Reading List: The World of Penny Dreadful

Penny.DreadfulSome of literature’s most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. PENNY DREADFUL is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama. [Text: Showtime’s Penny Dreadful web site; Image: Jim Fiscus/SHOWTIME]

Jim and I (Michelle) are fans of Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful, which takes and twists classic literary characters and throws them in with original (or are they?) characters, where they get down to business (see also: wreak havoc) in the ballrooms and back alleys of 19th century London. Setting the scene for this post, a brief rundown of what we like about the show: Ethan Chandler, our favorite character (we’ll try not to show our bias too greatly (but no promises there)); the show’s aesthetic, which covers everything from the rich atmosphere, how the shots/scenes are stylized and framed, the costumes, to the soundtrack; how characters we know and love (Victor, when we say love, we’re not looking at you in this case) are something more here–basically, the writers are playing with these characters in ways that keep us coming back, wanting to know what their ultimate, endgame shape is going to look like; Ethan (did we mention him already?); and…well, there’s a lot.

Here’s how this reading list works: We’ve divided up the main characters (so far) and cover a range of topics relevant to each one, capping the post off with a ‘for further reading’ list that provides background information on the time period, location and related events. Jim’s going to delve into Vanessa Ives and spiritualism; Victor Frankenstein and medicine/science in the latter half of the 19th century; Ferdinand Lyle and Egyptology; and Sembene and body art and weaponry. Michelle is going to dissect: Sir Malcolm Murray and 19th century exploration; Ethan Chandler and the Indian Wars (and, you know, everything else, because favorite character); Dorian Gray and the libertine lifestyle; Brona Croft and London slum life. And that’s just to start! So, roll up your sleeves and prepare to dig into the seedy and seething world of Penny Dreadful.

MalcolmMalcolm Murray

Malcolm Murray is ostensibly the leader of the group; his obsessive desire to find his taken daughter, Mina, has so far been the driving force behind the group’s assembly and their late-night exploits. Now, if the name Mina rings a few bells, it should, and no doubt you’re on the right track: Mina’s last name would have been Harker. As in Dracula. And Van Helsing, who Murray hires to assist Victor. If you’re watching the show (or want to, once it’s released on DVD) and haven’t read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you bet we can help with that:

As I mentioned, Van Helsing is present and accounted for on the show, and if you find yourself curious about Abraham you could check out The Many Faces of Van Helsing, a series of essays on the Dutch doctor. (Obligatory Hugh Jackman mention: You could always watch Van Helsing, for science.) And while we’re still in Draclandia, let me not forget Fenton, a Renfieldesque character on Penny, who may make you go hmm–In which case, perhaps you’d like a look at The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula by Tim Lucas.

But I promised you exploration! We’re not entirely sure where Malcolm ventured, but he does mention lion hunting, and that would make Africa a safe bet. (Edit: The fourth episode threw down a bigger clue: Africa it is!) To that end, there’s A History of African Exploration by David Mountfield; Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm by Monte Reel; and Explorers of the Nile: the Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure by Tim Jeal. Looking more specifically at the link between science and exploration, which Malcolm, in his current state of find-his-daughter-and-[redacted], is particularly focused on, there’s: Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa by Lawrence Dritsas and A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics by Nicholas Wright Gillham. And, finally, because of course he would be, Malcolm is a member of the Explorer’s Club, and on that topic there’s: As Told at The Explorer’s Club: More Than Fifty Gripping Tales of Adventure by George Plimpton; and They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Legendary Explorer’s Club edited by Jan Jarboe Russell. These titles are not available through NOBLE, but you could try to get either one through the virtual catalog or inter-library loan.

As for the man himself, to draw on another literary icon: Murray’s obsessive and manipulative nature brings Moby Dick‘s Ahab to mind. He is certainly after his own white whale, and if its belly is not so big, its teeth are sharper.

VanessaVanessa Ives

We don’t know a lot about Miss Ives at this point (although that may change after 6/8). With the exception of Sembene, she is probably one of the more mysterious characters on the show. What we do know: She has some kind of long relationship with Sir Malcolm and his missing daughter Mina, she is clairvoyantish (I say ish because, in spite of “seeing things,” she still manages to look vaguely confused when they actually happen), possibly relating to this she is possessed by something when she attends a seance (Eva Green can do a surprising range of voices), she has a thing for Dorian Gray (see more on him below) which is turning her into a crazy stalker (although we have theories on this). There is also a lot of religious symbolism swirling around her and spiders…lots of spiders (shiver). Oh, and she looks a little like Frida Kahlo (which is neither here nor there).

So lets kick things off with some books on the occult: Ancient Wisdom and Secret Sects and Spirit Summonings. Plus some how-to guides in case you are interested (I make no claims to their efficacy). Several of these are held by other libraries but they can be ordered either by you or a librarian: Fortune-telling, Solitary Séance: How You Can Talk with Spirits on Your Own, Tea Leaf Reading and Palmascope: the Instant Palm Reader.

