Just before the COVID-19 pandemic closed down businesses in New Mexico, I found copies of the first two seasons of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful on the shelf of one of my favorite local businesses, COAS Books. I had watched the first season back in 2016 and enjoyed it. You can read my thoughts on my old Scarlet Order Web Journal. I’ve finished re-watching the first season and I’ve just started watching the second.
It was interesting to re-watch Penny Dreadful while re-editing and re-formatting my novel Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires for republication this summer since the first season is ostensibly the story of how Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives attempt to rescue Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina from a nest of vampires. Sharp eyed readers will likely recognize Mina Murray as the woman seduced by Dracula in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, which fits since the series is full of references to Victorian horror. However, this time around, I realized there is no explicit reference to Dracula at all. Mina only ever refers to her captor as “the Master.”
When I’m at book signings, readers often ask me about my particular vampire mythos. They’re curious about the “rules” my vampires follow. Do they only go out at night? Are they bothered by crosses? Can they transform into other creatures? Are they more monstrous, or more romantic? One of the things I found interesting in Penny Dreadful was that in addition to never bringing up Dracula, they never discuss the vampires’ “rules.” The closest they come to this is a brief appearance by Van Helsing, played wonderfully by David Warner. One of my favorite moments in the show comes when Van Helsing is talking to Dr. Frankenstein about vampires and hands him a copy of the first installment of the penny dreadful, Varney the Vampyre.
The vampires themselves were essentially portrayed as a nest of vermin. The vampire we are led to assume is the master seemed inspired by F.W. Murnau’s famous Nosferatu, but with fewer clothes. This vampire is surrounded by a number of women, all with light hair, red eyes and similar white dresses. For the most part, they are portrayed like a rat pack. The only “power” they seem to possess is either some ability for rapid movement or projecting their image over long distance. Mina in her vampire form appears to Vanessa a few times, then rapidly is pulled away.
Both Murnau’s original Nosferatu and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake not only inspired the producers of Penny Dreadful, but they have inspired my Scarlet Order vampires. In Dragon’s Fall, some vampires shave their heads, making them look a little like Max Schreck in the original movie. In the novel, it’s a practical decision since the vampires can’t be out in sunlight. In primitive times, often their best defense is to bury themselves in the ground. Can you imagine what state your hair would be in if you had to do that?
In Vampires of the Scarlet Order, the antagonists are creating their own vampire-like super soldiers. These creatures end up looking like Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski’s interpretation of Nosferatu. To me, that image of the vampire is still one of the most frightening and I like using it when I want a creature that poses a real threat to my heroes.
Will we learn more about the vampire mythology of Penny Dreadful in the second season? I’m three episodes in as of this writing and while our primary villain does seem inspired by Elizabeth Bathory, she’s portrayed as more of a witch. I suspect the vampires and witches are more an extension of the greater evil the heroes are facing than separate forces. If you’ve seen the rest of the series, please don’t send me spoilers. I’ll likely write a review of the second season once I’ve finished.
In the meantime, you can explore the world of the Scarlet Order in the current editions of the books:
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