Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

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Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

No Mere Mortal Can Resist

Every October, Michael Jackson’s Thriller resurrects itself. Thriller’s sensory aspects transport and captivate us time and time again, making our hair stand on end even though we know we’ve heard the track before. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Hallowe’en is days away, which means I’ve had one particular track on repeat: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Due to my strong personal convictions, I think this is one of the best tracks ever recorded, both as a standalone work of art and as a Hallowe’en staple. As I was listening for the umpteenth time, I decided I wanted to pay tribute to the masterful storytelling MJ demonstrates in the title track of his 1982 album.

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Photo: BlogTO

I personally feel that everything about this song is unparalleled, for one key reason: “Thriller” weaves a scary story solely through audio (we’ll get to the video later). Visuals are a key element of our imagination, but “Thriller” harnesses the many possibilities of sound to prompt our own dreadful visions. How else does Jackson (along with producer Quincy Jones, songwriter Rod Temperton, and actor Vincent Price) use terror to allure us every time? Let’s break it down.

Sound & Senses

From the outset, the track’s many layers pull us into the King of Pop’s rich paranormal world. A coffin* opens. Wind blows and thunder crashes. A wolf howls in the distance. Footsteps fall …

The various sounds trigger our own associations based on what we’ve experienced and imagined in the past – each of us responds to these prompts in some way, with fear, amusement, or something else.

The soundscape is the backbone of the track. Sound effects support it throughout, littering the immersive narrative with sensory stimuli. The interlude in which Vincent Price reads a spoken word “rap” is overlaid with organ music, amplifying his deadly drawl. Evil laughter swiftly ends the song, and we hear the supposed coffin (or door) slam shut. All of these sounds combine to create a tapestry of horror, transporting us unwittingly into a haunted space of our own design.

* To me it sounds quite heavy, like a coffin being opened from within. But to you it may sound differently, like a creaky door. That’s what’s so wonderful about the track: we’re the ones building the setting based on the audio prompts we’re given.

Writing 

Rod Temperton’s lyrics strike listeners with vivid imagery that resurrects all manner of horrific creatures to shock you. I don’t know about you, but the diction makes me feel transported to a graveyard setting or similar. Such exacting language, written in the 2nd person point of view, situates us directly in the setting (“you try to scream … / you start to freeze …). We are the potential victim navigating the frightening landscape as we listen along.

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom

Voice & Performance

As Jackson performs the lyrics, he dances around (no pun intended) the actual identity of the monsters of whose malice he warns. In doing so, he dwells in the fear of the unknown. We “hear a creature creeping up behind” but we don’t see it, just like we don’t see anything when listening to the track. We are just as blind and helpless as Jackson tells us we are, left to picture the lyrical demons in our own minds.

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Vincent Price. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Jackson was threatening us with the imminent presence of evil, Vincent Price’s deadly voice is practically condemning. His chilling delivery does something Jackson’s higher-pitched voice could never achieve: it scares us senseless. If you didn’t think Price’s voice was sinister enough in speech, his diabolical laughter seals the entire track. The illusion is so carefully constructed that we are well and truly immersed – I still get chills.

Visuals

As much as I’ve praised “Thriller” the song for its auditory accomplishments, it would be a cardinal sin to overlook the 14-minute epic that serves as the music video. My mother reminisced that the 1983 premiere on MTV was such a big event that people skipped classes to watch it. It provides a visual narrative sequence with a surprising levity which somewhat offsets the audio, as well as the iconic “Thriller” choreography. However, you could argue that watching the short film detracts from the sonic experience I’ve just described – it’s a real treat to listen to the disembodied sounds/music and picture our own mélange of ghoulish chaos and fear. After all, seeing the video means that the darkness of the unknown is now illustrated, losing some of its mystique. But the music video is a spectacle in itself and deserves to be recognized.

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Michael Jackson’s iconic music video for Thriller is timelessly entertaining. Photo: Giphy

Whether you choose to watch the video or listen to the track, you’re guaranteed an interpretative masterpiece. But I stand by my veneration for the song in particular and its talents in transporting listeners without the need for visuals. Jackson’s “Thriller” isn’t just spectacular; it’s interactive. It’s both a trick of the mind and a treat to listen to. And that’s why it will thrill us for years to come.

And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the Thriller