Pulp Appeal: Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful main cast advertising image. From left to right, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Harry Treadaway, Eva Green, Reeve Carney, Timothy Dalton, Danny Sapani
Cover ad for an original penny dreadful from the late 1800s for "Spring Heeled Jack."

Penny dreadfuls of the late 19th Century were the direct ancestors of pulp fiction rags of the early 20th Century. The name is definitely British in origin, and the publications themselves were most popular in Victorian England, though they were sometimes brought in to America by travelers. The closest neighbor native to the US were the dime novels, though as the name suggests they cost a dime rather than a penny and were often full novels in length, whereas the penny dreadfuls were more like comic books in length, each one roughly a chapter of a larger piece, costing one British penny each. Like the dime novels and later pulps, penny dreadfuls were printed on the cheapest of the cheap wood pulp material. Sadly that means they don’t hold up much over time, and the ones that still exist need to be handled relatively carefully.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives

Penny Dreadful is the Showtime/Sky series that attempted to bring to world audiences the same aesthetic of the classic penny dreadfuls of old. The main focus of the story arc traces Vanessa Ives, played by the lovely and talented Eva Green,[1] a woman cursed by the Devil for her lust as she fights against the forces of darkness gathering around her, ultimately led by spoilers–Dracula. Although she is the main focal character in the sense that the plot essentially revolves around her, the show is an ensemble that includes Sir Malcolm Murray (the father of Mina Murray from the Dracula novel) played by Timothy Dalton, Ethan Chandler (spoilers–a werewolf who was born Ethan Lawrence Talbot[2]) played by Josh Hartnett, Victor Frankenstein (yep, that one) played by Harry Treadaway and his Creature played by Rory Kinnear. That’s the main cast, but there are other major characters in Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) from Oscar Wilde’s novel, Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper) the Bride of Frankenstein, and Sembene (Danny Sapani), as well as recurring side characters including Dracula, Renfield, and Henry Jekyll.

If that sounds like a smorgasbord of great characters from the progenitors of horror and science fiction, that’s because it is. Penny dreadfuls of the day would have had similar types of characters, since many of them were reprints of famous Gothic and Victorian novels, and printed in such a way that there’d have been some serious lawsuits over intellectual property if they’d been published today with modern characters. As it is, the series characters are all in the public domain, so we can do what we want to them now.

This is essentially a superhero team of occult characters from historical fiction investigating and fighting back against evil forces amassing power in the back alleys and underground areas of Victorian era England. If that sounds at all familiar, it’s likely because you’ve come across Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hopefully that means you read the comic rather than seeing the movie[3], but in any case I certainly don’t think there’s any way this series’ creators were blind to Moore’s original comic series.

In Moore’s original he used Mina Harker (nee Murray) the original target of Dracula’s desires from the novel, Sir Allan Quatermain, Henry Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man. Other characters from the pulps move about the comics series as well, including AJ Raffles and Thomas Carnacki, and the whole thing is overseen by James Bond’s ancestor Campion Bond, a sort of M for British Intelligence, with James Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes as the main villain.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the comic series

So Penny Dreadful is essentially the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with the serial numbers filed off. That’s not as big a problem as it may seem, since the characters are all public domain and the basic plots are different even while the surface characterizations may be similar. Vanessa Ives fills in for Mina Murray, Malcolm Murray fills the Quatermain role, and Sembene is a stand-in for Quatermain’s companion Umslopogaas. The rest of the cast round out the squad filling in similar roles (The Wolf Man instead of the Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray instead of The Invisible Man and Captain Nemo, etc). The first time I saw the series I felt a little dirty, like the producers owed Moore more than just some writing or inspiration credit, but upon a repeat viewing I see that the differences are stark enough that they have legal (if not moral) leeway to tell their stories. It is still a little suspect, but I guess that’s okay since no one really owns those characters anymore.

(And, well, it’s not like Moore was the first to have this idea of linking old pulp heroes together. Philip Jose Farmer had the idea before that with his Wold Newton Universe, as I’ve talked about in our article on PJ Farmer, and even he wasn’t necessarily the first as the pulps themselves linked characters through crossovers and other references.)

The Penny Dreadful series may seem dry if you only watch the first few episodes, and the very Britishness of it may be off-putting for people who don’t go in for the kind of drama that comes out of Empire fiction, but I’d say that most fans of Doctor Who and anyone who’s read and loved the original novels the characters are based on would rally to the show. Sadly, Showtime is harder to watch on streaming services than some of the other premium channels (and has fewer subscribers in general), but if you have Netflix in the US you’re in luck now as the entire three-season series is there, but who knows for how long. The streaming industry is in for some massive shakeups later this year when Disney launches Disney Plus.

Be warned the series is not for children. Maybe older teens could watch it with supervision (it is TV-MA, after all), but that is really up to parents and their comfort with graphic nudity, lots of on-screen violence (including sexual violence), illicit drug usage, and all things occult. I probably wouldn’t let my teenage daughter watch it just yet, but maybe in a couple more years.

There is a sequel/spin-off in production now, shifting the setting from the original London to Los Angeles, which is set to debut probably sometime in 2020.

Side note: if you, like me, are a fan of tarot cards and their designs, the ones used in this series are simply gorgeous. They are sadly out of stock everywhere I looked, and I’m kicking myself for not purchasing a set five years ago.

Penny Dreadful Tarot Cards

[1] Eva Green first came to my attention (and probably most of America) with Casino Royale, the first Bond film starring Daniel Craig, but as good as she is as Vesper Lynd there, she’s even better here.

[2] Fans of Universal Pictures 1941 movie The Wolf Man will no doubt recognize this name. Lon Chaney’s version of the titular werewolf is named Lawrence Talbot.

[3] The movie is almost singlehandedly the reason behind Sean Connery’s retirement from the film industry. While there are aspects of the movie I like still (the casting is pretty good, some of the set designs and costuming are brilliant), the schlocky plot looks like the cheap shitty imitation that it is. You can be forgiven If you saw the film and mistakenly thought you were watching one of the mockbusters from The Asylum (Transmorphers, 2-Headed Shark Attack, etc, though I have to admit I like far more of the mockbusters than anyone should, and think many of them are more entertaining than LXG *shudder*)

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5 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Penny Dreadful

  1. alburke47 says:

    This was a great show. The cast was top notch, but Eva Green blew the rest of them away.


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