Penny Dreadful – Season Three

Halloween kicked off this week. Like many people, I enjoy some spooky films or books to get into the spirit of the season. Last week, my wife and I decided to watch the final season of Showtime’s series, Penny Dreadful. Just as a head’s up, I will endeavor to be as spoiler free as I can about the final season itself, but I will likely include some spoilers from the first two seasons. Proceed with appropriate caution!

Penny Dreadful Season Three

Penny Dreadful’s third season picks up where the second season left off. Sir Malcolm has gone to Africa to take the body of a loyal companion back to his people. He soon meets an Apache named Kaetenay, played by Wes Studi, who informs him that their mutual friend, Ethan Chandler is in trouble. Meanwhile, Ethan Chandler has turned himself into the authorities because he killed numerous people in his werewolf form. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s Creature has gone to the North Pole aboard a ship. Back in London, Dorian Gray and Lilly, a woman resurrected by Dr. Frankenstein, seem to be happily-ever-aftering while the series’ protagonist, Vanessa Ives has been left alone and is one again going mad. Fortunately, Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle drops by and refers her to a good psychologist, Dr. Florence Seward, played by Patti LuPone, who played Joan Clayton in season two.

Over the course of the first episode, Dr. Jekyll, played by Shazad Latif, pays a call on his old classmate, Dr. Frankenstein and asks for assistance in his work at Bethlam Hospital. We also learn that the king of all vampires, Dracula has arrived in London and has an interest in Vanessa Ives. All of these characters in different locations and all of these plotlines are a lot to wrap up in nine episodes. If anything, I’d say that proves to be the final seasons greatest weakness. In particular Ethan goes through many twists and turns as he travels in America, meets a witch, and confronts his father and his past. I felt like we breezed through that storyline so fast that we didn’t have a chance to understand why Ethan made some of the choices he did and for a series that seems concerned with matters of good and evil, I was somewhat confused about which he actually turned out to be. The brief season also makes the ending feel abrupt and unsatisfying. There’s an interesting thread in the season about women and how their right to be individuals can put them at odds with societal expectations determined largely by men. I didn’t really feel like this thread was resolved in a satisfying way. It seemed to me that one or two more episodes may have gone a long way to giving the series a more complete feel.

Despite that issue, there were several elements I enjoyed in the final season. The characters of Kaetenay and Dr. Seward were fascinating and well acted. I particularly enjoyed the final season’s portrayal of Dracula. The writers and actor took a nuanced approach to the character. He could come across as genuinely charming and vulnerable, yet he was also decidedly creepy. Frankenstein’s Creature also went through a sad and well performed story arc as he regains his memories and seeks his long-lost family. The final season also seemed to feature a bit less gore and fewer jump scares than earlier seasons.

Overall, I was glad to have watched the entire Penny Dreadful series. There were some great moments that will stick with me. Even though I would have liked better resolution to some elements, pondering those will likely lead me to some story ideas. Of course, you can see my own take on vampires in my Scarlet Order vampire series. The links below will take you to the books:

If you’re a fan of comics, don’t miss the chapter I adapted from Dragon’s Fall with Bram Meehan and Michael Ellis.

Dracula, Dead and Loving It

I grew up with classic Mel Brooks films such as Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part I and Young Frankenstein. At 94, Mel Brooks is still around and still involved in the film business, though his later films don’t have the same reputation for greatness as his earlier films. So, I was a little uncertain when my wife brought home a copy of Dracula, Dead and Loving It, which, to-date, is the last film he directed. Although the movie didn’t quite reach the heights of Brooks’s earlier films, it still had a lot of great moments and I was glad to have watched it.

Nosferatu contemplates Dracula, Dead and Loving It

One of the things that makes Young Frankenstein great is the clear love Mel Brooks has for the Universal monster films of the 1930s. He pays homage to many of the great moments in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein while poking fun at them. That same love comes through in Dracula, Dead and Loving It. The story largely follows the 1931 Dracula which starred Bela Lugosi but also includes send-ups of the 1922 Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992.

The earlier Mel Brooks films benefit a lot from the comedic talents of people like Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, and Cleavon Little. It’s hard to say anyone in Dracula, Dead and Loving It rises to their level, but there are still some fun performances. Harvey Korman is one of those actors who appears in a lot of Mel Brooks films, and I confess I’ve tended to like movies more in spite of Korman than because of him. In this case, I thought Korman did a brilliant job of playing Dr. Seward. He “disappeared” into the role and felt very much like versions of Seward who appeared in the Universal and Hammer films, which made the humorous lines he delivered straight all the funnier. Peter MacNicol is another actor who I’ve seen in other films but didn’t especially stand out to me. In Dracula, Dead and Loving It, he channels Dwight Fry’s Renfield beautifully. One of the best scenes in the movie involves Korman and MacNicol having a dialog over tea while MacNicol surreptitiously snatches bugs and tries to eat them unseen.

