Every week I start out with the same intention to review Penny Dreadful, and every week I find myself ending up with something completely different. This week’s episode (S01E05 “Closer than Sisters”) was, for me, a disappointing bore—an hour-long flashback showing the viewers in great detail the back story of Vanessa Ives, one that was mostly already known from previous episodes and could have been given in its entirety in about 3 minutes of airtime. Your enjoyment, I imagine, varies based on your tolerance for long, slow stories that have very little by way of plot development and even less that could be described as horror rather than as a Thomas Hardy novel with slight supernatural overtones. (It has some echoes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.) I will give the show this: The stately homes in which the episode was shot were gorgeous.
Again there is the troubling implication that female sexuality is evil and leads to dire consequences. As a child Vanessa witnesses Sir Malcolm’s tryst with her mother and becomes sexually aroused, causing a demon to enter her. Later, she seduces Mina’s fiancé and destroys all their lives through her unrepentant horniness, apparently driven by the sex-demon. I imagine that the show is trying to say something about the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual attitudes—that men can romp at will while women are whores for doing so—but by making the demon a representation of her sexuality (she has sex outside of wedlock with an invisible demon, the sight of which literally kills her adulteress mother) it reinforces the larger point that Penny Dreadful seems dead set on pushing the idea that there is something pathological about female sexuality. This seems reinforced by the show’s insistence that Vanessa is a Catholic—for as the only character with an identified religion, this implies yet a further level of transgression: a diabolical sexuality that even God, with all his anti-sex rules, cannot control.
This is as good a transition as any to what I’d rather talk about today, a bizarre column in the Chicago Tribune blasting horror fiction for destroying American and religious values.
I was two years old when Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass started writing for that newspaper in 1983. I mention this because it goes a way toward explaining how Kass managed to write one of the most noxious opinion columns on the Slender Man stabbing. (It’s online here behind a paywall.) He represents an older generation who honed their ideologies during the so-called culture wars of two and three decades ago, and therefore he sees the tragic incident in which two 12-year-old girls stabbed a friend 19 times in hopes of gaining the favor of a fictional horror monster as symptomatic of an American culture obsessed with wicked supernatural forces.
It is a culture that has fallen in love with magic and fantasy. It is a culture that takes fantasy symbols of evil — the vampire, the witch — and transforms them into heroes of great virtue. It is a culture where dark magic is celebrated, but religion is considered bothersome. We reap what we sow.
Kass claims that if taken literally the “evil” in fiction wants to befriend readers of fantasy fiction and marry them, like Edward Cullen. He cites Twilight as representative of the acceptance of evil as sexy and fun, though admitting he knows the story only from a “movie clip.” He is outraged that supernatural figures once considered evil have been given new form and purpose, and he worries that children will absorb the wrong lessons. “Once, Dracula would take our immortal souls. These days, souls aren't discussed much, perhaps because the mention of souls will offend somebody.”
I find it hard to follow Kass’s reasoning because he discusses his own love for Dark Shadows and its virtuous vampire hero, Barnabas Collins. He and his friends would role play the show with a tape recorder. “We’d each adopt a character and we’d make audio theater. Yes, it was nerdy stuff, but fun.” Somehow Kass was not subject to the seduction of evil, yet millions of children and teenagers are in danger of Edward Cullen converting them into vampire brides? Is this a function of his generation or his gender?
Kass concludes his column by quoting (and wrongly paraphrasing) passages from John Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in which the author likens wizards and witches to children throwing temper tantrums. “There lies the fear, for wizards and witches are children, living in a world they made without the leavening of pity or the mathematics of organization. And what could be more frightening than a child with total power?” But Kass appears to misunderstand the passage (his paraphrasing of earlier parts grossly misses the point) and wrongly concludes that Steinbeck meant that children were susceptible to the seduction of evil magic, when Steinbeck actually wrote that evil people have the self-control and maturity of children! If I can misappropriate a classic line or two myself, it seems that Kass wishes to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” though his words are but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The cranky columnist’s complaints, though, are nothing new. Culture critics have been complaining about the perversity of horror fiction for centuries, worried that the youth are somehow going to be corrupted by the seduction of evil. In the 1700s, Matthew Lewis had to issue a statement in defense of his play the Castle Spectre because critics worried that the poor and the ignorant might be seduced into believing ghosts were real! In my 2009 anthology A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, I collect some examples of the trend.
