This 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.
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?’
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?
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.
It’s been less than a year since Penny Dreadful ended dramatically in its third season, but this week brings the announcement of a collection of academic essays dedicated to the show. Edited by Manchester Metropolitan University‘s Jon Greenaway and Stephanie Reid, the collection looks to explore the show’s Gothic and Victorian heritage, as well as its contemporary contexts.
If you’re working on Penny Dreadful, do consider submitting an abstract to Penny Dreadful: Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television. The deadline is 15 May. Click here to download a Word version of the CfP. Text version follows:
Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) has become one of the most critically well-regarded shows of the post-millennial Gothic television revival, drawing explicitly on classic tropes, texts and characters throughout its three-season run. However, despite the show’s critical success and cult following, a substantive academic examination of the show has yet to be undertaken.
This edited collection seeks to address the current lack within Gothic studies scholarship, and situate Penny Dreadful as a key contemporary Gothic television text. This collection will seek to trace the link between the continued expansion of Gothic television, alongside the popular engagement with Neo-Victorianism. In addition, the collection seeks to examine notions around the aesthetic importance of contemporary Gothic that become particularly prominent against the narrative re-imaginings that occur within Penny Dreadful. This collection explores exactly where Gothic resides within this reflexive, hybridized and intertextual work; in the bodies, the stories, the history, the styling, or somewhere else entirely?
Possible contributions could include, but are no means limited to the following:
Gothic adaptation and/or appropriation?
Pastiche and parody and Gothic aesthetics
‘Global Gothic’ in the sense of its commercialisation
Neo-Victorianism (styling, politics, economics); as well as explorations of the impact of ‘historicizing’ Gothic
Representation of gender within the text, specifically female monstrosity
The Post/Colonial context, as well racialized characterisation and presentation
The reworking/restyling of monsters in contemporary Gothic
Consideration of a ‘Romance’ aesthetic and how this alters conceptions of ‘Gothic’ texts and the influence of ‘romantic’ themes/styles in contemporary Gothic
What the proposal should include:
An extended abstract of 500 words (for a 6,000-word chapter) including a proposed chapter title, a clear theoretical approach and reference to some relevant sources.
Please also provide your contact information, institutional affiliation, and a short biography.
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 ThePicture 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). 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. 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.
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’. He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’. 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’.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
If you’re not too keen on theory, never fear! What I say below is basically a more academic rewriting of this blog post.
Next week I’ll be presenting at a conference called ‘Promises of Monsters’. In my paper, I’ll be looking at the way the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (and other monster mashups) use and abuse certain ‘promises’ or possibilities of the monstrous that have been popularised by literary critics. Though monster studies as an academic discipline is still quite young, the monster mashup can be seen to respond to many of its claims directly, using the language of monstrosity for commercial ends. Though they’re often marketed as a reinvention or subversion of cultural hierarchies, binaries, and stereotypes, the monsters of mashup (and the mashups themselves) fall short of these promises time and time again.
So what are the promises of monsters, generally speaking? One answer lies in Donna Haraway’s 1992 essay ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, which is also where the conference gets its name. This is not the critical approach I’ll be looking at in this post, however. Haraway never really explicitly defines the monsters she is talking about. Those she describes are not quite the same as the fantastical, fictional monsters I am writing about, though the links are there.
Instead, we’re going to go with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introductory chapter to Monster Theory: Reading Culture(1996). In discussing what defines the typical or traditional monster, Cohen outlines seven theses. The first and most important is that the monster’s body is a cultural body. Cohen explains the creation of meaning through the monster as follows:
The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny in-dependence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4)
Monsters may have a real-world presence, and they may be legitimately terrifying, but they are always first defined in the realm of narrative and imagination. These narrative bodies shape (and are shaped by) what we consider to be abnormal and deviant. Take the parallels between narratives about zombies and narratives about refugees as an example. I’ve also blogged about this in the context of what Judith Halberstam calls ‘zombie humanism’:
In this approach to monstrosity, then, one must thus ‘consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior’ (Monster Theory, back cover). A culture’s fascination with monsters would then suggest a desire to explore categories of ‘difference and prohibition’ (again, back cover).
Cohen’s second and third theses – that the monster always escapes and is the harbinger of category crisis – relate to the expression of the monster’s cultural body. The monster is constantly changing, and thus resists easy categorisation (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4-7). Cohen’s fourth thesis explores another fundamental mark of the traditional monster that reflects the first: it ‘dwells at the gates of difference’ (p. 7). Just as the monster’s body is constructed by the fears and obsessions of culture, it is also physically marked by what that culture considers as different. This alterity can take any form, but Cohen argues that ‘for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’ (p. 7). Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as ‘monsters’ because of the West’s negative associations with muscularity, rural culture, black skin, and animalistic features. Because of this inherently (bio)political aspect of the monstrous, through the monster ‘the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur’ (p.10). This is a quality that remains in the monsters of mashup, though the way the monster’s body is used to represent a social body or the nation-state is different in every case.