One interesting thing about the whole seance aspect of the second episode is that it’s a nice tie-in with the spiritualist movement of the late 19th century. For more on that subject, check out Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull and/or Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. Miss Ives, when she’s not being possessed, likes making deductions about people. She does this to Ethan Chandler when they first meet (of course we think most of her deductions about him were wrong, but still…[Michelle here, chiming in to say she was wrong, so wrong.]) And the deduction piece gives her an interesting link to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes: Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Of course we shouldn’t forget that Doyle himself was an avid spiritualist: The Doctor, the Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle: A Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, or you can go straight to Doyle’s correspondence, Arthur Conan Doyle: a Life in Letters.

There is a lot of religious symbolism associated with Miss Ives. The opening scene of the pilot featured her praying in front of  a cross, and in another episode she’s sitting in front of a church. We have several books on symbolism in general, like The Complete Dictionary of Symbols, but here’s one that focuses specifically on monotheistic religions: Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source. If religious symbolism isn’t your thing you can always try and identify the spiders that seem to be hiding out under her cross: Spiders of the World.

Madness: A Brief History by Roy Porter (I will say no more).

ETHANEthan Chandler

To Malcolm Murray, American sharpshooter Ethan Chandler is nothing more than “a finger on the trigger”; a man in possession of a skill set that allows him to do some damage to the creatures they’re up against, creatures that move in the blink of an eye. To Murray, Ethan is the group’s muscle, and ultimately expendable. Murray is wrong, of course: Ethan is so much more than he seems. In fact, viewers don’t quite know what Ethan is, but Jim and I, we have more than a few ideas. (We have novel-length ideas, a whole set of them. New volumes are added after every episode.)

Let’s start with what is known (sort of; Ethan’s not exactly forthcoming or quick to confirm): He was in some way a part of the Indian Wars; Stateside, he was pursued by a federal marshal; and he traveled to England as an actor in a Wild West show. Now, Jim and I aren’t sure (though we have our suspicions), regarding the Indian Wars, who Ethan fought beside, nor do we know which battle he played a role in, so…We’ve got some ground to cover, and I’m going to start by pointing you in the direction of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown. But perhaps you’ve read that one and want to approach the subject from the other side. In that case, try Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891 by Robert M. Utley. (Utley also co-wrote Indian Wars with Wilcomb E. Washburn.) Or, through ILL, you could get Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West by Bill Yenne. And while the events in this next one may–or may not, actually, if one possible theory pans out–pre-date Ethan’s involvement in the wars, there’s also The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868 by Gregory Michno. (There is one specific thing, unrelated to the wars, that Ethan does mention: the Anasazi and the art they left behind.)

We have no solid clues to go on to determine why Ethan was pursued by federal marshals (again, we have ideas, or maybe it’s more of a wishlist?), but if you’re interested in 19th century lawmen you could try any one–or all–of these titles:

After the Indian Wars and run-ins with the law, we’re left with the last concrete piece of Ethan’s story: sharpshooting and Wild West shows. For more information on the latter, could you do better than William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s own The Wild West in England? (We’ll do our best to get it for you; ask a librarian if you’re interested!) And while we’re on the subject of Buffalo Bill and his infamous shows: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History by Joy Kasson; Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show by Louis Warren; and From Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910 by Robert Lewis. Ethan’s skill with a gun is no doubt a result of practice and experience (and a steady hand), because it’s doubtful he had a book like Ernie Lind’s The Complete Book of Trick & Fancy Shooting to use as a guide. Jim will get more into the weaponry of Penny Dreadful, but Ethan’s firearms are a part of him, and so I feel compelled to mention American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms by Chris Kyle.

I could go on and on about what Ethan’s apparent affinity with wolves might mean, but then this post would be twenty times longer than it already is, so…Perhaps you’d like to read one of the following titles and develop theories of your own:

Victor FrankensteinVictor

Victor, Victor, Victor. The next time you reanimate a corpse, please put in a mute button. Victor is the enigmatic anatomist and medical go-to guy for Malcolm’s team. Why is he enigmatic? Well, he has a hobby (surprise, surprise) creating really talkative/whiny monsters (which kind of gets him in trouble). As you may have guessed, Victor is not our favorite character on the show, but he makes a nice jumping off point for material on 19th century medicine and science (oh yeah, and monsters, obviously).

Although the focus is electricity (which is a big part of Victor’s hobby), The Ages of Steam and Electricity covers a lot of the other major advances occurring throughout the 19th century. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (because who doesn’t love Tesla?).

A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-century AmericaOkay, I know it’s America and not England, but I thought the title was very appropriate. On a similar note there is James McGee’s novel Resurrectionist and Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series.

Because sickness and death are such major fixtures in Victor’s life, I thought I’d include Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-century Britain. This is an ebook provided through our ebrary database (you will need a Danvers library card to access it).

Shakespeare plays an indirect part in Victor and his creations’ lives, which makes sense given what a big deal Shakespearean theater was in the 19th century: The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America.

And what if you want to read the original? We’ve got you covered: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, below, one it’s many adaptions.

In terms of Frankenstein reinvented or retold:

Then there’s a whole range of stuff on monsters in general, like On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, or, if that’s a little too serious, there’s always Monster Origami.

