If you know me, you may be shocked that I only just now started watching Penny Dreadful from Showtime. As a writer, dark, Victorian horror has long been a staple for me. My husband is often amused at how very creepy and strange my own writing is, considering I generally avoid traditional horror in film. It’s true, I’m not a fan of slasher films or dismemberment movies. But give me something profane, Victorian, and steeped in the influence of the Romantic poets and Mary Shelley, and I am all over it.
Now that Penny Dreadful is on Netflix, I’m finding it a perfect counterpoint to the dumpster fire that has been 2016. It’s a story that truly lives up to its name, presenting a darker than real life version of Victorian London, which is no small feat. Dickens put a rosier hue on the period, but the poverty, disease, and corruption of the place was filthy. Lee Jackson, the author of Dirty Old London, told Fresh Air that the city, “It was essentially composed of horse dung,” he tells Fresh Air’s Sam Briger. “There were tens of thousands of working horses in London [with] inevitable consequences for the streets. And the Victorians never really found an effective way of removing that, unfortunately.”
And it didn’t stop there. According to Jackson:
“Urine, of course … soaked the streets. There was an experiment in Piccadilly with wood paving in the midcentury and it was abandoned after a few weeks because the sheer smell of ammonia that was coming from the pavement was just impossible. Also the shopkeepers nearby said that this ammonia was actually discoloring their shop fronts as well.”
So to say that Penny Dreadful is even more dreadful than history tells us is saying something. And maybe that’s because the focus is away from the lifestyle horror and to the personal horror. The characters in the show run the gamut between landed gentry and poor, tuberculosis-ridden prostitutes. There are characters, like Ethan, our gunslinger, who seems comfortable in both realms, while you have others like Dorian Grey who seem to hover above all of them in an uber state of privilege (for obvious reasons).
Now, I’m always a bit leery of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen approach. The period is so replete with literature, it’s tempting to meld the narratives to tell a larger story, but the result often comes off as forced. It’s probably one of the reasons that I avoided the show to begin with. I am known to shout at the screen if I think things aren’t going to plan.
But I will say that Penny Dreadful has exceeded my expectations tenfold. Not just for the Shakespeare, Keats poetry, and the nods to other, lesser known poets (one of the Creature’s aliases is John Clare, a lesser known Romantic poet, mostly due to his agricultural upbringing… and the fact that he went insane), but also for the acting and the brutal emotion (OMG Eve Green) demonstrated by the tales. Every character lives a double life, is in constant turmoil, and the performances are in lockstep with that requirement. As someone who frequently eyerolls her way through period pieces, I’ve been tremendously impressed with the production and pacing of the show.
Granted, I’m still making my way through the show and it may end up being a huge disappointment, but somehow I doubt that. I know that the show ends after three seasons mostly because it was time (oh, thank the gods of television serials who know when to quit). I love good storytelling, but just because a show can keep going on doesn’t mean it should.
Right now, given the state of this year, I’m looking forward to a very dreadful end before welcoming 2017.
Natania is a member of the Netflix Stream Team.