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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

Penny Dreadful Reads The Picture of Dorian Gray

dorian-gray-penny-dreadful-36904602-2400-3263This post contains minor plot details from seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion.

You may recall that I spent the first part of the year reviewing the last season of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist blog. In my final post, I talked a bit about the show’s intertextual relationships with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). ‘Perpetual Night’ (episode 8) wraps up Victor Frankenstein’s story, and ‘The Blessed Dark’ (episode 9) presents the final showdown with Dracula, the season’s main antagonist. This week I discovered that Benjamin Poore – author of Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) and the recent article ‘The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic’ – has cited my reviews in his own blog post with the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Referencing my reading of the show’s ending through Frankenstein and Dracula, Poore adds his own analysis of Penny Dreadful and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)Like Wilde’s novel, and like Dorian Gray himself, Penny Dreadful is destined to be forever trapped in fin de siècle London:

The paradox of The Picture is that the portrait is painted in the contemporary London of Wilde’s time, but as time passes and Dorian looks no older, we don’t move forward into the first half of the twentieth century (well, we do in the Oliver Parker film adaptation, but that’s another story).[8] In the novel, Dorian never ages, but London never really stops being 1890s London either. How could it be otherwise, when Wilde barely survived the end of the century himself? So it is with Penny Dreadful. To mangle the words of Vincent Starrett, in Penny Dreadful it’s always 1892.[9] The series is crowded with figures seemingly queuing up to escape the nineteenth century, but who cannot do so; they’re stuck in a fin de siècle moment.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_307_0478
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

Poore also draws on Frank Kermode’s theories about the function of endings in narrative, highlighting the infinite possibilities Penny Dreadful creates for the exploration and expansion of this eternal London. Dorian serves as a powerful metaphor here as well:

Kermode also remarks of novel reading in The Sense of an Ending, that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity’.[11] He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’.[12] It strikes me that Penny Dreadful has a lot of kairos ­– a series of divine prophecies being fulfilled – and not a lot of chronos. Dorian has escaped from chronicity, and so have many of the supporting characters. That’s why, even if official television sequels are not forthcoming, the world of Penny Dreadful provides almost limitless scope for fan works and reinterpretations.

‘You’ll be back’, says Dorian in the series’ final episode, ‘And I’ll be waiting. I’ll always be waiting’.

You can read the full post at the link.

Now all that remains is an analysis of Penny Dreadful against Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The addition of Dr. Jekyll in season three, and his relationship with Victor Frankenstein, felt exciting but unfinished. Perhaps we will see the good doctor in his own spinoff series – or perhaps we should leave that to the many other television adaptations of Stevenson’s novel in recent years. Poore also has a fascinating post on Charlie Higson’s current Jekyll and Hyde adaptation for ITV, for those interested in reading more about the novel’s contemporary reincarnations.

All Penny Dreadful Season Three Reviews Now Online

Image © InsomniaTSO on DeviantArt
Image © InsomniaTSO on DeviantArt

In case you missed my original post on the subject, I’ve been writing regular recaps of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist, a researcher blog with the British Association for Victorian Studies. After each episode, I talked readers through what we’d seen, reflected on what previous episodes and seasons had brought, and speculated on what was to come – sometimes with the help of various academic theories. This week, the last instalment (covering the two-part season three finale) went online.

You can find links to all of the posts (which obviously contain spoilers for the series) below:
Season Premiere: ‘The Day Tennyson Died’
Episode Two: ‘Predators Far and Near’
Episode Three: ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’
Episode Four: ‘A Blade of Grass’
Episode Five: ‘This World Is Our Hell’
Episode Six: ‘No Beast So Fierce’
Episode Seven: ‘Ebb Tide’
Two-Part Season Finale: ‘Perpetual Night’ and ‘The Blessed Dark’

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Image © aquiles-soir on DeviantArt

Here’s a (largely) spoiler-free excerpt from my final post, to give you a taste of the review series as a whole:

For me, Penny Dreadful’s greatest success this season was the way it captured a sense of religious dread. With this I don’t mean the way it used religious figures or Christian iconography to signal a supernatural evil, though it does so in many cases. Instead, I’m talking about the way it explores themes of existential angst, and lets its viewers experience both the desire for salvation and the fear of damnation.

John Logan argued that Penny Dreadful ‘has always been about a woman grappling with God and faith’, but never did I expect this journey to be played out so literally. In previous seasons, even when it manifested itself more physically, viewers have always been allowed to read Vanessa’s faith and possession metaphorically, as a way for her to cope with the mental issues that have plagued her since her youth. We were never quite certain if Vanessa was possessed by a demon, or if she was her own demon.