LyleFerdinand Lyle (Egyptofreak)

Sir Malcolm and Vanessa lay their hands on some hieroglyphs (I won’t say where they got them) and take them to the illustrious/flamboyant Ferdinand Lyle. Lyle isn’t very forthcoming or helpful (other than handing out an invitation to a really wild party), but by bringing him in, the show delves heavily into the 19th century obsession with Egypt.

Any discussion of 19th century Egyptology just has to have Napoleon and the Rosetta Stone: Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt; and to show it isn’t just a 19th century thing, Egypt-omania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Egyptian mythology is going to play an ever bigger part in this show, so check out some books to help you keep all the deities straight: Egyptian Mythology, A to Z, Gods & Pharaohs from Egyptian Mythology. And, hey, Lyle works at the British Museum and, not by accident, it has a pretty awesome Egyptian collection: The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt.

How about some fun fiction titles set in Egypt? The Osiris Ritual by George Mann, featuring Egyptologist Lord Winthrop, or The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley, made even more awesome by the inclusion of Nikola Tesla.

What would a discussion about the pop cultural impact of ancient Egypt in the 19th century on ours be without Mummy Movies! The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and what list would be complete without Boris Karloff’s 1932 classic, The Mummy.

DorianDorian Gray

If Dorian Gray is just a name, albeit one you might have heard before, the logical starting place is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Say you’re in a hurry to figure this guy out, though: There’s always Ben Barnes’ portrayal in Dorian Gray, and that film has bonus Colin Firth. Otherwise, you could request the 1945 version starring George Sanders and Angela Lansbury.) As for Dorian’s role on this show, that mostly remains to be seen, though he’s so far shown his hand regarding vices: gambling, drinking, scandalous private parties. Oh, and botany. Dorian does so love a rare orchid. So, then, some Dorian-as-done-by-PennyDreadful related titles you might be interested in:


Sembene is probably the character on Penny Dreadful we know the least about, partly because he’s probably only said about a dozen words in the whole show (so far). He is Sir Malcolm’s valet; he’s African (we think); has a penchant for body art; he carries around a knife that looks a little like a Nepalese Kukri; and he’s mean to cats! (deep breaths)

There seems to be some confusion on what Sembene is (looking at you Tumblr): He is not a butler. A butler is the servant in charge of the household staff. A valet is the personal attendant of the master. Check out Stephan Berry’s Royal Service: My Twelve Years as Valet to Prince Charles. (Although I doubt Berry owns a kukri or kills cats.)

As mentioned, the other noticeable thing about Sembene is the body modification on his face. The Body Art Book: a Complete, Illustrated Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Other Body Modifications will give you a run down on body art and its history.

Finding books on African knives is a little tougher. There’s The Cutting Edge: West Central African 19th Century Throwing Knives in the National Museum of Ethnology, which isn’t available anywhere in Massachusetts, but we might be able to order if from out of state. (Use our Interlibrary Loan Request form.) There are also quite a few general books on knives out there that we could get, like Knives 2008. We also have an online resource you could use: Price It, a database for pricing antiques and collectables, and if you search for knives it brings up a lot of stuff.

Brona CroftBrona

Brona in a nutshell: An Irish immigrant, Brona turned to prostitution–and taking risque photographs–to carve out a hardscrabble life for herself in London. She’s plucky and quick to smile, though her days are numbered: consumption has that effect on people. Tough subjects ahead:

For further reading:

If you’re curious about penny dreadfuls–what they were; their target audience–Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime contains several mentions. Also: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. The theater is another component of the show, specifically mentioning a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (that’s the link for the movie starring Johnny Depp, but we also have the soundtrack). The Victorian Scene by Neil King may be just the thing, if you want to know more.

For general information on England in the late 19th century: The Victorian World Picture: Perceptions and Introspections in an Age of Change by David Newsome; Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders; or Building Jerusalem: the Rise and Fall of the Victorian City by Tristram Hunt.

The writers of Penny Dreadful would be falling down on the job if they didn’t at least reference Jack the Ripper, but they’re on top of it: Jack’s there, lurking (maybe). To that end, there’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell; or The Diary of Jack the Ripper: the Discovery, the Investigation, and the Authentication narrative by Shirley Harrison. For a fictional take on the Ripper, one that also includes the James siblings (as in Henry James, author of The Turn of the Screw), there’s What Alice Knew: a Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen. Or perhaps you like your Ripper fiction in graphic format: From Hell: Being a Melodrama in Sixteen Parts by Alan Moore, illustrated by Eddie Campbell (or the movie, if you prefer).

And because Penny Dreadful is reminiscent of it: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Omnibus Edition by Alan Moore, illustrated by Kevin O’Neill. Or, the movie: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (starring Sean Connery, Shane West, Stuart Townsend, et al).

Finally! If you’re in the mood for gothic fiction (or wild west fiction, steampunk style), maybe even an appearance from one of literary horror’s canonical monsters, try:

We have many of these titles on display, so stop by the library, head to the new book room and check them out!


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