Return to Penny Dreadful

In my post looking at the vampires who appeared in the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, I mentioned that I had started the second season. I’ve finished the season, which overall, I enjoyed more than the first.

Our heroes, Vanessa Ives, Ethan Chandler, Sir Malcolm Murray, Sembene, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein, are all back. This time our villains prove not to be vampires but a coven of witches. What’s more, these witches, called nightcomers in the Penny Dreadful mythos, are servants of Lucifer with superhuman powers. In this season, Brona Croft is reincarnated by Dr. Frankenstein as Lily Frankenstein, meant as the monster’s bride but possessing a mind of her own. One of my favorite characters this season was Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle played by Sir Simon Russel Beale who was introduced in season 1 but had a nice character arc in season 2.

Reeve Carney is back this season as Dorian Grey. Mostly his story takes place in the background of season 2’s main action, but it looks like they set him up to take a bigger role in the third season. We’ll have to see what happens with that story.

Although Penny Dreadful’s second season still features many characters from classic literature, they seem freed from their origins to tell their own story this season. In many ways this season felt more like a nineteenth century penny dreadful come to life. Although the series does have better writing than a real life penny dreadful like say, Varney the Vampyre, there were moments it did make baffling turns. Some of the characters’ choices seemed more designed to serve plot than make sense for what people would do when faced with these real situations. Why, for example, do the characters often go to battle the monsters at night when its known that’s when the monsters are strongest?

Despite that, there are a lot of clever plot turns and some good character moments in this season. We learn more about Sir Malcolm Murray and his relationship with his estranged wife. We also learn more about Ethan Chandler. Danny Sapani’s Sembene actually gets stuff to do. For me the standout was Billy Piper’s Lily Frankenstein. Her arc takes her from apparently lost waif betrothed to Frankenstein’s monster to woman in control of her destiny.

I’ve been watching Penny Dreadful while working on new editions of my horror novels, Dragon’s Fall, Vampires of the Scarlet Order and The Astronomer’s Crypt. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about Penny Dreadful is that it doesn’t feel too bound by linear storytelling. One episode I thought was interesting in the current season involved Vanessa recounting how she was mentored by a witch. The episode didn’t bother to pop back into the present day, it just had a simple prologue of Vanessa starting her story, then the rest of the story just happened in the series’ past.

This approach reinforced a decision I’ve made for the new edition of Vampires of the Scarlet Order. The original edition was told in very linear order. Events that happened in 1491 happened first. Events that happened in the sixteenth century happened next. That noted, the story’s main conflict actually happens in the present day. So, I’ve decided the new edition will start in the present day and the chapters set in the past will be told when it’s natural for characters in the story to tell them. You can get a sneak peak at the new first chapter at: http://davidleesummers.com/VSO-Preview.html

Of course, the buy links still point to the original novel as released in 2008, but that will change soon after the rights revert to me next month.

Dracula: A Toy Theatre

Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, worked as the manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre for some 27 years. By the accounts I read, Stoker fell in love with the theatre during his childhood days when he would watch pantomime performances in Dublin. Because of his close association with the theater, it’s perhaps no surprise that Dracula adapts well to stage. In fact, famous film Draculas, Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella, both performed the role on stage before they performed the role on film.

Langella’s debut as Dracula came in a 1977 adaptation that used sets designed by illustrator Edward Gorey. In fact, Gorey designed his sets for a 1973 revival that began its run on Nantucket, the same island where I had my first full-time astronomy job. Gorey’s designs would be used in performances starring not only Langella, but such notable actors as Raul Julia, Jeremy Brett, and Terence Stamp each taking a turn as the famous count. As a fan of both Dracula and Edward Gorey, I was curious about whether Gorey’s designs had been preserved in photographs. It turns out, Pomegranate Press went above and beyond preserving the set designs and actually created a whole miniature toy theatre. I was delighted to learn that the toy theatre was still in print and promptly ordered one.

I soon discovered the toy theatre is not small. Assembled, it’s about a foot tall and sits on a 16-inch hexagon. I ordered my copy of the toy theatre soon after Christmas, but only recently cleared enough shelf space to set it up, because as an Edward Gorey and Dracula fan, this is something worthy of display. It shows the three sets of this stage production including some simple furniture and standup figures of the cast. There’s also a short four-page booklet that describes the play’s acts. Of course, as with most theatrical adaptations of Dracula, it simplifies the plot and emphasizes certain elements.

