Penny Dreadful Review: ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’ (Season 3, Episode 3)

As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This post originally appeared on The Victorianist, 20 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.

With a third of this season’s nine-episode run now complete, it’s still surprisingly difficult to judge where we should be at this point in Penny Dreadful’s story arc. Season one forced us to slowly stew in dread and suspense until the last few episodes, building up the struggles and motivations of its central characters. Season two jumped straight into supernatural action, then stepped back to let side stories unravel, and plotlines settle into place.

 

Season three seems like it’s trying to do both action and suspense simultaneously, and episode three of the season gives us two main storylines to follow. One is set in the American West, as werewolf Ethan Talbot continues to be pursued by various people. The other is set in London, where Vanessa Ives seems to lose all the progress she made in her therapy with Dr Seward last episode. Vanessa comes to realise she is still being stalked by a powerful evil she can’t yet name, and at the end of the episode we learn that Dracula has plans to break Vanessa both mentally and physically.

With Van Helsing dead in season one, I would love to see Vanessa become the key agent of Dracula’s demise in Penny Dreadful – if, indeed, he does meet his end in the show. She still has a long way to go as a character if this is to become her role, however.

As in previous seasons, Vanessa’s storyline bears most of the slow horror in this episode. Are these monsters in her head, or are they a physical threat? And on which front will she need to be strongest in order to resist them? Once again, a key scene between Vanessa and her psychoanalyst, Dr Seward, explores the relationship between pain and sickness, fantasy and delusion. Seward believes that Vanessa sees monsters, but she does not believe in the supernatural herself. ‘It is a dark root without a name, from which grows illness’, Seward theorises. Monsters come from pain, and represent the speakable part of the unspeakable. To cope with the unspeakability of its experiences, ‘the mind creates order around it’.

Vanessa, tired of Seward’s cool rationalism, comes down on the opposite side of the argument. ‘Such things have a name’, she says. ‘They are witches, they are vampires, they are Lucifer. They are all those things which walk in your nightmares’. While monsters (real and fantastical) may always be unspeakable to a certain degree, for the first time the show firmly grounds Vanessa’s mental demons in a physical reality. Vanessa is forced to confront one of these monsters in the fun house hall of mirrors she visits with Dr Sweet, and another when she uses hypnotism to revisit her memories of the asylum. She has lost her faith; her ‘soul’. Will she lose her mind as well?

Ethan’s story is shaped by a markedly different kind of confrontation, not at all fraught by the doubt and tension that colours Vanessa’s experiences. Ethan’s story teases us with apocalypse, and with a legend of salvation. As we learned last season from Lucifer’s memoirs, Ethan is the ‘Lupus Dei’ or ‘Wolf of God’, who will play some vital role in a great battle to come. In season two Penny Dreadful’s heroes believed that Ethan could save Vanessa from the witches. Now Hecate, one of those same witches, is attempting to shape Ethan into a weapon for the forces of evil.

How does Hecate plan to corrupt the noble Ethan? By ensuring he is ‘painted with blood’, a phrase that returns several times throughout the episode.  In the case of Hecate, this symbolic gesture of belonging amounts to embracing the monster. It means acknowledging your own brutality, rather than denying it as Ethan does, slaughtering hundreds in his unconscious, werewolf form. All in all, the Chosen One trope is common enough to make the ‘Wolf of God’ storyline seem pretty predictable, and at the moment it feels unlikely that Ethan will turn to the proverbial dark side.

Like Hecate, Dorian Gray also talks about being ‘painted in blood’ this week, describing to a vulnerable Justine how ‘In the Dark Ages, in certain parts of Europe, novitiate nuns were asked to pledge themselves to God… in blood. […] Much as soldiers in ancient Rome would have to prove themselves by killing an enemy. You were not a Legionnaire unless painted with blood.’ No coincidence, I would wager, that Dorian cites two major colonising forces as his examples here.

Other minor storylines in this episode follow up on these themes. Apocalypse of a different kind is brewing in London, as Lily Frankenstein sets out to form an underground army of ‘whores and fallen women. The disgraced and the powerless. […] All those invisible women who move unseen through this great city’. We are treated to a glimpse of a suffragette march, but when Justine remarks that Lily and the suffragettes have a lot in common, Lily disagrees. She wants mastery, not equality, and she plans to achieve it through stealth, not overt protest. She, too, will paint the world red.

