Penny Dreadful

Good morning!  So I had a weird night last night.  As you all know, I have been gorging on audio drama over the past month, and have finally gotten to the end of my (fairly extensive) collection.  So I switched to reading, and started off with the novel tie-ins for The Red Panda Adventures (mentioned in last week’s review of the audio show, here).  All fine and dandy, at least until I went to sleep.   Then my subconscious started chewing on the pulp I had been filling my brain with, and spit out the most bizarre dream.  In the dream, I was a guy (which is weird enough), but not just any guy; I was a hard-bitten, cynical Chandleresque wet dream.  As this hardboiled guy with a shaved head and a .38 in a shoulder holster, my job was to accompany this girl as she did an investigation into what is arguably the weirdest building I have ever seen, either in real life or in my dreams.  All sorts of bizarre things were going on; it was great!

So all through this dream, I am NOT lucid dreaming.  But some part of me was aware that it was a dream, because this voice in my head kept saying, “This would make a terrific audio drama!  Why aren’t you writing it all down?”  The voice got so insistent that Dream-Me actually found himself with a piece of chalk in hand, and began writing everything down on whatever surface would hold still:  the wall, the floor, a trash can lid.  At one point I was even scribbling notes on the front of the shirt I was wearing.

Finally, I realized that I was no longer dreaming; I had awakened in mid-scribble.  The dream may have been gone, but the urge to write it down would NOT go away. So I sat up, grabbed my laptop, and started typing just as fast as I could go.  Now that I look at the idea, I realize it won’t work as an audio drama; too much of the story requires significant visual information, which audio just can’t do.  But it will make a great short story, and the potential is there to even be a cycle of short stories.

Welcome to the world of being a writer. Sometimes it just happens like that.  Like walking down the street and finding a forgotten $100 bill.

So that’s how my time has been spent since we last met.  I hope yours is going as excitingly.  BTW, while I”m thinking about it, and apropos of nothing, please look to the top of this page and you’ll see a new tab, just to the right of the one that says, “About AJ.  The new tab says, “Fiction Index.”   It’s a link page that lets you surf through the fiction that has and will appear on this blog, without having to run the gauntlet of the entire archive.  Check it out!

Now, after that VERY long introduction, time to move on to the subject of today’s conversation…..

Penny Dreadful is a ten-episode long series on Showtime (the series producer promises a second season to arrive sometime in 2015), created for Showtime and Sky by John Logan and executive produced by Logan and Sam Mendes.  It’s obviously named after the Victorian magazine pre-cursor to the pulp genre. I don’t know if this can be classified as Steampunk; it has but few of the obvious tropes that typify the genre.  No dirigibles, no clockwork or steam-powered anything, no robots.  More importantly, the tone is very very grimdark.  I think this would fall firmly in the “gaslamp fantasy” subclass of the genre.  It taps deeply into the Gothic (gothic as in the literary movement, not the teenage fashion statement), and, borrowing a page from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, features actual characters and situations from Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein.  It bills itself as a “psychosexual horror story.”

The story takes place in Victorian London, and the nominal main character (there are several who step into the viewpoint position at various times) is American Ethan Chandler (played by Josh Hartnett). Chandler is a hard drinking, sharpshooting performer in a Wild West show touring England, and it is during this tour that he encounters the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green).  She has a proposition for him:  earn some money by using his gun skills, no questions asked.   Any sensible man would walk away from that sort of offer.  But Chandler is apparently not sensible, and he joins their party, who also includes Sir Malcolm Murray, as they into the darkest stews of London to go hunting for vampires.

Sir Malcom Murray (played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton) is the father of Mina Murray, the young fiancee of Jonathan Harker from the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker.  Mina has vanished, presumably carried off by vampires.  And that’s where the story starts:  will Chandler help Murray and Miss Ives find Mina.  But it’s never that simple, is it? The story leads in lots of interesting directions, as the characters recruit Victor Frankenstein to their cause, unaware that he is conducting his fateful experiments in his own lab simultaneous with their adventures.  Moreover, Miss Ives encounters and falls into a sexual obsession with the forever beautiful, forever debauched Dorian Gray, of the Oscar Wilde novel.