Because of its liminal position, the monster ‘polices the borders of the possible’ as well as signalling difference (thesis five; p. 12). By embodying what is forbidden, the monster also seductively hints at what might be possible should the reader choose to cross the boundaries it marks (thesis six; p. 16). The type of seduction enacted and boundaries drawn depends on the type of monster embodied. Critical work on medieval monsters simply shows ‘a morally and physically deformed creature arriving to demarcate the boundary beyond which lies the unintelligible, the inhuman’ (Of Giants, 1999, p. xiv), but with the development of modern systems of deviance and punishment, the monster has came to occupy a special place in the social hierarchy.
Using the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs as an illustration, Halberstam demonstrates ‘the distance traveled between current [late twentieth-century] representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Skin Shows, 1995, p. 1.). For Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside / outside, female / male, body / mind, native / foreign, proletarian/aristocrat’, and so on and so forth (p. 1). Postmodern horror, on the other hand, tends to favour ‘the obscenity of “immediate visibility”’, and its monsters are ‘all body and no soul’ (p. 1). This again signals the increasing loss of direct significance evident in the twenty-first century monster. The concept of the human is at once too basic and too abstract to mythologise in any straightforward way.
Cohen’s final thesis explores how monstrous difference can be (and often is) deployed in critical theory to ‘reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression’ (p. 20). Critical theory tends to view the monster as an inherently progressive figure, or even a rebellious one, standing for the marginalised and fighting against an unfair society. It is by playing this final characteristic that the mashup is able to turn the monster’s traditional function on its head, highlighting the paradoxical (in)visibility, the loss of metaphysical significance, and the liberal populist tendencies that mark fantastical monstrosity’s twenty-first-century iterations. These narratives appropriate historical traditions of the monstrous as well as historical monsters.
What does it mean to be a monster in the twenty-first century, and how do both the form of the mashup and the ‘burden of history’ (as Hayden White would put it) complicate this identity? You’ll have to come to the conference to find out – or wait a couple of years for my thesis to be finished. In any case, fulfilling the promises of monsters is arguably more complicated than it used to be. It takes the right bodies, interacting in the right way, to reclaim the monster as a symbol of progressive identity politics.
I love monsters and all their promises, and I sincerely hope the third season of Penny Dreadful puts the arguments I make in this conference paper to shame. Until then, it provides plenty of fuel for blogging.
About two weeks ago a proper trailer for the next season of Penny Dreadful was released. Various other obligations have kept me from looking at it properly, but this week I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into it. Without further ado, then, my take on this 1-minute-and-45-second trailer.
(Note: there will be spoilers for seasons 1 and 2).
To start, you can watch the whole thing here on Penny Dreadful‘s YouTube channel:
The trailer starts out strong with a shot of the much-touted star of the series Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), before swiftly introducing us to an exciting new location (North America?):
We’re then treated to a none-too subtle shot of the moon, in case we needed a reminder that everyone’s favourite Penny Dreadful werewolf was last seen bound for the New World:
Also returning are ‘world-renowned explorer with an axe to grind‘ Malcolm Murray, (Timothy Dalton), American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (though, as we discovered last season, that’s not his real name; played by Josh Hartnett), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monstrous creation Caliban/John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the depraved Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the delightful Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper).
Newcomers to season 3 include Dr. Seward – presumably a nod to Dracula’s Jack Seward – played by Patti LuPone (who also played the cut-wife in season 2), Dr. Henry Jekyll (followed by Edward Hyde?) played by Shazad Latif, and a Native American warrior played by Wes Studi.
We can only hope that Shazad Latif and Wes Studi’s characters fare better than Sembene (Danny Sapani), who died brutally last season – in what was sadly only the last of several appearances that were apparently only designed to help move the storylines of the white characters along.
We also get to see some obligatory hints about the Showtime-level sex scenes we’ll be treated to:
Not a bad trailer by any means, but some of the things it teases are worryingly familiar to me. I’ve written before about how, despite that fact that I absolutely love the show on a personal level, on an academic one it has some issues with the way it represents monstrosity. Specifically, it capitalises on a number of the characteristics of monsters established by critical theorists, without actually delivering on most fronts. It also has a problematic relationship with its LGBTQ characters, despite show runner John Logan’s frequent linking of monstrosity and his own homosexuality.