In one of the more visceral moments of this surprisingly gory episode, Dorian, Lily, and Justine literally paint each other in the blood of the man who abused Justine, smearing it onto each other’s bodies in a disturbing sexual threesome.

This episode metaphorically paints its audience in blood as well. What does it mean that we are complicit in, and may well take pleasure in, watching this violence unfold on screen? Are good and evil really intertwined, or is that what we tell ourselves to absolve us of our guilt? Can monsters be named, or can they only be deferred?

In our final minor plotline, Henry Jekyll disagrees with Victor Frankenstein on this last question. Their difference of opinion is marked by the adversity Jekyll has faced as a result of his class and racial background. He is angry, but must push his anger aside in order to function in society. We cannot afford, he argues, to be both angel and demon: ‘We must be the that thing the world demands of us’.

After this jam-packed hour of television, I hope we get a slower, more focused episode sometime soon. All the jumping around from storyline to storyline, as entertaining as it may be, is also starting to feel a little crowded.

Notes

  • So far, this season has done a much better job of addressing themes of race and oppression than the previous two, in that it at least acknowledges their presence in discussions of monstrosity. I am still waiting for it to pay more than simple lip service to these themes, however, and this episode’s depictions of Ethan as a White Saviour of Natives and monsters alike has done little to convince me this will happen.
  • As far as I can tell, the title of the episode (‘Good and Evil Braided Be’) is a reference to Herman Melville’s 1855 serialised novella Benito Cereno.
  • Lily waxes romantic about Ethan as the only man who ‘didn’t want to fuck me or beat me’. While this presumably piles another layer onto the Wolf of God mythos the show is building, but I don’t find Ethan’s lack of appetite for sexual or physical abuse all that glamorising.
  • Kaetaney’s appearances are frequently accompanied by the sounds of a rattlesnake. Is he fated to be another Western stereotype of the skinwalker, as his relationship to Ethan suggests? The appearance of the rattlesnake alongside the wolf and scorpion in Sweet’s taxidermy museum suggests that the series is also drawing a less literal parallel between human and animal, as it did with Vanessa and the scorpion in season two.
  • Renfield eating a fly was a nice camp nod to the Dracula mythos. Also, vampires are visible in mirrors in Penny Dreadful.

Frankenfiction: The Book

This blog started in 2014 as a chronicle of my PhD research into Frankenfictions—books, films, television, and fine art that remix classic literature and historical documents in monstrous ways.

Now, four years on, I’m very excited to announce that I’ve just signed a contract with Bloomsbury Academic for my book Gothic Remixed: Monster Mashups and Frankenfictions in 21st-Century Culture. It should be out in hardback sometime in 2019, with a projected paperback release in 2021.

 

A special thanks to you, as a reader of my blog, for following my work in progress!

More information about the book will follow as the release date draws nearer.

Penny Dreadful Review: ‘Predators Far and Near’ (Season 3, Episode 2)

As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This post originally appeared on The Victorianist, 13 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.

This post contains plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful, as well as a few minor comments on the HBO series Game of Thrones that might be construed as spoilers.

Penny Dreadful’s identity as a show hinges on a small number of key characteristics. One is its appropriation of Gothic monsters. Another is its status as a premium cable series, and a work of ‘quality television’. Robin Burks of TechTimes.com had the following to say about the series in this context:

Penny Dreadful doesn’t need the shock and awe that shows such as Game of Thrones often rely on. Instead, it’s a smart and frightening tale told slowly by candlelight that holds a light up to the monster that lives within all of us.

In other words, Penny Dreadful frames itself as an intellectual show, for an audience of television connoisseurs. Arguably, Game of Thrones does the same, though it is increasingly criticised for its utilisation of nudity, gore, and sexual violence. While Penny Dreadful may not need to resort to Game of Thrones’ particular set of shock tactics, there’s no substantial difference between the way this episode handles its ‘adult’ content and the way the season six premiere of Game of Thrones does so.

For example, the episode closes out in a surprise reveal much more reminiscent of Game of Thrones than it is of Penny Dreadful. Dr Alexander Sweet, the taxidermist and zoologist who is Vanessa’s most recent object of attraction, has been Dracula all along. This makes him one in a long line of monsters to whom Vanessa feels drawn, and this attraction may well have something to do with the sexual nature of the demon that possesses Vanessa. In any case, there is none of the abject terror present at the end of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’. Instead, the finale relies on inappropriate desire to unsettle the viewer – though both scenes rely heavily on the superb acting of Samuel Barnett. Falling to his knees, Renfield latches onto Dracula’s bleeding wrist a little too eagerly, and a little too amorously, for comfort. ‘You will be flesh of my flesh,’ Dracula tells Renfield, ‘blood of my blood.’