Happy reading – and let me know what you thought of the show in the comments!

Now Reviewing Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist

eva_green_as_vanessa_ives_in_penny_dreadful_by_vikpiratenholz-d8tqlfd
© VikPiratenholz

This post is a teaser for my weekly review series on Penny Dreadful season 3, starting this Friday (6 May) and featured over at the Victorianist. [UPDATE: You can now find my first review in all its glory at this link.]

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 characters from classic literature into an original story. The similarity soon proved to end there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting recently called Penny Dreadful ‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.

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 relatively gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore don’t have their place – 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.

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. 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 haunted literally, as well as metaphorically.

American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and naturally carries another dark secret as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) are … well … Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein (I won’t spoil the reveals for you). Some additional characters come and go over the course of the series’ first two seasons, all with similar stories. Will any of them be able to come to terms with who they are, and what they have done?

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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 leaves 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 what we loved about the first two, while also correcting some of their flaws? And to what extent can it be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you on the Victorianist, starting this Friday (6 May, 2016).

In the meantime, if you’re eager for more Penny Dreadful, I highly recommend the show’s YouTube channel and production blog. Both are chock-full of engaging and informative material. Depending on your location, you can even watch the season 3 premiere for free right here.

The Uncanny

The default image in the Keynote layout I used. Uncanny, no?
The default image in the Keynote layout I used. Uncanny, no?

This week, teaching Dracula, I had the pleasure of re-reading Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny, a thing described by Freud as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (p.219).*

Why would ‘old and long familiar’ things ever be frightening, you may well ask? Freud puts together a somewhat more comprehensive summary of the term towards the end of his essay, stating:

In the first place, […] among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. […] In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [‘homely’] into its opposite, das Unheimliche [‘uncanny’]; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. (p. 240)

According to Freud, repression is the basis of a great deal of anxiety, and in the case of the uncanny, it is precisely the return of this repressed thing that causes fear. Basically, then, for some of the things we are afraid of, we don’t actually fear them because we don’t recognise them, or because they are completely alien, but rather because we can actually link them to something very familiar, that we can’t quite put our finger on. That makes us uncomfortable.

The haunted or abandoned house: one of Freud's many examples of uncanniness.
The haunted or abandoned house: one of Freud’s many examples of uncanniness.

For Freud, ‘these themes [of uncanniness] are all concerned with the phenomenon of the “double”, which appears in every shape and in every degree of development’ (p. 233). This doubleness can take many different forms. It can be found in reflections, in people and places who look the same, in déjà vu. It can be created by parallel plots and events and spaces. It is coincidence embodied.

Picture3
Flesh chair by Chinese artist Cao Hui.

Looking at more specific examples of the uncanny, Freud suggests that ‘a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one’ (p. 232). We find Cao Hui’s fleshy chair uncanny not just because it is disturbing to look at, but because we’re not quite sure how it would feel to touch it. It might seem too much like human flesh to the fingers, as well as to the eyes.

In other words, though we know we are looking at a sculpture, we still can’t quite shake the discomfort it instills in us. Freud underlines this point as well, describing how the uncanny resists the power of the rational mind:

There is no question therefore, of any intellectual uncertainty here: we know now that we are not supposed to be looking on at the products of a madman’s imagination, behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth; and yet this knowledge does not lessen the impression of uncanniness in the least degree. (p. 229)

The uncanny draws its power from the repressed and the unconscious. It doesn’t fit within what the rational mind knows, but can’t be shaken off so easily. It is rationally familiar, yet still eerily unfamiliar.

Uncanny robot actress Geminoid F.
Uncanny robot actress Geminoid F.

I’ve always found Freud’s essay to be rather uncanny in itself, with lots of repetition and doubling, and many observations that are just plain weird. Take this gem, for instance:

We know from psycho-analytic experience, however, that the fear of damaging or losing one’s eyes is a terrible one in children. Many adults retain their apprehensiveness in this respect, and no physical injury is so much dreaded by them as an injury to the eye. We are accustomed to say, too, that we will treasure a thing as the apple of our eye. A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. (p. 230)

There’s a lot to unpack in this quotation. My first impulse, however, is just to be terribly curious about the children from whom Freud gained his ‘psycho-analytic experience’, who led him to believe that their fear ‘damaging or losing’ their eyes was ‘a terrible one’. What awful stories did they tell him, and what awful questions did he ask to elicit said stories?

Thanks very much Freud. Now I have a terrible fear as well.

