampire research. Explorations into the darkness of man and the dangers of the supernatural, as seen in most of the dreadfuls, are present in the show, as well.


“Penny Dreadful” takes not only noteworthy gothic characters and place them in a new, but familiar, universe, but also a majority of the themes and imagery from the original tales. The show stays true to its source material but still creates a new set of stories. Recognizing someone old in something new can be very exciting, especially if it works well and creates an entertaining story. But will the show introduce anymore classic characters? What other demons and secrets do these characters have? Will there be more poetry and dreadful stories? The only way to find out is to continue watching the series, with the lights on of course.



Cheap and Nasty: The Horrid Legacy of the Penny Dreadful by Matthew Sweet

Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians by Judith Flanders A Brief Guide to Romanticism

About the Author

An avid reader, writer, and a lover of anything geeky, Gloria Romano balances her time with work, gaming, and entertainment. She is a children’s librarian at the Peninsula Public Library in Lawrence, New York, where she develops programs for toddlers and researches the newest trends in children’s literature. Along with Cosplay, Comics, and Geek Culture in Libraries, she also writes for No Flying, No Tights and is an active member of the Nassau County Library Association’s Pop Culture Committee. On some occasions, you may find her writing whatever pops into her head, especially a line of poetry or a scene of fiction, or absorbed in a book.

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