Tales about monsters have existed as long as humanity, speaking to those parts in each one of us that we fear, if exposed, could get us cast from the light of the social campfire into the outer darkness of shame and isolation.
Literacy rates rose sharply in 19th-century Europe and America, and with them the notion of reading as a hobby — and not all of it was deathless highbrow literature. Where humans go, fantastical stories soon follow.
On Sunday, May 11, Showtime premieres “Penny Dreadful,” an eight-episode horror drama that takes its name from the lurid serialized tales — printed on cheap pulp paper and costing a penny — beloved by working-class teens and young adults in 1800s Britain.
Created, written and executive produced (with Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris) by dramatist and screenwriter John Logan (“The Aviator,” “Gladiator,” “Skyfall”), it’s filmed in Dublin and set in a Victorian London that is also home to such literary creations as Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster (Rory Kinnear); Oscar Wilde’s eternally beautiful and reckless aristocrat, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); and Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn) of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”‘
Also haunting the fog-shrouded streets and alleyways are other monsters and demons, including bald, red-eyed vampires.
The series may be named after the penny dreadful, but it was Shelley’s dream-inspired early 19th-century novel that inspired Logan.
“I’ve always loved monsters since I was a kid,” says Logan to Zap2it in an ornate hotel ballroom in Pasadena, Calif., that wouldn’t look out of place in “Penny Dreadful.” “I was the kid who built the Aurora monster models and watched all the movies on the weekend, read all the books. About 10 years ago, I read ‘Frankenstein’ again. My big cri de coeur for ‘Penny Dreadful’ is that these were inspired by classic works of literature. Watch our show, but go read the books.
“I was struck by the complexity of ‘Frankenstein,’ how brilliant a novel it is. I started getting really into those characters. So it all started with that, reading ‘Frankenstein’ again, saying, ‘I want to do something in this world.'”
As to what it is about Frankenstein’s creature in particular, Logan says, “Because it’s the most moving. I mean, that’s why I did the show, because those monsters, they scare me, but mostly they break my heart, because they’re so isolated. I find that very compelling.
“What is it like to be that which has no place? But I contend, the reason we still read ‘Frankenstein’ and all these books is we all know what it is like not to belong. We all know what it is to feel freakish or monstrous or different in some way.
“That’s why we read these books. We don’t read them to be scared. We read them because something elemental about being human is expressed by Frankenstein or Dracula or Dorian Gray or any of these characters.”
In “Penny Dreadful,” Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, a hardened explorer of Africa trying to find the daughter he was believes was taken years ago by a “demimonde,” a shadowy subculture connected to the Egyptian Book of the Dead and populated by supernatural creatures.
At his side is the ritually scarred African Sembene (Danny Sapani), who serves as Sir Malcolm’s aide and confidant.
Helping Malcolm recruit others to his cause is the seductive and mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a spirit medium with possibly clairvoyant powers. One of her finds is Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a charming and brash American traveling with a second-tier Wild West show.
Chandler forms a bond with poor Belfast immigrant Brona Croft (Billie Piper), who is escaping a dark and sordid past.
For Hartnett, along with the lure of working with Logan, Green and Dalton, there was a chance to play a cowboy — sort of, anyway.
Speaking in a suite with a garden view in the same Pasadena hotel, Hartnett says “It’s partially a Western. He doesn’t end up being, well, I can tell you that he’s not necessarily a cowboy. Not actually.”
But he did get to acquire new skills and some self-knowledge.
“I’ve learned how to trick-shoot,” Hartnett says. “I can turn on a light from across the room. It’s been a good process, being in Dublin, far away from everything in the States. I’ve been in a lot of films recently where I’m on location for a very long time, focusing entirely on the work.
“You always learn things about yourself when you’re forced to spend time alone. So, that’s been good.”
Says Logan, “These characters, they’ve been over-minted, they’ve lost their coinage. They’re not disturbing; they’re not frightening anymore.
“What we have the chance to do with this show is to take them seriously again, the same as Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde did.”