Many times when people discuss vampires in literature they usually begin to discuss two specific time periods in literature, these may be the modern paranormal romance vampire books or those not interested in cutesy vampires may point out what many consider the “first” vampire Dracula. Both are vampires that pop culture loves, loves so much that they have worn fans out with the same story of a brooding vampire that either wants to die because of love or because of the monster within him.
But, many forget that there were stories of not only vampires but of monsters in general several decades before Bram Stoker released the wonderful “Dracula” on unsuspecting readers. These stories that came during from the 19th century Victorian England period were printed for the enjoyment of young working class males were short sensationalized readings that were sold cheaply for just one penny an issue. The story was carried out over multiple issues that were released weekly.
These stories were nicknamed “penny dreadful” because they cost only a penny and many said that the writing was dreadful. The complaints were that the stories dragged on week to week much like our dreaded soap operas of today. The penny dreadful were also called penny blood because many readers at the time thought that they were very bloody and action filled.
There were many penny dreadful stories that became famous and were either read and studied multiple times and some even had television shows and movies based on them. One of the most famous of these were “Varney the Vampire: Feast of Blood” and “The String of Pearls: A Romance” that introduced Sweeney Todd to readers. These two stories are ones that readers will reread over and over and discuss for hours about social commentary of the stories. These were the first written monsters on the Victorian Age, not Dracula or Frankenstein or those that became more famous.
But, overtime the term “penny dreadful” became synonymous with gothic horror and thus the result of the Showtime hit show, “Penny Dreadful”. The show is set in Victorian England but doesn’t feature the characters of the actual penny dreadfuls of that time period but more of the monsters and action figures of the classical literature of that time.
“Penny Dreadful” centers on the struggles of the following characters: Dorian Gray of the self-titled book, “Dorian Gray”, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster from “Frankenstein”, and Mina Murray and Abraham Van Helsing (though both short lived) and Sir Malcolm Murray from “Dracula”.
Vanessa Ives, a childhood friend of Mina’s, Ethan Chandler, a werewolf and an American, and Sir Malcolm Murray appear to be the monster hunters of the story whose job is to keep the evil at bay. Many people have compared this story to “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” and there are many similarities but what this show is doing that the League did not do is to really bring the monsters, particularly the vampires in the show back to their roots.
The male vampires are very Nosferatu like and the female vampires are very ghostly revenant like, they definitely are not the cute vampires that we are flooded with today. They act as vampires would if they were real- like monsters that are very primal and need to survive. “Penny Dreadful” shows the pain, agony, and torture of being a monster and human living in that world that the author of that time wrote in the penny dreadfuls that were published at that time.
The monsters and the humans in the show, mirror the fear of life and death, of their souls and of their immortality or after life that even we face today. The longing for a connection to another human but the isolation of being a hunter, prostitute, sharp shooter, monster or narcissistic mad man. The show is a British- American show that was given only eight episodes but was quickly renewed for a ten season episode to air in 2015 schedule.
I will be honest, I resisted watching the show because of the unneeded sex scenes and I just assumed they characters were going to be all pretty and brooding like so many are today. But, once I watched a couple of episodes I became hooked. We fans of monsters, whether its television or literature must give credit to Penny Dreadful for bringing the monster back to its dark, grimy, and gothic literary roots. There may be hope for vampires and monsters to stay in the mainstream after all.