Here you go, have some nightmares. (Photograph by Herbert List, 'Operation des Schielens', 1944/46)
Here you go, have some nightmares (photo by Herbert List, ‘Operation des Schielens’, 1944/46).

Another of the joys of discussing the uncanny was that it allowed me to bring in lots of images, many of which are included in this post. The uncanny is everywhere in twenty-first century culture (just as it was, I imagine, in Freud’s own nineteenth century context).

How did all this relate to Dracula, though? Somewhat tenuously in the case of my seminar, but quite neatly in criticism more generally. Traditionally, monsters like the vampire are uncanny figures – though not the only kind, of course – and they make the texts the appear in uncanny too. We are not sure quite where to place them, and they make us uncomfortable, particularly because the ways in which they are uncanny or other tend to be ‘cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts it in his seminal essay ‘Monster Culture’ (p.  7).

This uncanniness disrupts the neatly ordered reality we construct for ourselves, and the neatly ordered texts in which such monsters often find themselves. Cohen describes the potential of monsters as follows:

The horizon where the monsters dwell might well be imagined as the visible edge of the hermeneutic circle itself: the monstrous offers an escape from its hermetic path, an invitation to explore new spirals, new and interconnected methods of perceiving the world. In the face of the monster, scientific inquiry and its ordered rationality crumble. The monstrous is a genus too large to be encapsulated in any conceptual system; the monster’s very existence is a rebuke to boundary and enclosure (Cohen, ‘Monster Culture’, p. 7)

Uncanny monstrosity arguably represents one way that literature can help us to imagine new ways of thinking and being. It represents reality and identity, but never quite. The monster is the dark double of the normal and the rational, the return of the repressed, and the unfamiliar in the familiar.

Dracula_Bela

*All references to Freud refer to ‘The Uncanny’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis & Other Works, 217-256.

On the Front Lines Between ‘Funny’ and ‘Offensive’

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

Seeing as today is April Fool’s Day (or April Fools’ Day, as Wikipedia pointedly suggests I should be apostrophising it), and most of the commentary on the day’s festivities seems to border on despair and desperation, I thought it might be fun to post something about the uses and limits of humour.

The line between what’s funny and what isn’t is a fine one, and is often purely a matter of context. Even when successful, humour is always a question of morality, politics, and aesthetics. One need only look at the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings and controversy to confirm this assertion. Humour can be used to point to both serious and trivial issues, and whether it is productive is always a question of perspective.

In the introduction to their 2005 essay collection Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering have the following to say about the distinction between what is considered funny and what is offensive:

It is generally regarded as being beneficial to laugh about things, including ourselves; to get problems off our chests and ‘see their funny side’; to look back on what was previously regarded as very serious, maybe even tragic, and ‘have a good laugh about it’. There are clearly many cases where this is so, but equally there are others when it is inappropriate to laugh, when humour does not sit happily with the general tenor of an event or situation, and when a joke is regarded as overstepping the mark, as being beyond a joke.
(p. 4)

In this definition of the border between humour and harm, the focus is on whether the object of ridicule is the person laughing, or some unspecified other. A few pages later Lockyer and Pickering use the example of a female Muslim comedian, who tells a joke about being felt up during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Were a Christian man to tell this joke, they argue, it would ‘shift from being a joke at the teller’s expense to a joke told at someone else’s’ (p. 9).

From the cover of Beyond a Joke
From the cover of Beyond a Joke

Nazi jokes and humour are often the target of these kinds of questions. Is the Japanese ‘Nazi chic’ trend excused by the fact that the perpetrators aren’t German, and weren’t even alive during World War II? At what point are we responsible for the images and ideas we appropriate?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the borders of the humorous. I recently finished a first draft of a chapter on humour in the novel-as-masup (Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, etc.), which is also under review as part of an upcoming book collection. In these mashups, the question of humour is mainly one of triviality. The very idea of combining Jane Austen and zombies or sea monsters is so silly it almost crosses the border of humour in the other direction to become boring. Even for those inclined to be disturbed by the potential defacement of a literary classic, is it really worth getting upset over fiction? Because I’ve been working on it so much I’m a bit tired of the whole genre at the moment, but I’m also writing on a tangential paper for the upcoming Material Traces of the Past in Contemporary Literature conference in Málaga, Spain (naturally the location had nothing to do with my decision to attend).

Art by Billy Ludwig.
Art by Billy Ludwig.

For this paper I’ll be looking at how the creation and inversion of ironic distance complicates readings of historical fiction in the twenty-first century. Rather than looking at the nineteenth century as I do in my chapter, I’ll be covering some texts set during the two World Wars. The first is Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron (1995 | 2012), an alternate history novel that imagines Count Dracula leading the German forces during WWI. The second is Billy Ludwig’s manipulations of old photos from WWII, modified to include iconic images from Star Wars.

