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.

The Dark Future of Justin Cronin’s The Passage

Cover of The PassageI recently finished reading Justin Cronin’s The PassageThis book has garnered quite a bit of attention, and now I can definitely see why. The plot is vampire based, but has the feeling of The Walking Dead, The Strain (also see my previous post), and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Coming in at over 800 pages and covering over a hundred years, this is truly epic vampire fiction. The story starts in modern day United States where scientists are, of course, screwing around and trying to militarize several hardened criminals and one 8-year-old girl. When that doesn’t end particularly well, the story moves ahead to the future where we follow the struggles of Peter Jaxon, a young man who has grown up in a post-apocalyptic world and who finds himself on track to possibly save what’s left of the human race. There is action and adventure, romance, horror, and throughout it all excellent character development.

While Cronin takes his time with the storytelling, he does so with purpose. He builds from the character of Amy, a young girl who has pretty much grown up rough, living in motel rooms with her mother. We are then introduced to Wolgast, the FBI agent who has been procuring test subjects for his supervisor and whose loyalty to his job is seriously tested when one of those subjects turns out to be Amy. After we become invested in these characters and what will happen next to them, Cronin takes us far into the future and introduces us to a new cast of characters, those of one of the last human settlements in existence. The success of getting a reader to reinvest in a whole new set of characters midway through the story is one that has to be applauded. The setting and everything changes, but it works and I was again drawn in by Peter Jaxon and his brother Theo, who work the night watch on the wall surrounding the colony; Michael Fisher, a technical whiz who keeps the lights on, and his sister Sarah, a nurse; Hollis Wilson, the classic good guy; Mausami Patel, who also works the night watch on the wall; Caleb Jones, the younger guy in love with old style high top shoes; and, especially, Alicia Donadio, the lone wolf badass.

Cronin knows just how to hit where it hurts with these characters. At several points happiness seems almost within grasp only to be whisked away, or someone commits an act of bravery only to pay the ultimate price. Figuring out who will live through the various adventures is part of the fun, and it’s one of those books where you hate see someone go down. And, at the center of it all is the mystery of Amy, who and what she is, and what part she will end up playing.

Oh, and there are vampires. Creepy, long-living vampires, who have some major psychological skills when it comes to telepathy torture. Fast, lithe vampires, that are smart enough to figure out traps and make plans. Crafty vampires that travel in pods of three and will case out your position for days in advance before attacking with a vengeance. Strong and hard to kill vampires that require expert marksmanship and amazing luck to outlive. Masses and hordes of vampires almost everywhere — hanging under bridges, hiding in abandoned buildings, creeping through the woods at night. Heartbreaking vampires that always, always return — one last time — to where they lived before they were turned.

Finishing this book definitely made me ready to start the sequel, The Twelve. If you are looking for a lovely, scary book to dig into this Halloween season, this should definitely be on your list!