Mirroring its conclusion, we open Episode 2 with violent spectacle and some light Oriantalism, as Lily and Dorian make their way through Chinatown. Here they enter a private club, where gentlemen pay to watch as young girls being beaten to death. This is where we are introduced to a new character, Justine (played by Jessica Barden). We are exposed to her body in intimate detail long before we know her face, let alone her name.

Like Brona/Lily, Angelique and Vanessa before her, Justine is yet another stereotypical Strong Female Character with sexual trauma in her past. Vanessa and Lily represent two vastly different responses to sexual trauma, linking them to different perspectives on both feminism the New Woman. Lily reflects the violence and oppression that was inflicted upon her, planning to take down not just the men who wronged her, but the patriarchy altogether. This trauma is clearly the reason Lily has chosen Justine to participate in her vendetta against the gentlemen of London. Vanessa turns her pain inward, blaming herself for the violations she has suffered. So far no character paints a very positive picture of female identity and agency, but then again few characters in Penny Dreadful are shown to be truly admirable.

Across the pond in our B plot, we rejoin Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm on their journey to find Ethan Chandler (nee Talbot) in North America. Ethan, we discover, is an honorary Apache, though exactly how he came upon this identity is unclear. Kaetenay claims Ethan as a son, but he also reveals that Ethan killed his first family. Certain bonds, he argues, are as strong as the those created by blood. Kaetenay describes a hatred for someone so strong that you cannot kill them, but instead wish them to suffer with you forever.

Not only does this echo some of Sir Malcolm’s familial issues in seasons 1-2, it also opens up an allegorical discussion of American colonial policy. How do you live with someone who has done you a terrible wrong, or whom you yourself have wronged?

Memory, identity, and forgetting in the light of monstrosity is once again a strong theme on Penny Dreadful. In this week’s therapy scene, Seward’s practice of recording sessions on wax cylinders causes Vanessa to comment on the burden of memory technology imposes on us. ‘How could we forget anything?’ she asks, to which Seward responds ‘Why would you want to?’ Seward blurs the lines here between therapy and confession, as she compels Vanessa to not only tell her story, but to ‘tell me your sins’. Though it seems to help Vanessa temporarily this episode, not only does her confession visibly disturb Dr Seward, it also falls into Renfield’s hands, and through him Dracula is able to glean the information about Vanessa he so desperately (and mysteriously) desires.

To what end? Is forgetting ultimately the better of Vanessa’s options? Hopefully all will become clearer next week. Stay tuned!

Notes

  • The mandatory ‘laboratory reveal’ camera pan around Jekyll’s workspace in Bedlam was a nice homage to classic horror. Also, the barber chair at its centre is a fun nod to Sweeney Todd.
  • Renfield can’t stand the bells memorialising Tennyson. Is this because he doesn’t like to be reminded of the past? Is it a negative reaction to what Tennyson stood for particularly? Only time will tell.
  • Does anyone happen to know the artist responsible for the paintings hanging behind Renfield and Vanessa in the reception hall scene?
  • Most memorable quote this week goes to the following exchange between a broken Victor Frankenstein and the increasingly indifferent Lily:
    ‘I must save you from all of this, one way or another. You are my responsibility. I created you.’
    ‘I need no man to save me. And I think… in a way… I created you more than you created me.

Penny Dreadful Review: ‘The Day Tennyson Died’ (Season 3, Episode 1)

As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This review originally appeared on The Victorianist, 6 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.

This post contains minor spoilers for seasons 1–2 of Penny Dreadful (Showtime/Sky; 2014-2016). It also contains various plot details from season 3, but only in the second half of the review. The transition will be clearly marked.

When the first season of Penny Dreadful was announced in 2013, we were unsure what to expect. Initially, it drew comparisons to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, which also weave familiar characters from classic literature into an original story. It was soon clear that the similarity ended there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting has called Penny Dreadful ‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.

Penny Dreadful 2016-05-04 at 20.24.50

Wonderfully atmospheric and deeply unsettling, Penny Dreadful delivers its horror without straying too far into the camp and gore that have become staples of contemporary horror (though the first few episodes are pretty gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore aren’t equally enjoyable – I’ve enjoyed few shows more than Ash vs Evil Dead this year – but it’s been difficult to find a good example of finely balanced terror and suspense in recent times.

