The Penny Dreadful Adaptation, and the Gothic Beasts

Benjamin Poore
Benjamin Poore

It is 1891, at the Grand Guignol Theatre in London, Wild West show sharpshooter Ethan Chandler is on a night out with the consumptive waif Brona Croft. They are watching a sequence called ‘The Transformed Beast’, featuring a werewolf.

Chandler actually is a werewolf, but we do not know this yet. In the circle, Dorian Gray and Vanessa Ives, “the most mysterious thing in London”, are making eyes at each other.

Frankenstein’s monster is backstage, operating the theatre machinery and special effects. A taciturn African servant, Sembene, watches from the side aisle of the theatre, which, rather than resembling the Parisian Grand Guignol, looks very like Wilton’s Music Hall in East London.

At home, Mina Murray’s father Sir Malcolm and Victor Frankenstein have apparently received a surprise visit from Count Dracula. Back in the theatre, there is some social awkwardness because Brona, unbeknown to Ethan, has already had sex with Dorian; Vanessa wants to have sex with Dorian, but tonight he and Ethan sleep together instead.

This is the world, the universe of Penny Dreadful, where characters from different stories, from life and death, from history and fiction — and from reimagined versions of that fiction — meet and cross-pollinate.

After only one eight-part series, the series, a Showtime/Sky Atlantic co-production, had become an international success with an active and vocal fanbase. Yet the relationship of the show (which was created and written by John Logan) to the Victorian serial fiction genre, “penny dreadfuls”, is an oblique one, and worth unpicking.

The first part of this article focuses on the task of teasing out the connections between Penny Dreadful and the penny dreadful, arguing that the show’s title performs significant cultural work in positioning itself in relation to Victorian fiction and in relation to modern television.

In the second part of the article, I explore how Penny Dreadful works as an adaptation, using Kamilla Elliott’s insights into the contradictory and overlapping concepts of adaptation in Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Finally, Penny Dreadful is considered as a reflection — and, it is argued, an appropriation — of contemporary media fandom.

First of all, I want to suggest that Penny Dreadful makes capital out of the fact that there is no single, agreed definition for what the Victorian “penny dreadful” was. Consensus seems stronger on the penny dreadful’s predecessor of the 1830s and 1840s, the “penny blood”.

These were “serials sold primarily to an audience locked out of the novel […] [and were] chiefly on historical and criminal subjects” (Killeen 46) with “thrilling and bloodthirsty narratives” set “within a pseudo-Gothic landscape” (Mack 139).

For their content they drew, naturally enough, on Gothic novels and the “Newgate novels”, recounting the deeds of criminals like Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, and were distinguished by their simple, repetitive prose style.

The name “penny blood” was “first used as a term of attack” (Killeen 46) and the name effectively encapsulates the dual fear of the genre’s opponents: cheap fiction that was excessively violent. The “penny dreadful” is then said to replace the penny blood in the later nineteenth-century, but commentators and collectors are not altogether clear on what distinguishes a penny dreadful from a penny blood, apart from the period in which it was published, and this seems to vary from the 1830s to the 1880s.

Killeen states that penny dreadfuls “emerged out of the bloods, but were aimed specifically at a juvenile audience and were mostly published in the second half of the century” (46). Michael Anglo phrases the distinction similarly: “Indeed, before long no pretence was made that the new penny bloods were specifically for adults [..] [they] came to be known as ‘penny dreadfuls’, a ‘term that would embrace cheap papers of all descriptions for the next seventy years”.

Judith Flanders states simply that “‘penny-bloods’ was the original name for what, in the 1860s, were renamed penny-dreadfuls” (58), placing the change in terminology decades later than the “1830s and ‘40s” implied by Anglo.

Robert Mack warns that “a great many critics still confuse the bloods with the distinctly different literary type that followed them, the ‘penny dreadful.’ The latter term was coined only in the last quarter of the nineteenth-century”, he goes on, and the term “was intended to designate stories such as those produced by supposedly ‘reformed’ publishers such as Edwin J. Brett, W. L. Emmett and Charles Fox” (Mack 139).

