Television
3:54 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

Lurid Meets Literary In 'Penny Dreadful,' An All-Star Gothic Revue

Originally published on Thu May 8, 2014 7:19 pm

There's a specific subset of NPR listeners who are also dedicated horror fans. If you fall in that category, the new drama Penny Dreadful -- premiering Sunday on Showtime — may hit all your sweet spots. Imagine an all-star Gothic revue that brings together Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Count Dracula — plus a core team of original characters including a Wild West sharpshooter, an astringent lady spiritualist and an intrepid explorer, in the Sir Richard Burton or David Livingstone mode.

But the show's creator was originally inspired by romantic poetry.

"The real impetus for the whole series was [William] Wordsworth," confessed John Logan. It was a Wordsworthian spring evening in his apartment right off Central Park, and Logan was relaxing after a long day of rehearsing his first Broadway musical, The Last Ship, starring Sting. The playwright and screenwriter of Gladiator and the James Bond movie Skyfall said he'd turned to reading romantic poetry obsessively after a heartbreak.

Wordsworth led to John Keats led to Percy Shelley led to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein — "And then I picked up Dracula," he said.

Logan became fascinated by an explosion of literature in the last decade of the 19th century that included Dracula, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

"There was something going on there that was extremely kinetic," he mused. (It should be noted that Penny Dreadful includes a fair amount of kinetic James Bond energy. Not only was it created by a Bond screenwriter, it stars a former Bond Girl — Eva Green — and a former James Bond — Timothy Dalton.)

But the kinetic energy around Victorian horror literature was fueled in part by penny dreadfuls. Those were the lurid little magazines sold on streets for about a penny. Historian Matthew Sweet, who consulted for the television show, said the real penny dreadfuls specialized in grotesque stories of alarming violence.

"Stories about highwaymen, murder, smugglers," he explains with evident relish. "Stories about trapdoors that you fall through and end in the sewers."

Stories that bring together real historical characters, like Jack the Ripper, with fictional ones, like Count Dracula, might seem to be a riff on such projects as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Logan acknowledges these as important influences. But the TV series is also true to the spirit of real penny dreadfuls. Sweet says they gleefully combined royals, alchemists and serial killers with little regard for anything but Grand Guignol glory.

It's worth contemplating, he added, how the vogue for penny dreadfuls and horror literature came at a moment of great anxiety about technology, tremendous shifts in existing economic and industrial models, right when Britain's stature as the world's leader was beginning to fade.

So it's possible, he suspects, this new Penny Dreadful might resonate now.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you are a literate, dedicated horror fan, than the new TV show "Penny Dreadful" may be just what the doctor ordered, probably Dr. Jekyll. "Penny Dreadful" is literary horror, introducing some of gothic fiction's most notorious characters.

HARRY TREADAWAY: (As Frankenstein) My name is Victor Frankenstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dorian Gray) My name is Dorian Gray.

SIEGEL: "Penny Dreadful" premiers Sunday Night on Showtime and NPR's Neda Ulaby says its creator imagined it as both a ripping adventure and a historical nightmare.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Penny Dreadful" is chockablock with vampires, mummies and fiends, but also terrifying monsters of the human variety. Think Jack the Ripper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

ULABY: Still, it would be unfair to say "Penny Dreadful" derives entirely from the macabre.

JOHN LOGAN: The real impetus for the whole series was Wordsworth.

ULABY: John Logan is the creator of "Penny Dreadful." He also wrote "Gladiator" and the James Bond movie "Skyfall." He came up with "Penny Dreadful" about 10 years ago while reading William Wordsworth obsessively.

LOGAN: I was going through heartbreak and for heartbreak, there is only romantic poetry.

ULABY: Romantic poetry's fervid rhythms run through the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PENNY DREADFUL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Romantic poetry, doctor?

ULABY: Like when Dr. Frankenstein recites Wordsworth with a visitor to his lab.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PENNY DREADFUL")

TREADAWAY: (As Frankenstein) Have I not reason to lament what man has made of man?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: ...what man has made of man?

ULABY: From Wordsworth, John Logan devoured Keats, Byron, Shelley then, inevitably, "Frankenstein."

LOGAN: And then I picked up "Dracula."

ULABY: Logan says he became aware of a horror literature explosion in the decade between 1890 and 1900.

LOGAN: "Dracula," "War of the Worlds," "The Invisible Man," "Picture of Dorian Grey," "Island of Doctor Moreau," "Hound of the Baskervilles." There was something going on there that was very kinetic.

ULABY: Kinetic and sensational and exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PENNY DREADFUL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler, a half world between what we know and what we fear?

ULABY: This was also the period of the Penny Dreadful. Those were the lurid little magazines sold on streets that cost about a penny.

Matthew Sweet is a historian and a consultant for the television show. He says the real Penny Dreadfuls specialized in grotesque stories of alarming violence.

MATTHEW SWEET: Stories about highway men, murder, smugglers, stories about trapdoors that you fall through and you end up in the sewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING)

ULABY: The sewers of Victorian London is where the heroes of "Penny Dreadful" find themselves fighting an army of bald, toothy ghouls.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GROWL)

ULABY: The protagonists include a Wild West sharpshooter, a well-bred lady spiritualist and an explorer, in the mode of Sir Richard Burton or David Livingstone. They're trying to wrest one of Count Dracula's helpless victims from his vampiric clutches.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PENNY DREADFUL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Jesus Christ. Don't move, Mr. Chandler. This night is not over please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: Help, please.

ULABY: This monster mash-up of creatures with Victorian archetypes owes plenty, says "Penny Dreadful's" creator John Logan, to those 1940s movies when Dracula would meet Frankenstein.

LOGAN: "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Mummy," "The Wolfman," could all intersect and when I was a kid I loved that.

ULABY: Who is he kidding? He loves it now. And maybe he says there's a literary logic to all of these characters roaming the streets of Victorian London. Logan acknowledges similar projects, like "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman" and the novel "The Seven Percent Solution," that brought together Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes. It's the same kind of pleasure that comes in "Penny Dreadful" when Dr. Victor Frankenstein is asked to examine a terrifying mummy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "PENNY DREADFUL")

TREADAWAY: (as Dr. Victor Frankenstein) Well, it would appear you have an Egyptian man of no particular age who, at some point, in his indeterminate age decided to sharpened teeth, cover himself in hieroglyphics and grow an exoskeleton. Or you have something else altogether.

SWEET: It's exactly the kind of thing that the writers of real Penny Dreadfuls in the 19th century did. You know, they took what they wanted in order to make the best, most exciting story.

ULABY: Historian Matthew Sweet says real Penny Dreadfuls gleefully combined royals, alchemists and serial killers, with little regard for anything but Grand Guignol glory. The vogue for Penny Dreadfuls and horror literature came at a moment, he says, of great anxiety about technology, tremendous shifts in existing economical and industrial models, and right when Britain's stature as world leader beginning to fade. This new "Penny Dreadful" might resonate, he suspects, with audiences now.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.