I have a love/hate relationship with this show.  The settings and costumes are astonishingly beautiful — the British film/tv industry are unparalleled in their skill with period dramas. The effects are brilliant, and startling in their verisimilitude.  The writing is wonderfully atmospheric and intense; you don’t just watch this show, you experience it.  All the acting is powerful. In particular I am absolutely fascinated by Eva Green’s performance as Vanessa Ives; she is mesmerizing, sexual and scary at the same time.  When she appeared on the screen, I was unable to look away, and when she wasn’t the center of attention, I missed her presence.


First, the lesser of my complaints. Here is something every writer of horror needs to remember:  Gore does not automatically equal terror.  I can handle lots of violence and gore in a story, though I don’t particularly enjoy the gore.  Gore doesn’t scare unless the reader/viewer is engaged.  Hell, I could go on for days, but Stephen King explains more eloquently than I can (if you want to read his opinions on this, and a lot of horror tropes, I strongly suggest you check out his nonfiction treatise on the subject, Danse Macabre).  Gore is fine and dandy, and when well applied, can totally give me nightmares.  But you can’t just sling gallons of blood and guts around and expect me to automatically scream.  Retch, maybe; scream, not necessarily.

Next.  The Frankenstein subplot.  Yes, I adore the Frankenstein story.  Yes, I have used it myself in fiction, and am always glad to see another variant of the same theme.  No, I did not like the version that appeared in Penny Dreadful.  Visually, it was beautiful, with a truly brilliant make up job on the Creature that made him utterly believable.  But I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like the portrayal of Victor Frankenstein.  I appreciate that the character is the personification of hubris; but this script turned him into a Victorian version of a hipster.  He was arrogant and annoying.  As for the story of “do I create a mate for the abandoned and enraged child of my intellect and hubris?”, I just didn’t care.  Don’t know why, but I was bored instead of horrified.

But that’s a minor complaint.  Here’s my big one  Sigh.  I know the show is billed as “psycho-sexual horror.”  Yes, there was horror.  Yes, there was “psycho,” in that it played upon the viewer’s expectations, and pushed any number of buttons, taboo and otherwise.  And yes, there was sex.  And there’s my main problem.  Look, there’s a rule I go by when I’m reading a story or watching a show.  I ask one question:  if I took the sexual activity out of the story, would the story still work?  If the story falls apart without the sex, then you have to leave it in.  I am no lover of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” but the fact is, without the sex, you have no motivations for the characters to act the way they did; without the sex, the story falls apart.

If I went through the episodes of Penny Dreadful, and removed every sexual scene, every flash of nudity or congress, the story would NOT fall apart.  Yeah, it was interesting in places, and maybe it even made sense in context (particularly in the relationship between Ives and Dorian Gray).  But if it doesn’t advance the story, doesn’t enhance the story, WHY ARE YOU PUTTING IT IN THE STORY?

Look, I understand that Showtime is a for-pay cable network, which means the rules are more lax than regular cable.  I understand that they need to show more Hard-R stuff to justify their fees, even their very existence.  But the first rule of writing is, if it doesn’t enhance the story, if it doesn’t illuminate the characters or move along the plot, then it has no business in the story. And the sex in this show was there to justify their place on a pay-cable network; it didn’t advance the story, it didn’t illuminate the characters, it did nothing for the plot.

Does that make me a prude?  Possibly?  Does that make me wrong?  No.

All told, I liked this show.  I liked it a HELL of a lot better than I did the American Horror Story series, which are in the same basic genre, without the gaslamp setting.  I’m certainly looking forward to the second season.  But it wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s still available on Amazon, I believe.  Here are two trailers, if you want to get a taste.



Okay. Enough ranting from me.  Coming up next on ClarksonPunk is Fun Friday!  Do you have something you think would be good for Fun Friday?  Pictures?  Videos?  Music?  Cool crafts?  If so, contact me via the email posted on my About AJ page. Then on Monday will be the next installment of the adventures of Fortuna.  In the meantime, don’t forget to share, tweet, comment.  You can find me on Facebook and Twitter; the links are also on my About AJ page.  And while you’re up there clicking on links, check out the Fiction Index page.

That’s it for me!  Be good until Friday; then we’ll find some weekend mischief to get into!  Later!





Categories: Horror, Review, Steampunk, Video | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Penny Dreadful

  1. Lillith

    Oh, this does look good. But yea, the trailer does feel more Gaslamp than Steampunk and I’m sure the show feels even more Gaslamp.

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