The Bloody Red Baron was a largely uncontroversial novel, both at its original 1995 release and at its reprinting in 2012. Ludwig’s photomanipulations have seen some moderate internet blowback, however, as has the similar If Star Wars Was Real photo series. This comes despite the fact that the two sets of images clearly mesh well aesthetically, partially due to the fact that George Lucas drew liberal inspiration from both World Wars when creating the Star Wars universe, as fan and historian Cole Horton demonstrates. When you get down to it, both texts are technically doing the same thing: inserting fantastical characters and images into historical contexts. What makes the one potentially upsetting, while the other is accepted as harmless?

The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.
The 2012 reissue of The Bloody Red Baron has some flashy new cover art.

One answer might be the visualness of photography. It’s inherently more confrontational than text. With a novel we have the right not to read, or to ‘look away’, as it were. In her 1968 article ‘The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception’, Mary Douglas argues that humour needs to be permitted as well as understood in order to be perceived as a joke. There is nothing particularly offensive about any version of The Bloody Red Baron’s cover art, or the book’s title. You never know where Ludwig’s photomanipulations might pop up, though, confronting you with something you have no chance to opt out of.

A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.
A woman runs for her life from an AT-AT.

Another answer might lie in the question of celebrity. In The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman mainly hijacks famous historical figures. By stepping into the public spotlight, these figures have abdicated their right to privacy – at least to a certain degree. Additionally, many of these famous figures remained far from the front lines during the war. The same cannot be said for the lowly foot-soldiers and everyday citizens featured in many of the Star Wars photomanipulations.

What do you think – are these images offensive? If so, where do they cross the line?

What They Do in the Shadows is Basically What We Do, Too

Whatever I had been expecting from vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, it wasn’t what I got in the end. And I mean that in the best possible way. Where to start? With plot, I suppose, though that may be the least interesting part about this film. What We Do in the Shadows follows a film crew documenting the lives of five vampire flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand, in the run-up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball.

what-we-do-in-the-shadows-image-1
Meet the boys.

They may be eternally youthful in the stories, but in pop culture vampires are kind of old. It’s more or less all been done before, and there’s a lot of baggage to engage with. What We Do in the Shadows runs us through the stereotypes of vampire folklore and cinema. You’ve got Petyr, a silent, Nosferatu-esque vampire who’s over 8,000 years old. Then there’s the medieval noble Vladislav (a.ka. “Vladislav the Poker”), a tongue-in-cheek reference to Vlad the Impaler, often cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Next up is Deacon, a mere 183 years old, who considers himself the “bad boy” of the group and enjoys pulling the turning-food-into-worms gag from The Lost Boys. The most recent addition is the two-month-old Nick, who goes around telling people he’s “that guy from Twilight”. The description is more accurate than he knows: he doesn’t make a very good vampire in the traditional sense, and honestly he’s kind of a douche. Plus all of his bragging eventually brings a vampire hunter down on the house, with upsetting consequences.

Finally there’s Viago, the primary narrator. A dandy from the 17th century who is basically a mashup of Louis and Lestat (you probably know them as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) from Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, Viago tries to keep the peace between his flatmates, feed on victims without getting blood all over his antique furtiture (unsuccessfully), and entertain the camera crew, all while pining for his lost love Katherine.

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Poor Viago. He can never quite keep the house clean.

The film may be a mockumentary, but it also uses a lot of horror tropes, mostly for the sake of a joke. The typical melodrama found in contemporary vampire movies is turned on its head to highlight how ridiculous classic phrases and scenarios sound when taken even slightly out of context:

“Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
“Whatcha bidding on?”
“This table…”

The typical glamour of the vampire lifestyle also gets flipped around in the mockumentary. Like Ann Rice’s bored and decadent vampires, you can see that the five flatmates in What We Do in the Shadows basically make it as vampires because they were (and are) so bad at being people. Ironically this is also what makes them sympathetic as people.While we’re laughing at their quirks and misfortunes, ours feel small in comparison. Their mistakes may have bigger and bloodier consequences – though is blood harder to get out of upholstery than red wine? – but most of us can empathise with their failures and frustrations. And if that fails, we’ve still got Stu the IT guy.

You rock, Stu.
You rock, Stu.