James B. Twitchell, on the other hand, suggests that the collective name for the later “reformed” boys’ serials was “penny healthfuls”, citing the 1879 launch of the ‘Boy’s Own Paper’ (170). This, of course, implies the necessary earlier popularity of the term “penny dreadful” upon which “penny healthful” puns.

Little wonder, therefore, that some historians of popular culture avoid the blood/dreadful terminology altogether. James and Smith avoid using either “penny dreadful” or “penny blood” when recounting the history of what they call “penny fiction” and later “boys’ fiction” (James and Smith xi-xiii). Jonathan Rose offers the definition of “penny dreadful” as “cheap crime and horror literature for boys” of the “late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries”, thus explaining one generic term by referring us to a more recent one, “horror” (Rose 267).

In the show Penny Dreadful itself, penny blood and penny dreadful are conflated when Professor Van Helsing plucks an issue of the penny blood, ‘Varney the Vampyre’ (1845–7) from a shelf, referring to “a certain kind of literature”, and Victor Frankenstein names it as “a penny dreadful” (1.6).

John Springhall’s article, ‘Pernicious Reading?’ provides a key to the roots of this frequent fudging of the terminology. “Penny dreadful”, he argues, was “a composite and elastic label” in the later nineteenth-century and became “an indiscriminate tag” used by the middle class to represent popular reading. Thus, the term “penny dreadful” was a constructed and occasionally contested label, which gained currency as part of a moral panic that resurfaced periodically, notably in the 1890s.

The term was therefore picked up by “reporters, magistrates, policemen and watch committees” that “preferred to target a convenient cultural scapegoat” (Springhall 327). Springhall’s interpretation is very useful in helping us understand why the classification is not a settled one. It helps to explain why supposedly “reformed” boys’ papers like Brett’s Boys of England could be denounced as a bad influence on the young and yet be remarkably conservative in their contents and outlook (Springhall 340, 346), while, at the same time, it helps to account for the fact that papers of its type could be dismissed by collectors like Barry Ono as “goody-goody” and “utterly useless” (James and Smith xix) for not containing enough violence and gore.

This double quality in the label means that it is hard to pin down in what sense the adjective “dreadful” was being used when it was transformed into a noun for the designation “penny dreadful”.

The older meaning of “dreadful”, “inspiring dread or reverence” is listed in the OED as being current from the fourteenth-century, and the last entry is in 1833. The “weakened sense”, of objects exciting fear or aversion, is first cited in 1700 and the latest in 1897, but in the OED this is bound up with the sense of “dreadful” as meaning “exceedingly bad, great, long, etc.”.

The earlier use would be fitting as a descriptor for the intended atmosphere of the early Gothic-derived penny bloods; the latter sense of “exciting fear” might be more fitting for serious critics of the genre who worried about the fiction’s effect on the nerves and sensibilities of the young.

The degenerated, pejorative sense of the word could be applied by critics of the genre, who regarded them as “exceedingly bad” in prose style, or “exceedingly long”: a dreadful piece of writing, as we might say today.

So it becomes very hard to judge, from the historical record alone, the tone in which “dreadful” is applied. There may well be an attitude of knowingness that creeps into the use of “penny dreadful” by the later Victorian period, where the attempts to clean up boys’ fiction were disdained by those assuming blasé poses, as more ‘dreadful’ than the fiction that caused such consternation in the first place.

What this confusion creates for Penny Dreadful, however, is a rich, broad semantic and historical range in which to operate. Firstly, calling the show, Penny Dreadful places it beyond straightforwardly dismissive criticism: if one disparages it as “dreadful”, or as the television equivalent of a penny dreadful, then the show’s title in effect has the last laugh.

Secondly, as I shall explore, the title foregrounds the series’ mix of elements from folklore, the early-nineteenth-century Gothic novel, late-Victorian “modern Gothic” fiction, and cultural history (for example, spiritualism; the Whitechapel murders; imperial adventurers).

The name Penny Dreadful also gives the show a kind of outlaw, rebellious power: this is the show they do not want you to watch, this is the show they will try to shut down or brand obscene.

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