For Judith Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act’ between a series of binary oppositions, frightening precisely because they stood poised to transgress established identities and social parameters (Skin Shows, p. 1). Ultimately, despite its self-advertised exploration of identity binaries, Penny Dreadful uses monstrosity (and its Victorian setting) in a way that constructs a false sense of diversity, disturbance, and change. In its attempts to represent ‘everyone’, it instead shuts out all but the privileged minority it represents on-screen.
Rather than using the past to discuss present-day issues, as it claims, the show instead presents the issues of certain Victorian outcasts – many of whom are now far from marginalised. In a sense, then, Penny Dreadful uses its Victorian setting to reclaim monstrosity for the privileged.
In addition to the predictable issues and reveals, there are a number of scenes where I genuinely have no idea what’s going on:
I am, however, very interested to find out. With just under two months to go until the premiere of season 3, and a few months more until it’s spun out all nine episodes on broadcast television, Penny Dreadful has plenty of time to change my mind about its politics of the monstrous.
And let’s be honest – they’ve already gone a good way towards placating my non-academic brain with this shot of Timothy Dalton in a cowboy hat:
What do you think? Are you excited for the new season of Penny Dreadful?
I should probably preface this post by admitting that I’m not a real Victorianist. The Victorians were one of my undergraduate passions, and I continued to read and write all about them during my MA, but somehow I was always more interested in how we speak about the Victorians today than in how they actually spoke to themselves or to us. It was the fantasy of the Victorians that I found most intriguing. For the purposes of today’s post this works out well, because although the texts and subcultures I’m currently researching are often set in the nineteenth century, borrowing Victorian politics and aesthetics, they aren’t really Victorian either.
Specifically, I’m talking about the monster mashup, in this case the kind that appropriates objects, texts and contexts from the long nineteenth century and combines them with a very twenty-first century monster culture. These mashups come in many flavours, and can be found in virtually every artistic medium. You’ve got computer and console games like Fallen London or The Order: 1886. There are monster mashups in film and television, like Van Helsing (2004) and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014). They’re also in the fine arts, and a rich selection of monster mashups found themselves displayed at the recent Victoriana: The Art of Revival exhibition in 2013.
You’ll also find monster mashups, perhaps more predictably, among the ranks of comics and graphic novels – consider Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999) or Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer (2009). And of course there are novels, like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula (1992|2011) or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009). Arguably the best-known monster mashup in novel form is the ‘novel-as-mashup‘, popularised with 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and continuing with such groan (or grin) provoking titles as Wuthering Bites (2010) and Grave Expectations (2011). These mashups lift the very words, sentences, and chapters from the texts they appropriate, changing a word here, a paragraph there to create a new (if ultimately very similar) text. From lowbrow to highbrow, drama to comedy, there’s a monster mashup for everyone.
The targets of these mashups aren’t exclusively from the nineteenth century,but an overwhelming number have thus far turned to the Regency and Victorian eras of Britain’s literary history for their source material. Copyright laws are no doubt partly responsible for this, as is the fact that we’ve got so much physical and visual material to draw on from the nineteenth century onward. The public education system is another likely culprit, as the most popular mashups (and the ones that attract the most media attention) tend to involve the classics of art and literature that most children in the Anglo-American world are introduced to during their early education. These are also the texts that have been kept alive by a seemingly endless series of adaptations, whether on the stage, by the BBC, or in cinemas.
A few weeks ago one of my fellow Cardiff PhDs, Daný van Dam, shared a post on Gail Carriger’s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), another monster mashup set in Victorian London. She wrote the following about the series’ Victorian appropriations:
Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books return not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.
The precise nature of the relationship between neo-Victorian fiction and the past it references is something neo-Victorian studies is very interested in. In her book History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction, Kate Mitchell puts the situation this way:
‘The issue turns upon the question of whether history is equated, in fiction, with superficial detail; an accumulation of references to clothing, furniture, décor and the like, that produces the past in terms of its objects, as a series of clichés, without engaging its complexities as a unique historical moment that is now produced in a particular relationship to the present. […] Can these novels recreate the past in a meaningful way or are they playing nineteenth-century dress-ups?’ Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 3.
With the monster mashup, answering this question is usually fairly straightforward: this is clearly a case of dress-up. In appropriating historical texts and contexts, these overtly fantastical monster mashups don’t necessarily seek to restore or revise the past, but rather to bring it back to life as a new text, and in a new context. They are twenty-first century texts in a Victorian coat. Regardless of their apparent superficiality, these kinds of creations and discussions are important in postmodern culture. Dress-up and performance serve their own purposes, and nostalgia can be an end as well as a means.
