For all of Halloween-themed October, ComicsVerse is creating magic. By magic, we mean analyses of Halloween films, shows, music, and anything else we can find. If you want to keep posted on the newest and greatest content in this particular series, you can check it out here. Stay tuned for more ComicsVerse series coming your way, Spoopy Ghostoween and beyond! Today we’re discussing the best horror show for book nerds: Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL. Spoilers ahead!


Horror isn’t my preferred genre. I stay far away from scary movies, I don’t read anything by Stephen King, and I try to avoid things that go bump in the night. But against my better judgment, I found myself interested in Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL. The show focuses on all sorts of scary and dark themes, and I usually wouldn’t go within ten feet of it.

PENNY DREADFUL isn’t just a blanket horror show, though. What made it interesting to me is that it’s based on a lot of classic gothic literature. The characters and themes at play are taken directly from many things I read in my college lit classes. I gave in to curiosity and watched the show — and loved it. Sure, it’s definitely dark. But the characters are so lovingly adapted, the stories well-crafted, the aesthetic is great, and the show as a whole just works.

What is PENNY DREADFUL?

The title of the show takes its name from the penny dreadfuls, short stories that could be purchased for a penny in Victorian England. The stories were frequently sensationalist and dark, which fits the tone of the show.

PENNY DREADFUL: Depression or Demonic Possession?

PENNY DREADFUL takes place in England in the 1890s (though several episodes of Season 3 take place in the American West). The show follows an unexpected group of adventurers as they take on the dark, supernatural underworld that one character deems the “demimonde.” They face otherworldly creatures — demons, vampires, witches. There is magic, and it’s more frequently bad than good. Our heroes toe the line between good and evil themselves, frequently showing a darker nature.

In addition to garden-variety horror tropes, however, are specific characters that come from gothic literature. These characters bring the stories they come from to life in a new and vibrant way.

Mina Murray

PENNY DREADFUL

Mina is more of a side character than the main hero, but she’s actually the driving force between bringing our adventurers together. She comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most famous vampire story ever. In Stoker’s original, Mina works with her husband Jonathan Harker to defeat Dracula. Drac corrupts her friend Lucy Westenra, and Mina seeks to stop him before he can hurt anyone else.

In PENNY DREADFUL, Mina is the one who is captured by the vampire. However, whereas in Stoker’s story Dracula is interested in Mina as a person, here she is bait. Dracula is using Mina to get to our protagonist, Vanessa Ives, who was childhood best friends with Mina. They suffered a terrible falling out, but Vanessa has a vision of Mina calling to her for help.

Vanessa bands together with Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm Murray, against his better judgment, as Mina’s only hope. They acquire more help along the way, including American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Malcolm’s valet Sembene. They spend all of Season 1 hunting the creature who has taken Mina, with Malcolm adamantly putting his daughter before all else, even to the point of putting Vanessa in grave danger. In the end, however, Mina is unable to be redeemed, and Malcolm shoots her.

Victor Frankenstein

PENNY DREADFUL

Even more famous a literary character than Mina Harker is Victor Frankenstein, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Shelley’s original, Victor is a brilliant but unhinged scientist who seeks to overcome death. He succeeds in creating life in abnormal ways, but is horrified by his creation — not because of its unnaturalness, but because it is ugly.

He rejects his creature, and the creature seeks revenge against Victor. The novel is considered one of the first pieces of science fiction. It has also sparked countless adaptations, to the point where the creature — erroneously called Frankenstein — is a staple of pop culture.

PENNY DREADFUL’s Victor is not much different. Victor is dark and troubled, cursed with Romantic ideals and an overreaching ego. His first creation was indeed hideous, but rather than stopping his experiments, Victor seeks to improve. When we first meet Victor, he has just created a new life, who names himself Proteus. Proteus is sweet-natured and eager to please, and Victor couldn’t be happier with his work. That is until his first creation reappears and murders Proteus and threatens Victor.

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Throughout the show, we see a dark side of Victor. He is addicted to drugs, suffers from nightmares, and is deeply insecure. He seeks approval much as Proteus did but can be as prickly and harsh as his first creation. We also see a better side of Victor. He is kind to Vanessa when she needs medical attention. He falls in love, although it goes very badly. And in the end, he is there to help his friends when things go all to hell.

Frankenstein’s “Monster”

PENNY DREADFUL

The creature is also a prominent character, though he is obviously not part of our heroes’ company. We never learn his name, though he goes by Caliban and John Clare. Clare is a darkly violent creature, as we see from his very first appearance. He is aggressive and hateful toward Victor. He initially threatens Victor in hopes of receiving a mate, though when Victor assents it goes all kinds of wrong.

However, Clare is given fairly sympathetic treatment. He threatens Victor because he is deeply lonely and hurting over Victor’s rejection. He finds work in a theater, where he enjoys a good relationship with the theater owner. When his crush on an actress goes wrong, however, he’s back on his own. He finds work in a wax museum, but it turns out to be a trap. The owner wants to display Clare as a freak show. When Clare kills the man, you don’t feel too bad about it.

