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.

PLEASE NOTE: SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.

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.

Giallo Fantastique is Dark, Lush, and Irresistable

Cover of Giallo Fantastique One of my favorite film genres is, without a doubt, the giallo. The giants in this area – Argento, Bava, Lucio – provide such an interesting mix of mystery, murder, noir, and always just a touch of something a little more. Usually it’s something twisted or paranormal or just outright frightening. So, when I saw that Word Horde was going to be putting out Giallo Fantastique, a collection of stories in the giallo genre, I was definitely excited!

Ross E. Lockhart has edited directed a collection of twelve stories by some of the best names around. In his introduction he discusses his choice for the title, as well as the use of the color yellow, which he explains became connected to the idea of decadence in the early 19th century. Decadence, weird crime, and fantastic horror weave through each of the stories, and there is something here for everyone.

I found “Minerva” by Michael Kazepis and “In the Flat Light” by Adam Cesare to be the most closely related to the feel of giallo that I am used to seeing on the screen. Twisted murders and protagonists who are faced with nightmare-like circumstances play a part in both of these stories, and leave the reader with a sense that the world has been moved bit by bit out of the norm until it careens disturbingly out of control.

Orrin Grey’s “The Red Church” was also one of my favorites. There is a nice mixture of horror elements in this story. Grey’s protagonist is a reporter on a quest to interview an elusive artist, and several of the stories in this collection involve individuals who are interviewing or writing biographies, a plot device that works well and differently in each situation. I enjoyed seeing how each of the authors using this technique went about creating their story.

Possibly the most original take on the genre was “Hello, Handsome” by Garrett Cook, which introduces us to both an unusual protagonist and killer. I also enjoyed Anya Martin’s “Sensoria”, which brought in a bit of the gothic and used fantasy and suspense to weave a darkly beautiful tale that will haunt me for some time to come.

John Langan’s “The Communion of Saints” works from the point of view of a detective who is plagued with a series of murders by some extremely interesting criminals, a case which ends up taking him somewhere completely unexpected. I loved the various elements that he brought into this story – horror, weird, giallo, mystery – they are all combined and melded together in a really ingenious way.

I don’t want to say too much about these stories and give all the goodness away. I will say that there are also stories that pull in some science fiction, move more into the dusky recesses of the erotic, dip their toes into true-crime, and test the borders of a variety of different genres and worlds. In short, Giallo Fantastique is special, original, and impossible to put down. You’re going to want to curl up on a rainy evening with your glass of bourbon, turn the lights down low, throw something from Goblin on repeat, and just dive right in.