Penny Dreadful’s other strength lies in its character studies, which manage to be as suspenseful and arresting as its atmosphere. Penny Dreadful sets out to reanimate the horror of Victorian Gothic, and does so in imaginative ways. The first season draws its plot indirectly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina Murray has gone missing and her father assembles a team to search for her. As this tangential relationship might suggest, Penny Dreadful is often more interested in exploring where characters have been than where they are going. In an excellent essay on Penny Dreadful and the Victorian Gothic (which includes spoilers for season 1), Conrad Aquilina explores how the literary monsters that inspire each character form a commentary on their personal characterisation, and on the human condition more broadly:

Penny Dreadful’s characters are dual in their singularity, and we are reminded of their essential difference in the show’s tagline: ‘There is some thing within us all.’ There is some ‘thing’, some inexplicable but real essence which runs counter to sanity and progress and which periodically irrupts in the rational universe from within. Evil in Logan’s Penny Dreadful is not merely ‘something’. Gone is the abstraction that renders it undefinable or negligible, to be replaced by an atavism, some thing, that feeds on humanity’s most primal emotions – fear, hate lust, anger and hunger.

Already, then, we see that the literary monsters Penny Dreadful aims to rehabilitate carry a great deal of metaphorical weight. Notably, the most physically monstrous characters in the show are also the least emotionally and morally monstrous. The way the show deals with monstrosity has not been flawless, of course. As with many contemporary television shows, some very unfortunate representational issues in Penny Dreadful, despite the show’s otherwise nuanced portrayal of the burden of history.

Both superficially and fundamentally, this is a show about the past, and its central characters are all running from it. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – Mina’s father – and his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) are scarred by their colonial experiences in Africa. Their colleague Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has committed a terrible transgression, by which she is literally, as well as metaphorically, haunted. American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and undergoes his own monstrous transformations as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) also reimagine these classic characters and their dark secrets in new and interesting ways.

Will any of them be able to come to terms with who they are, and what they have done? In the ‘last season on Penny Dreadful’ segment this week, we were reminded of the centrality of this question to the show’s overall message. ‘Do you believe the past can return?’ asks Miss Ives. ‘It never leavees us,’ replies Sembene. ‘It is who we are’. So, with the first episode of season 3 fresh off the airwaves, will the third season demonstrate a similar historical awareness? Will it continue to develop these elements we loved about the first two seasons, while also correcting some of their flaws?

Finally, to what extent can the show be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you here week-by-week. This post will be a bit longer than the ones that follow, and the review itself a bit shorter, to accommodate the general introduction it includes. As the season unfolds, and patterns begin to emerge, there will hopefully be more to digest.

REVIEW OF THE SEASON 3 PREMIERE OF PENNY DREADFUL FOLLOWS (WITH SPOILERS)!

For this week I’ll be focusing on several specific scenes in the first episode that seem likely to ground the rest of this season’s story arc. These deal with the show’s representations of the domestic, the monstrous, and the nature of faith.

Penny Dreadful is steeped in domestic spaces. Much of its horror is built on the invasion of said spaces, and most of its scenes are staged in one home or another. The seance from season 1 takes places in the home of Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. The bar in which Ethan Chandler drinks, converses, and later conducts his murderous transformation into a werewolf is the one he lives above. Most notably, Sir Malcolm’s palatial London townhouse is the place the central characters frequently meet, fight, and conspire.

Season 3 also opens to shots of the house dusty, dark, and in a state of general disrepair. It seems that the beginning of this season will be about leaving home, however – at least for the show’s male characters. Penny Dreadful’s main cast was separated at the end of last season, and it appears they will remain so for the foreseeable future. Sir Malcolm (and Sembene) are in Zanzibar, and Ethan has been carted off to the American West. Victor Frankenstein, in London, has buried himself in work that seems likely to keep him quite occupied. His first creation (Rory Kinnear) – who now calls himself John Clare, after the 19th-century poet – is somewhere off in the frozen north. Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper) and Dorian Gray don’t make an appearance in this episode, so we’ll have to wait until next week to find out what they’ve been up to in the interim.