Mel Brooks gives a nice performance as Abraham Van Helsing and also pokes fun at many of the tropes surrounding the character. Like Korman, his performance here is a little more understated than in other films where he appears and it works to the film’s benefit.

For me, Leslie Nielsen’s best film is Forbidden Planet where he really defined the role of the brave, stalwart starship captain for many actors who would follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Forbidden Planet was made at a time when Hollywood didn’t take science fiction seriously and Nielsen didn’t get many roles until he found his way into comedy. To me, his real comedy talent is delivering silly lines with the same kind of stalwart earnestness he gave to the Captain Adams part in Forbidden Planet. That ability served him well in Dracula, Dead and Loving It. He delivers a performance that pays tribute to both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. The only problem is that by this time, Nielsen was so recognizable that he didn’t quite disappear into the part in the same way that Korman and MacNicol did into theirs.

While there are stronger vampire comedies and even stronger Mel Brooks films, I enjoyed Dracula, Dead and Loving It and plan to give it another watch to see if there are other elements and classic film tributes I missed the first time. Although my own vampire novels are intended as serious works, I do throw in some light moments. You can learn more about them at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order

Dracula, motherf**ker!

One challenge of the pandemic is that its kept me from spending quality time at my favorite bookstores and comic shops. I’ve still been patronizing them when I can, but I have missed spending a luxurious hour just wandering the shelves looking for new things to catch my eye. With that in mind, about two weeks ago, I started browsing some lists of the best comics and graphic novels of 2020 just to see if I missed something I would want to know about. One graphic novel that popped up on several of those lists was Dracula, motherf**ker! written by Alex de Campi with art by Erica Henderson. I was already well acquainted with Erica Henderson’s art from her work on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Jughead. Also, she’s one of those artists I’ve known of from way back when, since I used to do a lot of work with her father, C.J. Henderson. Between Erica’s work and the description of the graphic novel as a grindhouse-inspired Dracula story set in 1970s Los Angeles, I knew this was something I needed to read. A quick search of my local comic shop’s website revealed they had the book on the shelf.

Nosferatu recommends Dracula, motherf**ker!

Dracula, motherf**ker! opens in 1889 Vienna. Dracula’s brides capture the count and nail him into his coffin. The action then jumps ahead to 1974 Los Angeles where Hollywood star Bebe Beauland opens his crypt. A short time later, photographer Quincy Harker appears on the scene to take photos of the carnage that results. We soon learn that Bebe Beauland is not as dead as she first appeared and, of course, Dracula is on the loose again. Dracula’s brides from the opening of the story appear and begin helping Quincy.

The story is told largely through the visuals. Many pages are nighttime dark cut through with bright neon-like colors. The graphic novel format gives Henderson the freedom to design the story around two-page visual spreads. Even when there are two discrete pages of narrative panels, there’s a visual cohesion across the two-page spreads. Dracula himself seems inspired by Nosferatu but ratcheted up a few notches. He’s a monstrous creature of eyes and teeth with an old man’s arms and a cape of night. The story’s stars, though, are the brides and Quincy. Henderson does a great job of conveying emotion through the characters’ facial expressions and body language.

This was the rare graphic novel that I actually read three times back-to-back. I kept seeing things in the art and picking up things from de Campi’s minimalist, but effective dialogue. I recommend this volume for fans of vampires and good comic books. I picked up my copy at Zia Comics in Las Cruces.

Some of my interest in this graphic novel came from the fact that I’m collaborating on a vampire book project based on a short episode in my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires. It was fascinating to see so many of the lessons I’ve been learning applied effectively in Dracula, motherf**cker! Next week, I’ll be back with a little sneak peek at the project I’m working on.

Powers of Darkness

When I read Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker last month, I noticed that the part sections featured epigrams from a Bram Stoker book I’d never heard of before called Makt Myrkranna. It turns out this was the version of Dracula serialized in the Icelandic magazine Falkjonan from 1900 to 1901. The thing is, this isn’t just a translation of Dracula as most of us who discovered it in English know, it’s a completely different version. The title translates as Powers of Darkness and in 2016, Valdimar Asmundsson released an English-language translation of the Icelandic text.

Powers of Darkness

To me, Powers of Darkness reads like an earlier draft of Dracula and that seems to be the conclusion of the translator as well. Some characters have different names. We meet Thomas Harker instead of Jonathan. His fiancee is Wilma instead of Wilhelmina. We meet some new characters such as an old, deaf woman who keeps house for Dracula. There are police investigators in the background, looking into Dracula’s crimes. Instead of Dracula having three brides who tempt Harker, there is a single woman who is presented as Dracula’s niece, who attempts to seduce Harker and feed upon him. Although Harker’s journey to the castle is told in the familiar epistolary format, the events after Dracula leaves his castle in Transylvania become a third-person narrative.