Postmodern theorist and critic Fredric Jameson has frequently returned to the subject of historicity and nostalgia in his work, often in conjunction with utopia. Both nostalgia and utopia, he argues, paradoxically evoke a kind of perpetual present by fetishising either the past or the future. Unfortunately, both are doomed to creative and subversive failure – nostalgia because its narrative of the past ultimately only serves to circumscribe the present, and utopia because its totalising narrative of the future inevitably morphs into dystopia. It is the failed deployment of these two elements that has resulted in postmodernism’s stagnation or end of history.
Nevertheless, Jameson continues to pursue these twin impulses of utopia and nostalgia, aiming to contribute to:
[T]he reawakening of that historicity which our system – offering itself as the very end of history – necessary [sic] represses and paralyzes. This is the sense in which utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of performing, even subliminally.
For Jameson, in other words, though nostalgia and utopia are both doomed to failure and stagnation, the urge to imagine, to fantasise, and to create using these impulses remains vitally important. In this sense the creation of history-saturated fantasies is much more for the sake of present-day culture than it is an homage to history. Neo-Victorian fantasies help keep both history and imagination alive in popular culture, giving them a much-needed stretching.
As a side effect of the way they ‘stretch’ history, monster mashups also manage to revitalise history, mythologise it, and even change it in a sense. These texts encourage discussion between disparate groups of people. They also force old texts into new contexts, revealing our historical and hermeneutical distance from (and closeness to) the old contexts. This recontextualisation of the Victorians can sometimes have productive results.
To give one example, these reality-blurring and genre-bending monster texts often draw attention to the constructed nature of the self, and the problems inherent in contemporary representations of identity and otherness. Monstrous others have stood in for racial, sexual, and social minorities for hundreds of years, but in the words of Judith Halberstam, in contemporary Gothic the monster is no longer totalising:
The monstrous body that once represented everything is now represented as potentially meaning anything – it may be the outcast, the outlaw, the parasite, the pervert, the embodiment of the uncontrollable sexual and violent urges, the foreigner, the misfit. The monster is all of these but monstrosity has become a conspiracy of bodies rather than a singular form.
In contemporary Gothic, monsters are us, and we are all monstrous. In any case, through this ‘conspiracy of bodies’, neo-historical monster mashups can call out cases of imperialism, colonialism, or patriarchy without singling out a particular minority victim. Monsters represent otherness, but not a particular Other. Symbolically they oscillate between the centre and the margins, endlessly deferred. Consider Travis Louie, for example, with his fantastical portraits of Victorians. These both call us to identify with the characters they depict and present those characters as alien. Louie has a whole series of these ‘Victorian cryptozoology‘ images as well, which evoke discourses of imperialism and colonialism.
Naturally this oscillation doesn’t automatically mean that using monsters in mashup texts is unproblematic. Specific monsters are still socially marked in different ways – the homoerotic male vampire, the sexy female robot, the lower-class zombie – but monsters do add a layer of mediation, a buffer between audience and story. Texts like these open discussions of otherness that might otherwise be met with resistance or increasingly negative accusations of ‘political correctness’. And, as always, imagining difference in the past potentially creates space for difference in the present. History and its cultural traces provide the foundations and reference points for today’s ideologies.
Roland Barthes has a great deal to say about the way history and tradition become myth. For Barthes, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media. Mashups, as part of the domain of popular culture, certainly contribute to the perpetuation of society’s myths (the nation, heterosexuality, gender, etc.). They are rarely subversive in the traditional sense, but because of their appropriative nature it is difficult for anyone to control which ideas and ideologies are communicated to audiences and readers. There is always ample room for divergent interpretation.
In writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes also refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become ‘naturalised’ in the process, or taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Monstrous or fantastical history inherently resists such naturalisation, because it refuses to be taken entirely seriously, though certainly possible to politicise it. Monster mashups make history strange – or sometimes reveal the strangeness of history. Kim Newman has claimed that he initially decided to write Anno Draculain response to Thatcherism and the rise of neo-Victorian political sentiment in the late 80s. This novel describes a Victorian England in which Dracula had succeeded in Bram Stoker’s novel, and come to rule over Great Britain. In this alternate history, which can be read as ironically similar to our own, Newman re-evaluates stereotypically ‘Victorian values’ as monstrous, ultimately showing that we often see what we want to see where the Victorians are concerned.
In a discussion of the Neo-Victorian graphic novels of Alan Moore, also extremely political, Jason B. Jones argues that what makes such mashups subversive is not their disregard for literary categories or forms, but their potential redefinition of our very identities and cultural spaces. He states: ‘[s]uch game playing foregrounds the extimate aspects of historical change, as something neither wholly external nor subjective’. In other words, texts that mix history and fiction while also playing with genre convention make the reader more readily aware of the constructed nature of even the most serious history.