Penny Dreadful 2016-05-04 at 20.27.21

Vanessa Ives is also in London, but unlike the others she has shut herself up in Sir Malcom’s townhouse, surrounded by dirty dishes, overturned lamps, and unread post. Without the others, she has lost all purpose, and is left alone and vulnerable. The day on which we return to the series (and to Miss Ives) is also the day Alfred Tennyson died – 6 October 1892. Tennyson’s death in this episode also suggests a departure from the strictly Victorian, echoing the locational shift away from London and the domestic. Discussions about poetry and poetics are another delightful staple of the series, and Tennyson’s death is symbolically intertwined with Vanessa’s own loss of hope and faith.

When Vanessa finds renewed strength at the end of the episode, then, and sets out to restore the house to its former glory, this too is symbolic. The domestic – the show’s core aesthetic – will hopefully be restored once more. And though Vanessa has lost that sense of faith and progress we find so stereotypically Victorian, she has found new purpose. In her own words: ‘The old monsters are gone. The old curses have echoed to silence. And if my mortal soul is lost to me something yet remains. I remain.’

Penny Dreadful 2016-05-04 at 20.33.01

Though this shift away from Victorian ideologies and aesthetics could signal some exciting explorations of, for example, feminist history and postcolonial identity, the rest of the episode still leaves me unsure. While Sir Malcolm is in Zanzibar, he meets a Native scalper and shaman named Kaetenay (Wes Studi), who convinces him that Ethan Chandler needs their help. Kaetenay is one of the few people of colour the show has introduced into a key role, and we can hope that Kaetenay will be better utilised than Sembene, who in the first two seasons mainly served to aid his white teammates, before being brutally murdered by one of them.

When we return to London, it is to follow another promising addition to the cast, the British-Indian Dr Jekyll (Shazad Latif). Unlike the buildup the show indulged in to introduce Viktor Frankenstein, Jekyll’s name is dropped with relatively little fanfare. The show knows that we know the name, and hints at where the season is going accordingly. Sadly, initial impressions suggest that Jekyll’s role, like Sembene’s, will be a supporting one. In this episode the focus is all on Frankenstein, who laments: ‘I’ve conquered death…and have created monsters. None more so than the man who sits before you.’ Will Penny Dreadful remain a tale of white guilt and atonement? Only time will tell.

Penny Dreadful 2016-05-04 at 20.31.49

The introduction of Dr Seward (Patti LuPone), the alienist Vanessa visits to help her recover from her melancholia, is conducted with equally minor fanfare. The twist here is that Seward (the male doctor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is female. She is also somehow related to Joan Clayton, the ‘cut-wife’ and witch who trained Vanessa in magic. Vanessa’s initial conversation with Dr Seward touches briefly on this, and also introduces the discourse of medical diagnoses – of not being ‘bad, not unworthy, but ill’. Of course, what Dr Seward doesn’t know is that Vanessa also happens to be possessed by a demon. In any case I’m very interested to see how the show will spin out this relationship between the medical, the emotional, and the supernatural in this season.

All in all, the premiere of season 3 marked a departure from the previous two seasons, and the changes it promises make me eager to see what later episodes will actually deliver. Notably, unlike previous episodes the tone of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’ was more adventure than horror, jumping from one character to another and pushing the plot along at relatively breakneck pace until we reach the very end of the episode.

Here, in the very last scene, we come firmly back to horror and suspense. The scene follows Renfield, who is Dr Seward’s secretary earlier in the episode, and this second link to Dracula is immediately suspicious when it’s stated in this final scene. Could this mean what we think it means? On his way to meet a prostitute, Renfield is accosted by what seems likely to be the season’s major villain.

We don’t get to see what terrifies Renfield at the episode’s conclusion, only Renfield’s fear (brilliantly conveyed by actor Samuel Barnett; let’s hope Renfield gets to live for a few episodes so we can experience more of his superb acting). This is part of what makes the scene so terrifying. It is once again the Penny Dreadful we know and love, in all its glory. Clanking meat hooks. Rustling leaves. Whispers and unseen terrors. In a word: spine-tingling.

Penny Dreadful 2016-05-04 at 20.34.21

After introducing several major literary characters with relatively little fanfare, season 3 saves its name-dropping power for the grand finale, and it’s a doozy.

Dracula’s name is spoken into the darkness before the closing credits, and Penny Dreadful is back with a bang!