Close up of Dr. Seward’s study. Count Dracula meets Lucy.

Although the toy theatre is large, it was easy to assemble. The pieces are printed on light card stock, perforated at the cuts and scored at the folds. The instructions call for tape to hold it together. That does seem to be the best choice since the floors don’t have overlapping tabs to hold them together. I used a combination of light strapping tape, magic tape and double-sided tape to hold it together. I did use glue on a couple of small seams and that worked well. I do imagine the tape will eventually dry out and the poor theatre will no longer stand up, but that’s the nature of the theatre. It doesn’t last forever.

I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen an adaptation of Dracula using Gorey’s designs. The 1979 movie starring Frank Langella went for a more realistic approach. I did see a lovely adaptation of the novel performed on stage at New Mexico State University in the early 2000s, shortly after my novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order had been released. In fact, the producers raffled off a copy of the novel and asked me to come up on stage to present it to the winner. As someone who enjoys stagecraft, it was a delight to make a brief appearance on stage. What’s more, the play was great, too.

If you would like your own copy of Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre, you can find them from the publisher at: https://www.pomegranate.com/a648.html. They’re also available from many online retailers. You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html. The ebook edition is available for only 99 cents, but I highly recommend the print edition which includes lovely black and white illustrations by Steven Gilberts. Like Edward Gorey, Gilberts’ illustrations are lovely and stir the imagination.

My Life With Vampires

Today finds me in Denver, Colorado at MileHiCon 50! If you’re in town, I hope you’ll drop by. You can get more information about the event at: http://www.milehicon.org.

As we approach Halloween, I find myself looking back at how I developed an interest in vampire fiction. I think the first vampires I encountered were the Scooby-Doo episodes “A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts” and “Vampire Bats and Scaredy Cats.” At the risk of spoilers, we find that both vampires are really criminals engaged in a scam. Somewhat scarier to me was the 1979 version of Dracula starring Frank Langella. That opened up an interest in Bram Stoker’s novel, which I remember starting, but not finishing at the time because I was 12 and easily distracted.

Illustration for Vampires of the Scarlet Order by Steven Gilberts

It was another 1979 film that really got me thinking about vampires and that was Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, which I saw in 1984. The film’s atmospheric quality and Klaus Kinski’s genuinely creepy portrayal of Dracula set a standard for me. Even so, I didn’t really get captivated by vampires until I started working at Kitt Peak National Observatory in 1992. At the time, the observatory had both solar astronomers working at the McMath Solar Telescope (as it was known then) and “stellar” astronomers working at night on the other telescopes. Those of us who worked at night jokingly referred to ourselves as the vampires of the observatory because we weren’t seen before sunset and went to bed before sunrise.

As it turns out, one of my co-workers at the time was a fan of vampire fiction. She encouraged me to finally read Dracula from start to finish. I read much of it during a stormy night on the mountain. Periodically I had to go check conditions outside and I kept imagining that predatory eyes were upon me. This really hooked me on vampire fiction. Soon after this, she encouraged me to read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. From there, I dove right into The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. Even so, I didn’t really think about writing my own vampire fiction until nearly a decade later.

In 1995, I had moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico and soon got involved with the Border Book Festival. I hosted a panel in 2000 and afterward, my friend Janni Lee Simner asked, “What do you suppose a vampire would make of Las Cruces, the city of crosses?” She followed that with a comment by telling me if it sparked a story idea, I was welcome to it. A few days later, while driving to Apache Point Observatory, I had an idea for a story about a vampire astronomer who moved to Las Cruces. That story became “Vampire in the City of Crosses” and I sold it a few weeks later to the magazine The Vampire’s Crypt.

The story and those that followed suggested that the vampire was on a quest. His quest led him to discover the vampire mercenaries who called themselves the Scarlet Order. Those stories all came together to become the novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order. Once I got that far, I wanted to explore how the vampires decided to fight for human kings and that led me to the prequel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. As mercenaries who fight for human causes, my vampires aren’t the kind to sit around and brood about their immortal existence, seduce mortal girls a fraction of their age, or sparkle in the sunlight. In short, I’ve enjoyed spending time with them these last seventeen years. They make great companions in the Halloween season. If you’re looking for a good read this time of year, learn more about the books at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order.