The most important of these, and the most relevant, was Henry Quilter’s shriek in the night called “The Gospel of Intensity,” published in the Contemporary Review in 1895, in which he saw horror fiction—particularly Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”—as threatening the very fabric of high culture through appeal to the basest of impulses, violence and sex.
There is but one point of view from which such writing can be tolerated, and that is the point of view of those who deny that there is any obligation, any responsibility laid upon a writer not to produce unwholesome work. If this be so, it seems to me absolutely necessary that all restrictions whatsoever as to decency and propriety must also be removed. Why should we tolerate in our fiction that which we could not tolerate in our conversation or our life? Why should we allow a novelist to describe abortions, moral and physical, which in reality would fill us with horror and disgust? What conceivable right have two men, author and publisher, to collaborate together for the purpose of writing, printing, and distributing stories which can conceivably do no good, and which, in all human probability, will do a great deal of harm? Here in this book, “The Great God Pan,” there are two tales in which there is no attempt to do anything but suggest a nameless horror—a horror which the author foams himself into a frenzy in the attempt to describe. Why should he be allowed, for the sake of a few miserable pounds, to cast into our midst these monstrous creations of his diseased brain? A very grave responsibility rests with the publishers of such work, and still more with the public critics. There is no doubt whatever but that the appetite for such productions increases in proportion to the supply; there is no doubt also that the Press could practically stamp out such fiction in a few months if so disposed. And that disposition must be acquired, must even be enforced; the school of criticism which, for the last few years, has been fostering such fiction and art must be detected, exposed, and destroyed; and the interested verdicts, chiefly of personal friends, which have succeeded in causing such work to be momentarily accepted, must no longer find a place in respectable journals.
Note to Kass: If you’re going to write a jeremiad about the evils of horror fiction, this is the way to do it. Quilter had at least read the works he sought to destroy. You will undoubtedly notice that Quilter’s complaint is a more subtle version of Fredric Wertham’s complaint in Seduction of the Innocent that horror comics led children to commit acts of violence. Quilter, though, worried that all of society, not just children, were at risk from the taint of horror.
Kass, though, differs from both in seemingly believing that supernatural fiction destroys traditional religion, with its own supernatural claims about the resurrection of the flesh, survival of the spirit, and incorporeal beings that plot our destruction. Here, though, Kass betrays his real feelings and values. In the past, horror had been viewed as reinforcing religion, for its monsters were adjuncts of the diabolical, whose existence implied the equal and opposite reality of the divine. Kass, though, isn’t interested in whether vampires have transitioned from devils (Bram Stoker makes Dracula speak in the borrowed words of the New Testament Devil) to demigods, appropriating the mythology of paganism. Instead, his real concern is whether children are getting enough old time religion, as though a belief in the immortality of the soul would somehow make everything better. What is a ghost if not an immortal soul freed from its body? And yet necromancy is forbidden by faith (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10, etc.). The resurrected dead, however, make a holy appearance when God reanimates a field of corpses as a vast army of the undead (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Kass is like the conservatives who would not suffer Harry Potter to live, for does the Good Book not condemn all witches and wizards to death (Exodus 22:18)?
But what bothers me most is that Kass thinks that a fictional creature must be locked into a single meaning forever, freezing culture the way Kass remembers it from his youth. This is patently ridiculous. Way back at the dawn of vampire fiction, the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire (1845-1847), of all things, presented a vampire hero who struggled with morality and eventually committed suicide to avoid the bloodlust that compelled him to commit harm, rendering him a tragic hero in the Greek sense. And need we mention the wholesome Glenda the Good Witch? How about the kindly Lawrence Talbot, the reluctant Wolf-Man? Or, to use a reference Kass might be familiar with: The Munsters. And those “friendly” monsters were on network television and aimed at impressionable youths during the 1960s “monster culture” wave. Kass is too young to have experienced that morbid cultural trend himself, but somehow he was not seriously harmed by all the untold Baby Boomers who somehow must have turned into amoral Satanists due to the prevalence of supernatural fiction in their formative years.
I will give Sir Walter Scott the last word, for he anticipated Kass’s sanctimonious appeal to religion 200 years ago in defending Gothic horror: “If those who rail indiscriminately at this species of composition, were to consider the quantity of actual pleasure which it produces, and, the much greater proportion of real sorrow and distress which it alleviates, their philanthropy ought to moderate their critical pride, or religious intolerance.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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