Notes

  • Did anyone else assume that the taxidermist Dr Sweet is a nod to series consultant and Victorianist Matthew Sweet? Can anyone confirm this?
  • John Clare’s role in this episode is tantalisingly brief, but the flash of what are apparently his human memories hints that he will be featured more prominently very soon.
  • ‘What if I could tame her? Domesticate her?’ Jekyll is supremely creepy in this scene, where he offers to help Victor deal with Lily Frankenstein. The options are either ‘helping’ Lily or destroying her. Here’s hoping the series unpacks this problematic point of view in future episodes.
  • There were a few nice Penny Dreadful easter eggs in the taxidermy museum – the wolf, the scorpion, the dusty, unwanted specimens. I’m eager to see what other links emerge between Dr Sweet’s museum and the world of the story.

‘Hail, Mary, the Mother of Science Fiction’: Popular Fictionalisations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Film and Television, 1935-2018

I’m very excited to announce a new special issue of Science Fiction Film and Television, focusing on Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and women in science fiction! I’ve got an article in this special issue on Shelley’s fictionalised appearances in popular film and television, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Highlander (TV; 1992–1998) and Frankenstein, MD (2014).

Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Read an excerpt from the article below:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is widely regarded as the ‘mother of science fiction’ for her authorship of Frankenstein, first published anonymously in 1818. At first glance this is a formidable title. Brian Aldiss, one of those responsible for popularising it, described Shelley as a writer of ‘prophetic talent’, and Frankensteinas ‘a triumph of imagination: more than a new story, a new myth’ (Billion 35, 30). Like later science fiction, he argues, Frankenstein combined ‘social criticism with new scientific ideas, while conveying a picture of [the author’s] own day’ (23). In this account, Frankenstein becomes the origin story of the modern age, and Shelley its creator. Two hundred years after its publication, Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny’ (Shelley xiii) looms large in the genre, and numerous retellings of Frankenstein have graced screens large and small worldwide. However, Shelley’s role as the metaphorical ‘mother’ of this tradition is more complex than the above description implies. Specifically, while her feminist scholarship often portrays her symbolic motherhood as positive and powerful, popular culture offers a very different, often contradictory perspective.

As a historical figure, Shelley has received substantial attention from feminist scholars and critics since the 1970s, claiming her as a great author in her own right and as one of the ‘lost foremothers who could help [women] find their distinctive female power’ as writers and creators (Gilbert and Gubar 59). Jane Donawerth and Carol Kolmerten likewise argue that ‘a clear and traceable tradition of women’s writing often derives its permission for women’s writing from the example of Mary Shelley’ (9), and Debbie Shaw introduces feminist sf by outlining how, since ‘Mary Shelley’s time, many women have discovered the unique potential that sci-fi offers for social comment’ (263). More recently, following the conservative ‘Sad Puppies’ voting campaigns at the Hugo Awards, Shelley has been cited as proof that women’s contributions deserve more recognition in the genre: ‘Despite the fact that science fiction as a genre was literally invented by a woman – aka Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein – women have often been marginalised in the world of science fiction, both as fans and as creators’ (Cuteo n.p.).

Given this context, one might expect Mary Shelley’s increasingly frequent appearances in fictional film and television productions to reflect these empowering claims, with Shelley as a feminist role model and originary genius. After all, representation is an important tool in the negotiation of cultural equality. Christine Battersby suggests that ‘before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us’ (15).Here the image of the originary genius (the ‘mother’ figure) is championed as a key factor in the construction of a feminist aesthetic and a female artistic heritage. And as Carolyn Cocca argues, in mass media ‘the repetition of stereotypes exerts power’ (5). In the case of sex and gender roles, if ‘the constantly repeated story is that women and girls are not leaders, are not working in professional settings, are not agents of their own lives but merely adjuncts to others, and are sometimes not even present at all, it can reinforce or foster societal undervaluing of women and girls. It can naturalise inequalities’ (5). In other words, we need great women in our media if we are to value the great women we have in our society.

Shelley is an increasingly visible figure in fantastic film and television, with frequent appearances in the heritage cinema of the 1980s, children’s educational programming in the 1990s and 2000s, and new media texts of the 2010s. Each of these productions dramatises her role as the creator of Frankensteinand sf’s metaphorical mother. In practice, however, Shelley’s appearances in film and television are rarely flattering to the author herself, or empowering to female artists working in the genre today. This does not necessarily indicate that these texts are part of a postfeminist backlash; indeed, many claim explicitly feminist motives. However, while some feminists nominate Shelley as a ‘mother’ or great originary author in an attempt to create a space for female artists in the present, in popular practice ‘motherhood’ (or female authorship) is still not recognised as equal to ‘fatherhood’ (or male authorship).

