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.

Check Your Head: Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts Will Haunt You

AHeadFullOfGhostsAfter spending most of the summer working on a writing project, I decided to reward myself with the book that everyone on Facebook has been talking about – A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay. I’m often leery when there’s a lot of hype about something, but in this case I have to agree that the book definitely delivers.

The main character of this book is Merry, who recounts the experience from childhood that significantly changed her life. At the age of fourteen, Merry’s older sister, Marjorie, began going insane, and when their parents couldn’t find any medical solutions, their father turned to a priest for help. The priest suggested an exorcism, and the family subsequently became the focus of a reality TV show tracking the progress of the situation.

At face value you might be inclined to dismiss this as just another exorcism story, but you would be wrong. Tremblay knows his genre and he knows how to tell a story. There are layers and layers in this book and often more questions than answers are raised. For example, how reliable are our memories from our childhood? What are the myriad ways that financial difficulties can affect a family? And, most importantly, who gets to decide what the truth really is, and when and how do they get to tell it?

Tremblay uses several successful techniques in the book, one of which is integrating blog posts following the reality TV show. These posts critique the situation as it unfolds and are paced in such a manner that they somehow manage to both foreshadow and explain without giving much away. This is also a remarkable way for Tremblay to address any “holes” that the reader might be attempting to poke in the story and has the effect of saying, “Nope, wait – I thought of that!” The integration of the blog posts works to further engage the reader and keeps them turning the pages to see how Tremblay will address these aspects. It’s pretty genius.

Additionally, as an avid reader of the works by a certain circle of authors I was delighted beyond reason to come across several Easter eggs in the book – places where Tremblay refers to a familiar author by name, or uses a phrase or tagline from another author’s work. I loved this and thought it was such an unbelievably cool addition!

The thing with this book, though, is that you just have to keep reading it until the end. And, as good as the book is overall, the ending is simply killer – you will never see it coming. Even better, once you get there and the whole story is laid out in front of you, you may see another of those little Easter eggs … a twist and a turn and then you see that it was placed, so perfectly, throughout the rest of the book without you even realizing it.

It’s been a really, really long time since I found a book that I wanted to just read until I was finished – I didn’t want to stop to eat, or sleep, or go to work, or get a drink, or anything until I got to the end. This is that book. You should go get it. And, while you’re there, maybe check out some of the other stuff that Paul Tremblay has done.