As a writer, I found this version fascinating. It reminded me of the work I did on my novel The Pirates of Sufiro, and I imagine someone who compared the 1994 edition to my recently released 2020 edition would find the new one richer in much the way I would consider Dracula richer than Makt Myrkranna, especially the parts after Dracula goes to England. That part of Makt Myrkranna is very brief compared to Dracula and reads like it was the first time Stoker assembled his notes on various ideas, like a very rough draft. There is also speculation that the original Icelandic publisher thought the novel was running long and the second part ended up being something of a summation, but there are still details in that part missing from Dracula, so one gets a sense that Stoker’s hand was there.

I also found Powers of Darkness interesting because I’m revising my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order for a new edition. In that case, I’m doing less rewriting than I did for The Pirates of Sufiro, but I am recutting the novel and reordering the chapters a bit to tell the story more effectively. I thought about this a lot while reading Dracul, where J.D. Barker and Dacre Stoker build suspense by starting the novel in a scene where Bram Stoker is facing an unknown enemy behind a door, then going back and telling how he reached that point. In Vampires, I started with a very linear narrative, but now I start in the present and let the past unfold when characters have reason to tell it. I think the new version strengthens the narrative.

One interesting element of Powers of Darkness was that the translator took time to attempt to map out a floor plan of Dracula’s castle based on the description. The result is an interesting look inside the count’s Transylvanian abode. Another thing I thought was interesting in this version was that Dracula holds some kind of dark ritual for his followers, which seems to anticipate scenes that would appear in the Christopher Lee Hammer films of the 1970s.

I would recommend Powers of Darkness to writers wanting to glimpse Bram Stoker’s process, or Dracula fans who want to get more insight into the history of the character. If you’re a casual reader looking to read Stoker for the first time, I’d start with the English language Dracula, or perhaps the collection Dracula’s Guest and Other Stories by Stoker. If you want to learn more about Powers of Darkness and even look at maps of Dracula’s castle, visit: http://powersofdarkness.com/. You can learn more about my novels at http://davidleesummers.com.

Dracul

Last month, I was invited to join the Vampyre Library Book Club hosted by Boutique du Vampyre in New Orleans. The first featured selection was the novel Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker. Dacre Stoker is the great grandnephew of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and the manager of the Bram Stoker estate.

Dracul

The novel Dracul imagines that Bram Stoker was inspired to write his most famous novel by events from his life. It’s known that Bram was a rather sickly child and there were fears he wouldn’t survive to adulthood. Instead, Bram suddenly became very healthy and, in fact, became an outstanding athlete at Dublin’s Trinity College. In Dracul, the authors imagine this happened because the Stoker family nanny was a vampire. After she saves Bram’s life, the nanny, Ellen Crone, disappears. Bram and his sister Matilda follow Ellen to nearby Artane Castle where they find a box of putrid earth. An arm rests in the dirt. On its finger is a ring bearing the inscription, “Dracul.”

The story follows Bram, Matilda, and their brother Thornley as they attempt to solve the mystery of Ellen Crone and “Dracul.” They reach a dead end as children but the mystery returns to haunt them in their 20s and they find more clues, which then lead them to a climactic encounter inspired by Bram’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” In the afterword, Dacre shares how he has come to know that “Dracula’s Guest” was actually part of the first 100 pages of Dracula excised before publication. I found Dracul to be a thrilling and suspenseful novel and I was delighted to read Dacre’s afterword that explained several of the real life and literary inspirations.

In the afterword, Dacre discusses some of the controversy surrounding the inspiration of the character of Dracula. It’s often taken for granted that Stoker used Wallachia’s Vlad III as the inspiration for his vampire. As Dacre points out, that’s not at all a given and he argues that Bram had in mind a creature who had been living from a time much before the fifteenth century. I found this interesting. Although it has been a while since I read Dracula, I do recall noting that Bram shrouded the origins of the title character in mystery.

Dragon’s Fall

It was partly because of that and partly because my favorite screen Dracula is Christopher Lee, that I decided to explore the idea that the Dracula legend came about because people conflated an ancient vampire with Vlad III. The names Dracul and Dracula come from “the order of the dragon” a chivalric order of knights who fought to defend Christendom. This particular order was founded in 1408 by Sigismund von Luxembourg who was then the King of Hungary. However, there are other knights through the centuries who used dragons as emblems or titles and I imagined the “real” Dracula might be one of them. You can learn the full story of my version in my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires. You can find all the places its available at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html. You can find signed copies of Dracul at: https://feelthebite.com/

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.