Queerness, Orientalism, and the Gothic in ‘Penny Dreadful’

Jamil Mustafa
Jamil Mustafa

Orientalism, Neo‐Victorianism, the Gothic, the queer, and the uncanny coalesce in ‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014–2016), a cable television series set mostly in 1891 and 1892 London whose title references the nineteenth‐century “penny dreadfuls,” mass‐market, one‐penny serials that featured mysterious tales of “violence, torture, blood and gore” (Killeen 2012, p. 46).

This title, which portrays ‘Penny Dreadful’ as a contemporary intermedial adaptation of cheap Victorian thrillers, is somewhat misleading. Whereas penny dreadfuls were mostly pulp fiction, ‘Penny Dreadful’ is an acclaimed series created for Showtime, a prestigious cable channel. More importantly, though ‘Penny Dreadful’ is indeed a serial involving plenty of mystery and gore, it is fundamentally a pastiche whose characters come together not from penny dreadfuls but from classic Gothic novels including Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886), Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891), and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897).

These differences in quality and form between ‘Penny Dreadful’ and its precursors call our attention to the modes and means of adaptation and translation, and to the character whose translation of ancient artefacts is crucial to the show’s narrative arc: the learned, flamboyant Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), a closeted queer Egyptologist and linguist.

Through Lyle, ‘Penny Dreadful’ depicts translation as both interpretation and transformation, thereby — in the uncanny mode that typifies the Neo‐Victorian Gothic — simultaneously replicating and challenging Victorian attitudes toward queer Orientalism.

My reading of ‘Penny Dreadful’ contributes to studies of the Gothic, queerness, and Orientalism that have progressed along both separate and converging channels during the past five decades.

After (Sedgwick 1985) revealed how paranoid desire between men propels Gothic texts, several monographs have linked queerness and the Gothic (see Haggerty 2006; Fincher 2007; Hughes and Smith 2009; Palmer 1999, 2012, 2016; Haefele‐Thomas 2012). Likewise, following Edward Said’s claim that the Orient is “a living tableau of queerness” (Said [1979] 2014, p. 103), Joseph Boone (2014) has connected queerness and Orientalism.

There is far less scholarship relating the Gothic, queerness, and Orientalism, and nothing of book-length. This absence is surprising, given that these fields have been interrelated since the late-eighteenth-century — most notably in William Beckford’s ‘Vathek’ (1786), but also in texts such as Lord Byron’s ‘The Giaour’ (1813) and Charles Dickens’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ (1870).

The synergy among the queer, Gothic, and Oriental is especially pronounced in the late‐Victorian period; and, as might be expected, scholarship that does bring together all three areas focuses on the 1880s and 1890s.

Gothic fiction enjoyed a renaissance in this era, which saw the publication of Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray, Dracula, and Richard Marsh’s ‘The Beetle’ (1897) — all novels that feature both queer and Orientalist motifs.

Furthermore, as Elaine Showalter explains, in the 1880s and 1890s “the laws that governed sexual identity and behaviour seemed to be breaking down” (Showalter 1990, p. 3), and compelling cultural and socioeconomic forces were redefining masculinity and femininity.

Lastly, “there is a break in British Orientalism in the 1880s as a new mass readership emerges, hungry for writing about exotic places” (Long 2009, p. 21) and helping to fuel a resurgence in Orientalist fantasy. The Gothic, queerness, and Orientalism are thus most closely interconnected in late‐Victorian culture.

Neo‐Victorianism provides an ideal means of exploring this nexus, in part because the uncanniness of its constituents is paralleled and amplified by that of Neo-Victorianism itself.

Freud indicates that “the uncanny proceeds from something familiar which has been repressed” and made unfamiliar, and that uncanny phenomena include “doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self” and “repetition of the same thing” (Freud [1919] 1955, pp. 247, 234, 236).

