Penny Dreadful: The Exquisite Pain of the “Exceptional”

Penny DreadfulI recently finished the second season of Penny Dreadful and can’t stop thinking about it. I will admit – I was reticent to invest my time in this series. The first season didn’t get the best reviews (not that this has ever stopped me before), and I think that it’s entirely possible that the name of the series itself put me off a little. After all, a “penny dreadful” was a less than favorable slang name during the 19th century for serials of sensational fiction. So, basically, the name itself advertises as “cheap thrills” for the masses. But while the series does use many familiar monsters and horror tropes, it manages to do so in an often surprisingly insightful and quality way.


The series has a variety of familiar names and creatures. There is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monster (a.k.a. John Clare played by Rory Kinnear), Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney), a Western side-show star/werewolf (Ethan Chandler played by Josh Harnett), an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton), and a possible voodoo priest (Sembene played by Danny Sapani). At the center of it all is Miss Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the doomed spiritualist who is possessed by demons. It all sounds far too fabulous to be put together in any manner that could work – but it does.

During the first season, a sort of team is formed by Vanessa, Victor, Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Sembene. Together they face a variety of supernatural threats: the majority of which are vampires in the first season, and witches in the second. The first season begins their friendship and the second cements it, since now that the characters are familiar both to each other and the audience, there is opportunity to work in more development. And, the second season is definitely worth waiting for.

Victor pretty much nails the theme when he is discussing his new love with Vanessa. He explains to her that he had given up hope of being loved and thought that it was only for other people – he had resigned himself to the fate of the “exceptional”. This choice of wording is apt in describing the suffering he has undergone throughout his life due to his focus on, and success in, the realm of the mind rather than that of the heart. However, it also fits the singularity of each of these main characters, and the loneliness that plagues them. They may fight monsters together, but they are each very alone when it comes to fighting their own personal demons.

Throughout the second season, they each manage to catch a glimpse of that love that seemed so out of reach, touch it, be warmed by it – only to watch it slip from their hands. There is true torture here where love is concerned: Victor loses his love, Lily (Billie Piper) – a love that he himself created – to the more seductive Dorian Grey; Sir Malcolm is spellbound by Mrs. Poole simply as a means to her nefarious ends; and Ethan and Vanessa come together just long enough to see the other for who they are, grow to love them, and then be so devastated by the blackness within themselves that they cannot find a way to share the path going forward. Perhaps the saddest fate is that of the monster, John Clare, who is shunned by the “love” created for him by Frankenstein, betrayed by the blind girl who pretended to befriend him, and – most tragically – finally seen and loved by Vanessa, only to have her refuse to share her path with him for fear of him falling victim to the black curse that surrounds her life. The weaving together of these story lines is elegant, clever, and tragic.

In addition to the substance of the series, the cinematography is gorgeous and dark. The casting is spot on, as is the dialogue and acting. The exchanges between Josh Hartnett’s character, Ethan Chandler, and the investigator Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) are some of my favorite, with Hartnett quickly volleying back Hodge’s questions and digs with short, terse responses.

However, all this is not to say that the series isn’t over the top in places – it definitely is. But the balance between the sensational and deep is interesting and well done. This series has the bitterness and bite of dark chocolate with the sweetest black cherry filling. I can’t wait for Season 3.

Original cover of Hemlock Grove

Book vs. TV: Hemlock Grove

He had not actually known what to expect in coming here tonight, much less that it would reveal to him two essential truths of life: that men do become wolves and that if you have the privilege to be witness to such a transformation
it is the most natural and right thing you have ever seen.

Original cover of Hemlock GroveWhen I first read Brian McGreevy’s book, Hemlock Grove,  a couple years ago, I fell in love with it. It was one of those nice surprises that I sometimes find on the library shelves — completely unheard of up to that point, a complete unknown. Recently I re-read the book for a book club, and I have also watched the two seasons of the TV series on Netflix. This particular work is interesting to me in that the TV series (the first season, anyway) actually seems to be a very nice complement to the book. Reading the book again I often found myself thinking, oh, I guess that was in the series and not in the book. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the book.

At it’s heart, the book is a murder mystery — a serial killer murder mystery. Someone is killing young girls in Hemlock Grove and tearing them up, limb from limb, much as a wild animal might. Teenagers Peter (a gypsy werewolf) and Roman (an upir, a kind of vampire) team up to find and stop the killer, as well as prove Peter’s innocence of the crimes. Other characters in the book are Roman’s sister, Shelley, who is a Frankenstenien creation; Roman’s mother, Olivia, a seemingly ancient and ageless upir; Roman’s cousin, Letha, who is experiencing a “virgin” pregnancy; Peter’s cousin, Desi, who is a cross between a seer and a voodooist; and a variety of other interesting characters that round out the quirkiness of the town. What makes the book special is not only the fun that McGreevy has had playing with various horror tropes, but also the relationship between Roman and Peter, whose dialogue is often just very clever, realistic, and cool at the same time.

McGreevy’s prose is hard to describe. A few paragraphs will go by and you will think that you have it — matter-of-fact descriptions befitting the teenage protagonists of the work.

“The only reason we started burying the dead in the first place was to keep predators from getting a taste for human flesh,” said Roman.
“Is there like a summer camp for serial killers?” said Peter.
Roman shut up. They dug.

But then, bam! He will throw out some gorgeous lines that stick in your head like poetry

“Today I have seen the Dragon …” said the man.
She held out her hand.
“Don’t –” said Roman.
But the man took her hand and held it, a flower known to be extinct.


The fact was he could provide no rational explanation for why he was here. Last night his crying wife had left the room and he had remained seated and his child had taken his hand across the table with the grace of the sunrise, and in that moment when there wasn’t another comprehensible thing left to him he had a feeling.

or he’ll throw in some heartbreaking realism from the point of view of an older character

Their first time had been on this floor many years ago. If it had seemed like he couldn’t have felt worse about it then it was because he had been too young a man to know yet that time is cyclical, that there is no upward limit to the number of times you can make the same mistake.

The book is crafted well, and it kept me guessing almost to the end. The reveal and capture of the killer is handled in an interesting fashion, and because of the character development throughout there is still room afterwards for a few more reveals.

Roman and Peter in Hemlock Grove

So, it is clear that I loved the book. And, I was actually pretty excited to see what Netflix would do with it. The series was well cast with Landon Liboiron as Peter, Bill Skarsgård as Roman, and Famke Janssen as Olivia. The first season follows the book to the end, and does a pretty good job of sticking with the story. I liked several things especially well:

  • the werewolf transformation — good special effects along with an interesting take on all of the intricacies of disposing of human skin, etc.

Peter's transformation into a werewolf

  • the changes made to Shelley’s character — these had the effect of making her more believable, sympathetic, and creepy all at the same time.
  • the changes made to the plot surrounding the Godfrey Institute and Ouroboros
  • the way that Roman and Peter’s friendship was handled — lots of comedy along with the scary, which I think is actually pretty hard to pull off

As mentioned before, I have found that the book and the first season work well when you have experienced both. The TV series works to flesh out some of the ideas in McGreevy’s book that were only hinted at, or which were given a more minimalist treatment. But, without McGreevy’s book, you miss out on much of the character development, back stories, and that beautiful prose. I recommend both iterations of the story for the best experience.

The second season of the series became available on Netflix in July. It picks up from where the first left off with some new characters and a continuation of one of the plot lines from the previous season. While I felt the first season was better, there were some good things about the second season, as well, and it definitely ends in an interesting enough manner to make me curious what they will do next.