Do note that this is a pre-publication version. To cite this article you should consult the published version here. If you have difficulties accessing the article, please get in touch!

Mary Godwin (later Shelley) in Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

What is Frankenfiction?

Image via Editorial Planeta

The remix, the mashup, and the reboot have come to dominate Western popular culture. These texts are the ‘monsters’ of our age—hybrid creations that lurk at the limits of responsible consumption and acceptable appropriation. Like monsters, mashups offer audiences the thrill of transgression in a safe and familiar format. And like other popular texts before them, they are often read by critics as a sign of the artistic and moral degeneration of contemporary culture.

With this context in mind, my research explores the boundaries and connections between contemporary remix culture and its Others (adaptation, parody, the Gothic, Romanticism, postmodernism). It often does so by examining remix culture’s most ‘monstrous’ and liminal texts: Frankenfictions, or commercial narratives that insert fantastical monsters into classic literature and popular historical contexts. In this definition, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein serves as a touchstone, offering an ideal metaphor for appropriative creativity in the twenty-first century.

Frankenfiction includes direct appropriations of classic literature, like the bestselling Quirk Classics novels, but also literary-historical dramas like the Sky/Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016), the depiction of monsters through an historical aesthetic in Travis Louie’s photorealistic paintings, and much, much more. It is monstrous not only because of the fantastical monsters it contains, but because of its position on the boundary between remix and more established modes of appropriation. Too engaged with tradition for some, and not traditional enough for others, Frankenfiction is a bestselling genre that nevertheless remains peripheral to critical discussions of remix. 

Disability and the Victorians

Scouts at the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. © Brave and Poor Ltd

When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.

This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.

If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?

In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:

In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”

The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.

This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.

In practice the situation was a bit more optimistic. The Victorian era was, after all, the birth of the British welfare state:

There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.

 

Making hay to at the back of the Worcester College for the Blind, courtesy of New College Worcester Archives.

Some societies even turned to their own Victorian propaganda machines:

Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.

Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.

If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has several resources and reviews on the topic.

‘All Sad People Like Poetry’: Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein, and the Romantics

The_CreatureThis post contains spoilers for the series finale of Penny Dreadful (2014-2016).

This week, on re-watching several episodes of Penny Dreadful for research, I noticed something I had missed completely on my first, chronological viewing. Both the third episode of season one (‘Resurrection’) and the show’s final episode in season three (‘The Blessed Dark’) quote from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The poem (which covers ten more stanzas in Wordsworth’s published version) is a meditation on faith and mortality, and ponders the possibility of re-capturing a child’s wonder towards life, God, and nature.

Penny Dreadful is no stranger to poetry—especially the Romantic variety. Other Romantic recitations in the series have included John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (S01S05), William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (S02E02), and Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ (S03E01). John Clare, the working class poet whose name Frankenstein’s creature adopts in the second season, also makes several appearances (see ‘I Am!’ and ‘An Invite, to Eternity’).

s01e03_100

What interested me so much about this particular poem, though, is the dramatic difference between the two contexts in which it appears, and the relationship between two of the main characters it represents. The first time we hear it, the poem is narrated by a young Victor Frankenstein, as he walks through a field of daffodils (another poetic reference to Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’). This scene takes place just before Victor finds the maggot-infested corpse of his childhood dog, which itself is a foreshadowing of his mother’s death and the disastrous reappearance of his creation, Caliban, later in the episode.

Victor, scarred by the image of his dead dog, contrasts this picture of death with the one painted by Wordsworth and the other Romantics: ‘When the poets write of death,’ he concludes, ‘it’s invariably serene. I wonder if that’s what it is really. This death, this ending of things.’

‘Is it an ending though, Victor,’ his mother asks, ‘or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else?’

s01e03_48

Caliban’s appearance brings back these memories, and also their poetic references. Like the asylum attendant of his past life (see ‘A Blade of Grass’, S03E04), Caliban seems to have no use for poetry. Especially not the kind of poetry his creator reads:

From your penciled notations I learned that you favored Wordsworth and the old Romantics. No wonder you fled from me. I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age. Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? (‘Resurrection’, S01E03)

Caliban’s attitude towards these poets makes it all the more striking that the second time Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’ appears in Penny Dreadful, it is recited by Caliban himself, as he kneels at the grave of the series protagonist, Vanessa Ives. This time, the following excerpt is also part of the recitation:

