Lurid Meets Literary In 'Penny Dreadful,' An All-Star Gothic Revue Showtime's new psychological thriller re-imagines classic Victorian boogeymen like Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Count Dracula all lurking in London's darkest corners, discussing romantic poetry.
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Lurid Meets Literary In 'Penny Dreadful,' An All-Star Gothic Revue

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Lurid Meets Literary In 'Penny Dreadful,' An All-Star Gothic Revue

Lurid Meets Literary In 'Penny Dreadful,' An All-Star Gothic Revue

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If you are a literate, dedicated horror fan, than the new TV show "Penny Dreadful" may be just what the doctor ordered, probably Dr. Jekyll. "Penny Dreadful" is literary horror, introducing some of gothic fiction's most notorious characters.

HARRY TREADAWAY: (As Frankenstein) My name is Victor Frankenstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dorian Gray) My name is Dorian Gray.

SIEGEL: "Penny Dreadful" premiers Sunday Night on Showtime and NPR's Neda Ulaby says its creator imagined it as both a ripping adventure and a historical nightmare.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Penny Dreadful" is chockablock with vampires, mummies and fiends, but also terrifying monsters of the human variety. Think Jack the Ripper.


ULABY: Still, it would be unfair to say "Penny Dreadful" derives entirely from the macabre.

JOHN LOGAN: The real impetus for the whole series was Wordsworth.

ULABY: John Logan is the creator of "Penny Dreadful." He also wrote "Gladiator" and the James Bond movie "Skyfall." He came up with "Penny Dreadful" about 10 years ago while reading William Wordsworth obsessively.

LOGAN: I was going through heartbreak and for heartbreak, there is only romantic poetry.

ULABY: Romantic poetry's fervid rhythms run through the series.


ULABY: Like when Dr. Frankenstein recites Wordsworth with a visitor to his lab.


ULABY: From Wordsworth, John Logan devoured Keats, Byron, Shelley then, inevitably, "Frankenstein."

LOGAN: And then I picked up "Dracula."

ULABY: Logan says he became aware of a horror literature explosion in the decade between 1890 and 1900.

LOGAN: "Dracula," "War of the Worlds," "The Invisible Man," "Picture of Dorian Grey," "Island of Doctor Moreau," "Hound of the Baskervilles." There was something going on there that was very kinetic.

ULABY: Kinetic and sensational and exciting.


ULABY: This was also the period of the Penny Dreadful. Those were the lurid little magazines sold on streets that cost about a penny.

Matthew Sweet is a historian and a consultant for the television show. He says the real Penny Dreadfuls specialized in grotesque stories of alarming violence.

MATTHEW SWEET: Stories about highway men, murder, smugglers, stories about trapdoors that you fall through and you end up in the sewers.


ULABY: The sewers of Victorian London is where the heroes of "Penny Dreadful" find themselves fighting an army of bald, toothy ghouls.


ULABY: The protagonists include a Wild West sharpshooter, a well-bred lady spiritualist and an explorer, in the mode of Sir Richard Burton or David Livingstone. They're trying to wrest one of Count Dracula's helpless victims from his vampiric clutches.


ULABY: This monster mash-up of creatures with Victorian archetypes owes plenty, says "Penny Dreadful's" creator John Logan, to those 1940s movies when Dracula would meet Frankenstein.

LOGAN: "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Mummy," "The Wolfman," could all intersect and when I was a kid I loved that.

ULABY: Who is he kidding? He loves it now. And maybe he says there's a literary logic to all of these characters roaming the streets of Victorian London. Logan acknowledges similar projects, like "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman" and the novel "The Seven Percent Solution," that brought together Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes. It's the same kind of pleasure that comes in "Penny Dreadful" when Dr. Victor Frankenstein is asked to examine a terrifying mummy.


SWEET: It's exactly the kind of thing that the writers of real Penny Dreadfuls in the 19th century did. You know, they took what they wanted in order to make the best, most exciting story.

ULABY: Historian Matthew Sweet says real Penny Dreadfuls gleefully combined royals, alchemists and serial killers, with little regard for anything but Grand Guignol glory. The vogue for Penny Dreadfuls and horror literature came at a moment, he says, of great anxiety about technology, tremendous shifts in existing economical and industrial models, and right when Britain's stature as world leader beginning to fade. This new "Penny Dreadful" might resonate, he suspects, with audiences now.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.



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