What I honestly didn’t expect was how funny or engaging I would find this movie, something that has to do with how good of a parody it is on several levels. It takes a poke at a lot of different things – pop culture, New Zealand, bachelors, the elderly, support group slogans (“werewolves, not swearwolves”) – but it also does a great job at using vampires to pick apart our ideas about loneliness, immortality, and just generally being human. Ironically, this makes What We Do in the Shadows a good vampire movie in addition to a good parody. Though some have accused the film of being shallow, for me it was a much-needed breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale crypt of vampire cinema, and it delivered everything we want from our vampires in this specific place and time.

Without casting any literal reflection themselves, vampires still manage to reflect our needs, interests, and emotions, even in 2015.

taika_waititi_s_new_film_what_we_do_in_the_shadows_1670679555
They know what we want more than anything right now is ghostly floating teacup antics.

 

Intro to Monsters

BIGdraculaSo as of this week I’m a freshly minted PhD candidate. This means I’m finally going to have to get around to putting all those thoughts and scribbles I’ve been accumulating over the last couple of years into what is essentially a book on monsters. In the PhD application I just submitted to the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) research institute, my project proposal starts something like this:

This project examines 21st-century parodies of 19th-century Gothic monsters (bodily deviations from an idealised human norm), part of a phenomenon I refer to as ‘neo-historical’, constituting a symbolic re-formulation and appropriation of the past. This project will consist of a narrative analysis of such monsters, attempting to answer the research questions of why these figures are so prevalent in 21st-century culture, and how they inform contemporary ideas of subjectivity, memory, and history.

So. What does this all actually mean? And what the hell do monsters have to do with history or with today’s culture? Over the next few posts I’ll be unpacking the introductory bit of my proposal. I’ll also take a closer look at the ideas behind the proposal.  In explaining it to the internets, I also hope to get a better grasp on everything myself.

I can start by explaining that we’re dealing with two different kinds of monsters here: 19th-century ones, and 21st-century ones. In the 19th century you had a whole collection of monster novels, from Frankenstein (1818) to the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) to Dracula (1897). Funny enough, we still have these same characters hanging around in the 21st-century—consider I, Frankenstein (2014), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series (1999-2014), or the most recent Dracula TV series (2013)—but you can’t be part of popular culture for that long without being reinvented a few times.

Every time we ‘reboot’ a character, it adds to our culture’s collective understanding of that character. We know that the Frankenstein’s creature from I, Frankenstein isn’t the creature, but I dare you to go back and read Mary Shelley’s original novel without having  Aaron Eckhart chopping up gargoyles in the back of your mind. What I’m saying in my thesis is that all this rebooting is ultimately a good thing, especially if it’s as silly as I, Frankenstein. Here’s why: today’s monster mashups let us put meaning back into monsters.

In 19th-century culture, monsters represented things that, put simply, were not us. Not part of Western, white, upper-middle-class, and in this case English culture. Let me give you an example of what I mean. If you’ve been to a few English lit classes (or are something of a horror fan), chances are you’ll know all about the homoeroticism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The text is very man-heavy, and whether or not it’s a main theme of the novel, remakes tend to play that up. You’ll probably also have noticed that the good Count is a foreigner, and that he not only threatens Jonathan Harker, but also all of England if Harker fails to stop him.

Dracula is clearly a bad dude. He’s even badder because he’s one of them. A foreigner with an ambiguous sexual identity.

We still see this happening today, but something has shifted. Now we live  a globalised culture, and assuming someone is evil just because of their race or sexuality has become a tired cliché, not to mention kind of discriminatory. Today we still have villains who are distinctly not us in some clear way (it’s generally pretty easy to spot them), but we’re a lot more conscious about what it is authors and filmmakers are doing to us. And they know that we know. That leads to some interesting dynamics, and it also lets us look at the role of monsters in culture in a different way.

There are loads of films now where someone’s obvious evilness is the source of the movie’s humour. Take Despicable Me‘s Gru, for example—the whole movie is built on the fact that he looks and sounds like a villain, but is actually a hero on the inside.

Gru in the Bank of Evil
Gru in the Bank of Evil

More often than not, the monster isn’t in the movie to scare us, but he or she is the character we’re meant to identify with. In contemporary culture, monsters don’t really mean one particular thing any more—at least not in the sense that they did in the 19th century. They’re just regular people who look a little different, and who were misunderstood all along.

So what that first couple of sentence of my thesis proposal means is that we should look at 21st-century monster mashups to see how they change our perspectives on those 19th-century stories they’re parodying. Why are those old monsters still interesting to us if they don’t represent things we’re afraid of, or that are strange to us? How do they change the way we look at old texts, where those monsters did represent those things? And why should we care about these questions at all seeing as neither 19th-century monsters or 21st-century monsters are even real?

Find out in the next post (and the one after that).