For many, the uncanny manifests itself “in the highest degree in relation to […] spirits and ghosts” (Freud [1919] 1955, p. 241). Neo‐Victorian narrative “offer[s] simultaneous possibilities of proximity and distance” (Llewellyn 2008, p. 175) that are intensely uncanny, for it “represents a ‘double’ of the Victorian text,” involves “the conscious repetition of tropes, characters, and historical events,” often “defamiliarizes our preconceptions of Victorian society,” and acts as “a ghostly visitor from the past that infiltrates our present” (Arias and Pulham 2010, p. xv).

Neo‐Victorianism’s uncanny spectrality also abounds in the Gothic and the queer. As Julian Wolfreys notes, the Gothic “returns through various apparitions” (Wolfreys 2002, p. 11). Queerness is similarly ghostly, for heteronormative society “[attempts] to suppress homosexuality by relegating the queer subject to the role of ‘phantom other’” (Palmer 1999, p. 7), and by representing “the homosexual as spectre and phantom, as spirit and revenant” (Fuss 1991, p. 3).

Like the Neo‐Victorian, the Gothic, and the queer, Orientalism —particularly as it relates to queerness — is deeply uncanny. While Said’s poststructuralist approach is influenced by Foucault and Derrida rather than Freud or Lacan, and while he does not employ the term uncanny, his interrogation and problematisation of the key binary opposition that underlies Orientalism nevertheless underscores the phenomenon’s essential uncanniness.

Said contends that “Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Dollarspe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)” (Said 2014 [1979], p. 43; my italics). This distinction between what Freud calls the heimlich and the unheimlich likewise informed dualistic theories of race in Victorian Britain, where non‐westerners were situated at the opposite end of the evolutionary scale from Dollarspeans (see Wald Sussman 2014, pp. 11–42) and where “arguments for the inferiority of the nonwhite races became part of mainstream scientific and social thinking” (Malik 1996, p. 96).

Seeing the world through this racist theoretical lens, the nineteenth‐century “imperial gaze” assumed that “the white western subject [was] central” (Kaplan 1997, p. 78), and viewed the marginal Oriental other as both different from and less evolved than the Occidental self. Yet, given the bidirectional nature of evolution and degeneration, the same ideology that enabled these divisions might uncannily elide them.

Drawing on the methods of both postcolonial and psychoanalytic criticism, Piyel Haldar explains how the westerner might discover an eastern doppelgänger who, though “strange, […] reminds the traveller of something long ago forgotten, a previous incarnation of himself” (Haldar 2007, p. 99). Indeed, the Orientalist par excellence Sir Richard Burton saw all of “Arabia” as “a region so familiar to [his] mind that even at first sight, it seemed a reminiscence of some by gone metem‐psychic life in the distant Past” (Burton [1885] 2004, p. xxv).

Burton and his contemporaries found “something ‘hauntingly familiar’ about […] the Oriental who is excessive and animal in desires” (Haldar 2007, p. 99), and foremost among the uncanny desires that fascinated them was male homosexuality.

As Boone contends, the “ghostly presence of something ‘like’ male homoeroticism […] haunts many Western men’s fantasies and fears of Middle Eastern sexuality,” and “no other geographical domain onto which the Anglo‐Dollarspean gaze has fixed its […] eye has been so associated with the spectre of male‐male sexuality” (Boone 2014, p. xx).

This spectre is uncanny insofar as it involves not only the return of repressed queer desire, but also the mutual haunting of past and present that characterises queer studies, historical inquiry, and the Gothic.

Dina Al‐Kassim contends that “haunting” is “the best figure for the kind of history that can emerge from within queer studies,” since “[h]istories of sexuality and desire in the past are caught up in the present,” whether because “presentist concerns, like that of the sodomy/homosexuality dichotomy,” inform research into the past, or because “traditions (say, of sexual taboo) are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed in the many presents that they traverse” (Al‐Kassim 2008, pp. 298, 338).