What makes Clare sympathetic though is his backstory, which is revealed in bits and pieces. Before his death, he worked in an asylum clinic. He was an aide that tended to Vanessa when she was institutionalized, and he was very kind to her. He treated her better than he was supposed to, in fact, and ended up quitting his job because of the way she was treated.

Clare had a wife and child, and he begins to remember them. He goes back to them, but when his son dies, his wife wants Clare to take the boy to Victor to be reanimated. Clare will not subject his son that that horror, so his wife rejects him. He is a deeply alone and hurting man.

Dorian Gray

PENNY DREADFUL

From Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is a metaphoric representation of hedonism. A young man ends up with the wrong crowd and falls into all sorts of trouble. However, he has a secret: whatever happens to him happens to a portrait, and the man himself remains unharmed. In the end, Dorian is youthful and whole, while his picture represents the utter debauchery of spirit.

Dorian pops up in PENNY DREADFUL initially as a sort of paramour for Vanessa. He is a person who seeks to be entertained, as his lifestyle has long since left him bored with life. He sees Vanessa as a kindred spirit. However, Vanessa rejects him after an encounter leaves her possessed. Dorian moves on with a transgender prostitute, Angelique. You start to like Dorian for his acceptance and encouragement of Angelique… until she discovers his portrait and he murders her.

Eventually Dorian links up with Lily, the bride Victor made for Clare. Lily turns out to be even more disturbed than Clare and gravitates toward Dorian as another immortal, depraved creature. They embark on a life of violence and decadence, but Dorian begins to lose control when Lily sets out to rescue and empower London’s prostitutes (having been one herself before her death). In the end, Dorian betrays Lily and turns her over to Victor, who had fallen in love with her. He forces out the prostitutes, killing Lily’s protege, and settles in for an eternity of boredom.

Count Dracula

PENNY DREADFUL

In Season 1, the vampire holding Mina was never given a name. He is only called the creature, and at the end of the season seems to have been killed. However, he reemerges in Season 3 as Dracula. He comes in at a crucial time; Vanessa has been alone in London as all her friends have left. We learned in the first two seasons that Vanessa is the ultimate goal of a pair of fallen angels — Lucifer, who was defeated in Season 2, and Dracula.

On her own in London, Vanessa isn’t doing so well. She decides to speak to a therapist, who encourages her to do something enjoyable. She wanders into a natural history museum and finds herself drawn to the animal exhibits. There, she meets a good-natured if shy scientist who speaks to her loneliness. She finds herself drawn to him, and they begin to interact more frequently. Of course, this is PENNY DREADFUL, so we can’t have nice things. The scientist turns out to be Dracula, who has discovered the way to get Vanessa is not through conquest — it is through kindness.

ANNO DRACULA 1895: An Interview with Kim Newman, Paul McCaffrey, and Kevin Enhart

Vanessa is weakened without her friends and eventually, gives into to Dracula. She becomes the queen of the night, and it seems as though the end is nigh. However, it turns out that Vanessa has identified that she will never have peace, and she will always be putting the world at risk, because of her connection to things evil. She sacrifices herself so that Dracula’s plans will fail, and he ultimately loses because of her strength.

Henry Jekyll

PENNY DREADFUL

Henry Jekyll from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde only shows up in the final season of PENNY DREADFUL. He is a school friend of Victor’s. After losing Lily, Victor is distraught and sunken into a pit of drugs and despair. Henry shows up to help. We find out that he works at Bedlam concocting medications to calm the patients. When Victor sees his work firsthand, he thinks that Henry may be able to help Victor make Lily sweet and good-natured.

The two work closely together during the season, eventually kidnapping Lily (with Dorian’s help) and bringing her to Bedlam. However, Victor is unable to go through with the plan. Lily is violent, but with good reason — as a prostitute, she was treated horribly and abused. She suffered extensively, including losing her daughter. She begs Victor not to sedate her, as she would lose memories of her daughter.

Victor being an innately sensitive person, he gives in. Henry is appalled that Victor is so soft. We get hints of Henry’s darker nature, and in the end, it is revealed that he has inherited the title “Lord Hyde” from his father. It’s a shame that PENNY DREADFUL ended when it did because I always thought that they could have done more with Henry.

An American Werewolf in London

PENNY DREADFUL

Okay, this one’s a joke. But — there is an American werewolf in PENNY DREADFUL. The American gunslinger Ethan Chandler is a werewolf. It may not be classic literature, but I’m sure the showrunners were laughing at their joke.

PENNY DREADFUL is Not So Dreadful

Initially, it was the cast that brought my attention to PENNY DREADFUL. Lily is played by Billie Piper, who I adored as Rose Tyler in DOCTOR WHO. And as a child of the 90s, I always had a thing for Josh Hartnett. But the premise captured my interest enough to help me overcome my distaste for all things horror.

In the end, I watched the first season because I was so intrigued by the idea of all these well-known literary characters coming to life. With the first season, these characters became more vivid than their book counterparts, and along with original characters like Vanessa, really endeared themselves to me. The show is dark and grim, but I’m glad I watched it. It’s a definite must-watch for any book nerd… and everyone else too!

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