But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

s03e09_781

Of course, though Caliban initially rejects the Romantics as his spiritual leaders, he is repeatedly shown to be a devoted poetry reader throughout the series, and eventually even takes the name John Clare. He explains the rationale behind this decision to Vanessa in a moving scene partway through season two, which includes a shared recitation of ‘I Am!’ (see ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, S02E05):

‘I’ve always been moved by John Clare’s story,’ Caliban says. ‘By all accounts, he was only 5 feet tall, so considered freakish. Perhaps due to this, he felt a singular affinity with the outcasts and the unloved. The ugly animals. The broken things.’ Through John Clare’s unusual perspective on Romantic themes and ideals, Caliban is able to grapple with them as well—though we are never given an indication that Caliban’s opinions about Romantic naivety and metaphysical yearning have changed.

Does Caliban change his mind about the Romantics in the final episode? Whatever the reason for Caliban’s re-appropriation of Romantic poetry in ‘The Blessed Dark’, it adds a new layer of meaning to the conversation Victor and his mother have in ‘Resurrection’. In the season finale, kneeling by Vanessa’s grave after burying his own son, Caliban seems to be asking precisely the same questions as Victor: is death an ending, or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else? As his own existence demonstrates, the answer is hardly straightforward.

Clare’s poem ‘I Am’, from ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, ends as follows:

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

‘I wonder if he ever found it, his silent place with God’, Vanessa wonders. ‘The poem tells me that he did’, replies Caliban, ‘as you will one day’. The troubling epilogue to that statement, of course, is that Vanessa only finds her peace in the grave (as the poem itself implies). John Clare himself spent the last two decades of his life in an asylum. One can only hope that Caliban found a less tragic and more immediate solace.

s02e05_533

Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask at the Copenhagen Contemporary

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen, where I visited the recently-opened Copenhagen Contemporary art museum. Before I stepped into the exhibition space to the left of the ticket desk, I was directed to a dark hall at the back of the museum, where Pierre Huyghe’s 20-minute film Untitled (Human Mask) was playing on a loop. The museum’s website introduces the film as follows:

A monkey wearing a mask of a young woman, trained as a servant, unconscious enactor of a human labour; and a drone, an unmanned camera, programmed to perform tasks, inhabit the same landscape of Fukushima, just after the natural and technological disaster.

Huyghe was partly inspired by a YouTube clip, ‘Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!’, in which a trained monkey in a doll-like mask, wig, and server’s uniform waits tables in a restaurant. You can watch the video below:

Human Mask is dramatically different in tone and style, but features the same monkey in the same restaurant, following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In this post-apocalyptic environment, Huyghe deployed a drone camera crew, capturing the monkey’s fitful movements through the space and creating the impression of an interior and distinctly human life. The resulting film is both supremely uncanny and surprisingly moving.

No words are spoken in Human Mask, aside from several instances of a muffled, automated voice speaking Japanese in the distance, issuing what sounds like a public service announcement. The monkey, too, is silent save for the amplified sound of its breathing behind the mask. Nevertheless, sound has a real, physical presence in the film, especially when rain begins to pound on the tin roof towards the end.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Frieze.com‘s Jennifer Higgie has written a brilliant review of the film, from when it was first exhibited in London back in 2014. She concludes:

Animals are indifferent to cameras and, as far as we know, to art, too. You can film them as much as you like, but there will never be any artifice to their performances – they’re anti-actors. It is impossible to know who – or what – a monkey is by imposing our values on them. This is the paradox Huyghe has set up: he has choreographed a deeply artificial scenario in order to explore something profoundly real about the assumed superiority of man over nature and about the ethics of using animals to satisfy very human needs. In all of this, Huyghe obviously implicates himself as well: his own actions demonstrate how inter-species communication is still an enigma – and that art, obviously, isn’t exempt from the problems that this poses. His film is a stark and brilliant reminder that humans are the only species who regularly practice deceit – and that the only ones we are capable of deceiving are ourselves. You can put a monkey in a mask but, however hard you try, you can’t make it believe a lie. It knows it’s a monkey. If only humans were as wise.

Click here to read the rest of Higgie’s article, and here to learn more about the exhibition, which runs until 21 May 2017.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

6e8d3c57-f283-4f63-94cd-9299a160f80d-620x372
© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

511161f2-d7bf-45b9-81ed-ab391fed3cf9-620x467
© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

c5fe2bba-8035-4174-98da-ff896075b8c5-1020x680
© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

_85305114_aaron
© AARON
_85305118_aaron2
© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.