More broadly, Iain Chambers observes that “[t]he present is not merely haunted by the past, but is shot through with heterogeneous fragments whose recognition can only render the world unhomely, ‘out of joint’ “(Chambers 2008, p. 56). The uncanniness of historical research and representation is most striking when it involves the Gothic, which, as David Punter explains, is at once “[a] particular attitude towards the recapture of history” and “a mode of revealing the unconscious” (Punter [1996] 2013, p. 4) that looks both backward and inward.

From its first episode, ‘Penny Dreadful’ demonstrates a keen awareness of the complex relations among the uncanny, queerness, Orientalism, and the Gothic.

In ‘Night Work’ (2014), Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) walk through a Chinese opium den en route to a clash with a vampire coven. A closeup shows a young Chinese man heating opium over a candle. The subsequent shot, an extreme closeup, depicts a prone, middle‐aged Englishman smoking an opium pipe. The camera moves along the length of the pipe, from the man’s fingertips on its stem to his lips on its bit, before lingering on his sucking mouth.

These two shots link the Orient and the Occident via symbolic fellatio, provocatively queering and inverting the Sino‐Anglo relationship by personifying imperial Britain — historically the dominant partner, forcing opium on China — as a submissive consumer of the drug. These shots also foreshadow the uncanny meeting between the West and the East that occurs when the vampire hunters confront their adversaries.

The vampires’ location in a basement underneath the opium den connects them with both the id and the Orient (regions that overlap in western fantasies), while suggesting that vampirism lies beneath the opium trade: the Chinese opium dealers are the vampires; the British opium addicts, the victims. Yet the opium‐smoking Englishman is also implicated in vampirism: his drug addiction and pipe‐sucking align with vampiric bloodlust and blood‐sucking; moreover, in the late‐Victorian imagination, imperial Britain functions as a vampire whose thirst for territory and resources is at once reproduced and punished by Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, who “mimics the practices of British imperialists” (Arata 1990, p. 639).

It is therefore fitting that the symbolically fellating and vampiric opium smoker looks a great deal like Sir Malcolm, an accomplished explorer and agent of empire — who, in his turn, is the spitting image of Sir Richard Burton, the polyglot linguist, world traveler, and adventurer who declared that “opium taken in moderation is not a whit more injurious to a man than alcohol,” and who explored the male brothels of Karachi with zeal (Lovell 2000, pp. 53, 57).

This mise en abyme makes sense of the moment when a cadaverously white — and apparently western — vampire addresses Sir Malcolm in Arabic, and he responds fluently in the same language.

The exchange draws the two together in an unexpected but logical (if transgressive) fashion, at once augmenting and reducing the monster’s exoticism while blurring the borders crucial to Orientalism.

The opening scenes of ‘Night Work’ simultaneously establish and deconstruct the bifurcations of Orientalism, while subtly calling attention to the construct’s queer and uncanny features. They thus engage with Victorian Gothic fictions such as Edwin Drood, Dorian Gray, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891), in which the opium den signifies eastern debauchery and helps western men to lead double, sometimes queer, lives. ‘Night Work’ renders this familiar cultural site unfamiliar.

The contrast between East and West still obtains, though the Victorian emphasis on duality is complicated by liminality and hybridity.

This complication informs ‘Penny Dreadful’, whose characters inhabit liminal spaces between good/evil, and human/non‐human. On the day after the night in (and under) the opium den, Vanessa explains to Ethan that they have visited a “demimonde, a half‐world between what we know and what we fear” (Bayona 2014a, pp. 25:28–25:34).

Appropriately, this half-world is populated by hybrids: not only figurative ones such as the vampires and Sir Malcolm, but also an actual one in the form of the master vampire, a male humanoid whose body has extruded “a tensile exoskeleton, like an insect or a crustacean” (Bayona 2014a, pp. 21:25–21:29).

Beneath this outermost layer lies the creature’s skin, which is covered in hieroglyphic tattoos that draw Ferdinand Lyle into the plot when Sir Malcolm and Vanessa bring him photographs of them for translation.

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