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The Literature Behind Penny Dreadful

The Literature Behind Penny Dreadful

There’s a long list of reasons to love Penny Dreadful. It’s gothic style. It’s chilling horror. And also its copious amount of literary references. The show’s title refers to the nineteenth century literature that circled around Victorian London. The stories focused on crime, horror, and the supernatural. And issues were sold for a penny.

The show’s creator John Logan was inspired by these books and other literature of the time and wanted to retell these stories and have their characters interact. Here are some of the show’s obvious literary inspirations.


1. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Penny Dreadful is a show about supernatural investigators in Victorian England. But each character is not as they seem. As Vanessa Ives says, “the devil is in all of us.” Vanessa, played by Eva Green, is a medium whose clairvoyance aids in her investigations, but quite literally leads to her battling some intense inner demons. Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, is an American sharpshooter who begins to experience blackouts where he wakes up covered in blood. It is revealed that the full moon turns him into a werewolf and his crimes become the subject of investigation at the start of Season Two. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde focuses on split personality disorder and the dichotomy between good and evil. It’s clear this work inspired these multiple identities within characters.

Vanessa Ives

2. Frankenstein


Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein (also known as The Modern Prometheus) is a staple of the horror genre. Before its many versions and adaptations, it began quite simply as the story of a student and his grotesque science experiment. In Penny Dreadful, there is a character by the name of Victor Frankenstein. He’s a young scientists whose first creation comes back to haunt him and guilts him into making him a mate. This abomination known as Caliban (a nod to Shakespeare) works in the shadows of a local theatre in a very Phantom of the Opera-esque way. Caliban’s bride has not yet been brought to life, but the wheels have been set into motion for season 2.

The Creature

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray


Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray caused a scandal when it was first released in the late 1800’s. It’s the story of a man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. However, he is forced to watch his acts and indiscretions through an ageing portrait hanging on his wall. Dorian Gray is also a character in Penny Dreadful. Played by Reeve Carney, Dorian leads a life similar to Dionysus and plays more to the dramatic element of the show. In typical Dorian Gray fashion, he has a sexual relationship with multiple characters and through this he has weaved his way into the show’s main storyline.

Dorian Gray

4. Dracula

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker may not have invented vampires, but he definitely inspired their popularity in media. Stoker’s characters Abraham Van Helsing and Wilhelmina Murray are heavily referenced in Penny Dreadful. In the show, Mina is established as a close childhood friend of Vanessa’s, they were basically sisters. Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm Murray, is the head of the investigative team and an obvious nod to Van Helsing. The driving storyline of season one is Vanessa and Malcolm’s mission to rescue Mina.

Additionally, vampire-like creatures are only one of the any villains our heroes have to face.

Episode 101

Penny Dreadful season 2 premieres this Sunday, May 3rd on Showtime. But if you can’t wait, Showtime has already uploaded the first episode to their YouTube channel. Although, the version is edited so you miss out on all of the fun nudity.

What are some other stories that you would like to see referenced in Penny Dreadful? Let us know in the comments!



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