The good news is that this week’s episode of Penny Dreadful, S01E06 “What Death Can Join Together,” makes a much-appreciated reference to the classic penny dreadful serial Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood, which Dr. Van Helsing tells Frankenstein is really a good, if popular, introduction to the vampire. One might think that the scholarly Van Helsing might have referenced more serious works on vampires, like Voltaire’s essay or Antoine Augustin Calmet’s Treaty on the Apparitions of Spirits and Vampires, or Ghosts of Hungary, Moravia, &c., but whatever. Although Frankenstein feigns ignorance of vampires, and Van Helsing agrees that they are unknown except to horror fans, this was most certainly not the case in the late nineteenth century. Across the Pond, for example, New Englanders of the nineteenth century were still desecrating corpses to prevent “vampire” attacks, as H. P. Lovecraft alludes to in “The Shunned House” and archaeologists discovered through excavation of so-called vampire graves. Heck, vampires were mentioned in decidedly non-horror work like Dickens’s Bleak House, where a lawyer figuratively “has something of the Vampire in him.”
But sadly the writers of the show have either made an error or have made Van Helsing a much bigger fan of horror novels than any other Victorian. Van Helsing tells Frankenstein that Varney’s author was “Rymer,” meaning James Malcolm Rymer, but he could not have known that in 1891. Varney was published anonymously, and when Victorian literary critics deigned to mention it, they professed ignorance of its authorship, citing it only to its publisher, a Lloyd of London. Subsequently, the book was published under Thomas Peckett Prest’s name. (Prest and Rymer worked together to create Sweeny Todd.) It wasn’t until the middle to late twentieth century that Rymer became the consensus candidate for majority authorship—and even now it is uncertain, and many believe Varney was a composite work by several hands. So, either the writers of Penny Dreadful got their information from a modern source without checking the original, or Van Helsing had a closer relationship to the penny dreadful industry than the show lets on.
This leaves us with a weird meta-moment, for Varney took its inspiration from Lord Ruthven, the main character of Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), created as part of the horror story game played by its author, Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley one stormy night in Geneva in 1818. But if in this world Frankenstein is real (and given to quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley!), then how did Polidori come up with The Vampyre if not in response to Frankenstein? What did he write in the preface to the first edition if not a discussion of the origin Frankenstein? And where did Varney get its sub-plot if it did not come (as in reality it did) from Frankenstein?
Sadly, I once again find myself going off on a tangent about more interesting horrors because Penny Dreadful itself only pretends to be a horror show. It’s really a Gothic soap opera and doesn’t even try to be scary. This episode was notable for its lack of action; not much actually happened. Van Helsing dies at Caliban’s hands, but otherwise the big news is that the show still finds it weird and icky when women are involved in sex. After ignoring the same-sex encounter between Dorian Gray and Ethan Chandler two weeks ago, the men return to their pursuit of women, with poor results. Ethan’s prostitute lover is too sick to have sex with him, and she all but literally tells Ethan that being with her will kill him, thus symbolizing the threat of female sexuality to destroy men. (Little does she know that both Ethan and Dorian are immune to her poison, apparently through the supernatural inoculating power of attraction to men.) Dorian has rough, bloody sex with Vanessa, in contrast to his gentler seduction of Ethan, and during their knife-play encounter, Vanessa’s evil demon reactivates upon orgasm, repeating the pattern whereby her sexuality is diabolized. Finally, Caliban eyes an actress to become his undead bride, suggesting that only by killing off the spark of independence can a woman become a suitably passive partner. So, to recap: Women are weak, evil, and need to die because they hurt men with their weird sex.
Frankenstein continues not to have any discernable sexual interest in anyone, which is for the best because the show also insists on making repeated reference to his daddy issues, this time with him idolizing Van Helsing, who makes reference to a paternal role (“If I had a son…”) just before Caliban kills him for not making him an undead sex slave fast enough. (The woman, of course, is an object with no choice—something James Whale addressed to hilarious effect in Bride of Frankenstein, but Penny Dreadful seems not to acknowledge.) Ethan, too, references his father more than once, and this plays into the theme I identified weeks ago: that in this show’s world, men are driven to seek approval from other men, and women threaten the ability of men to form strong and loving bonds with one another.
At any rate, there was nothing much that was scary in this episode, though there was much that was Gothic.
I’d like to finish by taking a moment to remember the late Casey Kasem, who died yesterday at the age of 82. Although Kasem is best known for the long-running radio show American Top 40, I was too young to have listened to it during his first run on the series. I was 8 when he left following a contract dispute in 1989. I did, however, hear him after he returned to the show in 1998. Instead, like most in my generation I remember him best as the voice of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Early seasons of Scooby-Doo were many kids’ first exposure to skepticism of supernatural, with each monster or ghost revealed to be a human in disguise. (This changed in later seasons, when the ghosts became real.) Scooby-Doo, though wasn’t really skeptical, though; it was more Ann Radcliffe than James Randi. Radcliffe famously explained away her supernatural horrors through any number of ludicrous devices, and she did so to help legitimize Gothic horror by marrying its Romantic atmosphere to the lingering love of reason from the Enlightenment. Scooby-Doo was Radcliffe in minor key, celebrating supernatural horror but rendering it safe for children the way Radcliffe made it respectable, by allowing the audience the thrill and excitement without buying into the worldview it represented.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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