Penny Dreadful Might Be Blood-Drenched, But It Ain’t Horror
When you’re the resident Penny Dreadful evangelist in your office (or neighborhood, or corner pub, or book club), you find yourself trying to entice people using genre comparisons: “Oh, you like romance? You’ll love Penny Dreadful!” The problem is, Showtime’s drama doesn’t really have a genre. People assume it’s horror, which makes sense—there’s a werewolf, and supernatural forces, and the opening credits have blood and spiders, and the show is admittedly gory—but it also draws from a number of a literary sources, and there’s plenty of romance and even a little comedy. Showtime calls it a psychological thriller. Too bad none of those are right. Penny Dreadful is a gothic romance, and while it may be seasoned with a dash of thriller and pinch of horror, its genre recipe is more than 250 years old.
Gothic romance dates back to Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. Romance was seen as too unserious to be called literature, and literature was too strict to allow the supernatural, so Walpole subtitled his tale of forbidden love and haunted castles “A Gothic Story.” Penny Dreadful is an unraveling, and re-spinning, of that yarn. Its characters live, like Walpole, in London in the late 18th century. Their stories are drawn from the books that would follow Castle of Otranto’s lead: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And they were imagined by a man, John Logan, who, like Walpole, sought to marry romance with horror and the supernatural.
“Penny Dreadful came from reading a lot of romantic poetry, especially William Wordsworth,” Logan says. “That led me to Byron and Keats, and eventually back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. I wanted to write something about a woman; I invented this character Vanessa Ives and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll weave her into the Frankenstein story.’ Then I realized there was a much larger cosmology to draw from.”
That extended cosmology is why Penny Dreadful is so hard to nail down. It brings in things like Frankenstein, which is classified as horror despite being far more philosophical than its many movie versions suggest. It also has Dorian Gray, the Oscar Wilde creation whose origin story is philosophical, supernatural, and romantic. There’s witch lore, along with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This season, the showrunners muddied the genre pool even further by sending a witch and a werewolf to the Wild West.
Horror fans like the show because witches turn into vampires (long story) and there are some truly blood-runs-cold deaths, like the first season’s gruesome shoot-out with a cabal of the undead. Fans of sexytime content like it because it’s wildly erotic. (People who like both of those things got their Reese’s Cup moment with last night’s blood orgy featuring Dorian Gray, one of Frankenstein’s monsters, and former prostitute Justine.) Those who like supernatural shit vibe on Josh Hartnett’s werewolf, Ethan Chandler. And lovers of psychological character studies can really sink their teeth into Vanessa Ives: a woman on a spiritual journey to find god despite being the devil’s plaything.
(Spoiler alert: Spoilers for last night’s episode of Penny Dreadful follow.)
But all of that leaves Logan’s show in a bit of a quagmire—and that identity crisis was never more obvious than in last night’s episode “Good and Evil Braided Be,” in which Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) goes on a pseudo-date with a new gentleman suitor named Dr. Alexander Sweet (Christian Carmago), a man she’ll probably soon learn is Dracula. During the outing, Sweet takes her to a carnival, and the pair enters a hall of mirrors. Any vampire-lover knows that Dracula shouldn’t appear in any reflection—yet there he is, making faces at the glass. The scene ultimately veers to conventional horror-thriller territory, but at any given the moment a viewer happening upon the show might have deservedly assumed it to be romance, comedy, suspense, or a Crimson Peak deleted scene.
So why call this thing gothic romance? Because of all Penny Dreadful’s many skins, it’s the one that fits most comfortably. Like the cheap 19th century storybooks from which it gets its name, it’s a populist stew of gore and titillation that vacillates between cheap thrills and high art. Gothic romance was invented to construct a bridge between gross-outs and turn-ons, and so was Penny Dreadful. And really, sometimes you just have to pick a label and go with it.
Then again, that may be exactly why no one wants to call Penny Dreadful what it is—or call it anything. Back in the 18th century, Walpole didn’t want to be pigeonholed by any single classification, especially one that he felt didn’t do it justice. Labeling your thing isolates and insulates it, often unfairly. Even as our genre barriers get broken down, we still have allegiances to being Horror Fans or Drama Lovers or Thrill Seekers. Penny Dreadful is a lot of things to a lot of people, but it’s not all of them to anyone. That leaves the chamber door open to all—and it might just be best that way.
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