Penny dreadful, the pre-cursor to the dime novel of the 50s, is the grand daddy of a genre of literature we know as Pulp fiction. Originating in Britain, what we now know as a magazine, born of newspapers, was a serial publication that featured gothic fiction of a macabre, dark and often salacious nature. Originally intended to be a cheap resource for content for working class adults and sold for a shilling (12 cents), this is the outlet where authors such as Dumas and Dickens could build an audience faster than with traditional book sales. With the popularity of these magazines such as the Strand, publishers began to expand their market share and developed a product aimed at teenagers. Sold for a penny and full of stories in the vein of Dracula, Spring Heeled Jack, curses of Egyptian mummies and the like these cheap editions were printed on pulp paper.
The stories in a penny dreadful are rarely of great literary value as would be Shakespeare. And the topics were of whatever lurid and unconventional spine-tingling subject could be imagined. As the Science Age expanded our understanding of the world, the imagination grew as well and in the 50s when the price climbed to a dime to be sold in stores like Woolworths or any corner drugstore they came to be known as dime novels rather than the penny dreadful. They grew from short serials to full length novels. The writing frequently matched the quality of paper it was printed on and then gained the moniker pulp fiction.
Pulp Fiction is a tawdry genre with characters of dubious honor, personal vendettas and little social convention. So of course it appeals to teenagers. The dime novel with its cheap thrills would lead the way to comics and graphic novels for generations that would follow. The bizarre and fantastic nature of the stories would not change but the characters would get more colorful. Literally.
Now in 2014 the Penny Dreadful returns in the persona of Showtime's blockbuster Summer hit of the same name. It begins May 11th. But showtime is airing a preview for a limited time. I am watching it tonight and I am absolutely mesmerized and a bit distracted with all of my literary history rushing to the front of my brain trying to run a MST3K style commentary while I am watching. Holmes began life in those penny dreadfuls as did the three muskateers. Jules Verne's work, while a bit more significant than appearance in the serials would indicate, found new life in the serial magazines of the day. And as I am watching this all manner of minutia I've gleaned about Victorian era medicine, London police investigations, how newspapers function (with their own morgues), the backstory on the when and where of how some of our most beloved stories were developed.... and I will have to watch it a few times to catch everything I have missed with this commentary in my head.
Penny dreadful stars Timothy Dalton. It is a supernatural show and after his appearance in Dr. Who one might wish he would have stopped there. But this character, Sir Malcolm Murray, is that combination of the great angsty characters that he does so well. He is passionate, determined and rife with guilt. And his wardrobe is all that you could want in Victorian era costuming without looking like he was hit with a plaid stick. (Sorry Ripper Street, but that is too much plaid.)
It also features a woman whom I refer to as "The Bitch from Merlin". The rest of the world knows her as Eva Green. She is a medium, spiritualist and supernatural hunter in the vein of the van Helsings. Her wardrobe is equally magnificent. and her character, is much more likeable than Morganna. Right now I still want to punch her.
Also in the mix is Josh Hartnett as an American gunslinger rescued from having to play at being another Buffalo Bill Cody and having smart Europeans call him out on his tall tales. His character will slowly develop.... I hope. Right now he is little better than the American in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but with potential to be more than a hired gun.
New to me, and looking like he could be Johnny Lee Miller's little brother is a kid fresh out of medical school, still enamored of research and so totally Sherlock in his determination to study to the exclusion of human interaction that unless you can drop a Corpse of Rare Decay on his lap he won't waste one arrhythmic heart beat on you. He is obsessed. When we meet him he is in the dissection room of a college preparatory morgue. And by that I mean, with medical science growing by leaps and bounds, doctors who couldn't make it in practice with the living, took up residence in underground mortuaries to prepare corpses as cadavers for college biology classes. If you know anything about da Vinci you know that he had a similar predilection for knowledge. He dissected when it was against the law to do so in order to learn the human form well enough to be a master in his art. Though amazingly still could not understand a woman's reproductive system.... Boys! At any rate, sitting with his back to the audience, and the rest of the cast, speaking with the huffy air of someone of both superior intellect and self esteem, he whiffs and poofs his disdain like a southern belle waves a handkerchief in the August heat. That is the young Victor Frankenstein for you.
Now once we meet the characters more hell will break lose. By the time we see Dr. F it is readily apparent that there is more to fear in this realm than a Demon Barber on Fleet Street and it is all as deliciously spine tingling as one of those demonic pies.
Penny Dreadful first strikes me as a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen crew. Dorian Grey will appear later and we have our Doc Frankenstein. But those are the only literary names we are given so far. The best thing about this first episode is that we get the League and the fixes that might have made it more than a cult classic. The style of the sets is pure Victorian elegance and steampunk gothic chic. Color and humor come in the form of tertiary characters to keep the somber main cast from dragging us down. And every bizarre cultish practice from around the world is going to show up in some extraordinary way. Anyone who is into the minutia of these topics is going to appreciate the wit and humor of the writers who seem to be able to educate and make fun of the very things of which they are enamored.
One of the professors at a local London college (Cambridge, Oxford, I don't recall) is analyzing some hieroglyphs. He is flamboyant in dress and manner as if relieved to not be dealing with your run of the mill higher education bureaucrats and is housed in a flamboyantly appointed Office of a Victorian Aesthetic with two equally flamboyant birds of Holbein's Opera Pink. As he is explaining to Dalton that the hieroglyphs are 18th dynasty Hieratic (yay me, I knew that) he is waxing jovial about Egyptian style and says "Those Egyptians were a bit madcap when it came to things metaphoric."
I chortled. Out Loud because I have said the same thing about Egyptian Ways of Naming Things in a crowd of art history students. And I got the same response. Cue crickets. The extras and the tertiary cast will have to supply the humor and conviviality we've come to crave with Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street and Castle because the main characters are too resolute in their pursuit to find anything funny. And I suppose when you are staring monsters in the face and are bereft of Karl the Monk for comic relief (and poison arrow heads, goo 1000 times hotter than the sun) you aren't going to find any of this terribly amusing. Without the relief of people who are so unaware of what really goes bump in the night the show could be more gruesome than entertaining.
I can't wait to see how this goes. Since I don't have Showtime and the BF does this will be one of those end of the run marathons like True Detective was. How thrilling!