In the US, late 19th century dime novels were the precursors to early movies; while in the UK, their similarly cheap, sensational analogs were “penny dreadfuls” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful).
Surely working class males are not the target audience for the Showtime series Penny Dreadful that is winding up its first season this Sunday; otherwise how can we account for its deliriously positive reception in, say, The New York Times and Vanity Fair?
When I commented on the postmodern slant of this serialized horror thriller with pretensions to serious high art, one of my Facebook friends groaned. This blog explains why I think the fact of its existence and its considerable success is of more than passing interest. I had thought that horror movies with their vampires, zombies, and werewolves, were for adolescents with kinky tastes. But the successful writer for screen and theater, John Logan, author of the series, is no kid (born 1961), but as a graduate of Northwestern University, he may have been exposed to the techniques of postmodernism, along with a fine cast of actors who probably think that this is a high class production, appropriately critical of this entirely mechanized, overly rational and complacent world we supposedly inhabit. I sometimes think that the production is a postmodern emphasis on “acting” and the theatricality of everyday life, along with the postmodern/youthful preoccupation with “real or fake”–a question I have taken up before on this website. What ever its intentions, it surely plays up the irrational and could not be more emphatically counter-Enlightenment, and even anti-American, particularly “America’s” treatment of its indigenous peoples, cruelly uprooted from their native culture and languages by the (ever imperialistic, expansionist) White Man.
The “pomos” deploy pastiche, distort prior genres, and appropriate prior cultural figures at will, all to comment on the horrors of modernity, most famously rendered in the Tory Terror-Gothic genre, and exemplified in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. Wordsworth and Keats are quoted, while one of the characters is lifted out of Oscar Wilde—Dorian Gray. Significantly, Jack the Ripper hovers over the production, as if the overarching theme is that the social fabric is ripped to shreds by 19th century optimism and confidence in progress through market capitalism. Logan’s target is clearly the empiricism and leftish Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. For the theme of the series, despite its mysterious plot twists and turns and lurid developments, is this: science (including medicine) is destroying our humanity and fellow-feeling, by ignoring the invisible world of demons—the monsters within, and who lead us to perdition when we deny their existence. Even the Catholic Church, possibly represented in the lead character “Vanessa Ives” cannot overcome the unpredictable demon(s) who torments her. And that demon, if we are to believe the publicity surrounding the series, may be inescapable “destiny”–a doctrine opposed by Catholic emphasis on free will and personal responsibility for our actions. Or compare the emphasis on “fate” with Milton’s Mammon, a puritan character who argues for “hard liberty” instead of submission to an unaccountable deity. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/09/preconditions-for-hard-liberty/.)
Prometheus, along with the rest of the Judeo-Christian West, is so over. As for individual moral accountability, that too is gone with the desert wind: we are left with a reproach to God as Frankenstein’s omnivorously reading monster quotes Adam’s lament in the season finale: “O fleeting joys Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man?”[ Paradise Lost, Book 10]. More: in the last words of the season finale, a Catholic priest asks Vanessa (the femme fatale who stands in for the demon-touched, hence “sacred” Romantic artist, i.e., Logan himself) “Do you really want to be normal?”
For in Logan’s Terror-Gothic world, a world shared by many opponents of “modernity”, “reality” exists solely in a chaotic invisible world that is inaccessible to our eyes, brains, and control. Could anything be more reactionary, hence agreeable to antidemocrats?