Book Review: The ‘Penny Dreadful’ Dracula
By Bram Stoker
The “Penny Dreadful” referred to on the banners of Titan Books’ latest reprint series – Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray – refers not to the books themselves, since none of them originally appeared as penny-dreadfuls and only Frankenstein ever descends to penny-dreadful levels of prose quality, but rather to a popular TV series called “Penny Dreadful” currently running on Showtime. The series was created by Chicago playwright and cheerful hack John Logan, who in his career as a screenwriter has certainly not gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public (he wrote the screenplay for three out of the five movies you most like to watch while drunk off your ass) and who, in “Penny Dreadful,” rips o-er, pays homage to Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” in which several characters from the best (and worst) 19th-Century pulp genre works meet and have adventures in picturesque period settings.
Moore gave us the likes of Mina Harker (not saved from Count Dracula after all but rather stylishly turned to the undead side), Allan Quartermain (star of some once-supremely popular adventure stories nobody reads anymore), Captain Nemo, Doctor Jekyll, and so on. In “Penny Dreadful,” Logan sets out to do much the same thing, with starring roles for Victor Frankenstein (and his monster), Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, and a few other name-check notables of from the soapy end of literature (Logan’s cast includes such notably priapic personages as Timothy Dalton, Reeve Carney, Harry Treadaway, and Josh Hartnett, thus all but guaranteeing that hidden-camera footage of the show’s after party would be more entertaining than the show itself).
The thing that makes these kinds of pastiches possible is that the statute of limitations – er, that is, the copyright – has run out on most of these characters, making them fair game for today’s semi-creative types. And that same liberating principle applies also to most of what we can be sure Logan refers to as the “source material”: in 2014, anybody can put out an edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You could do it yourself.
Hence, one imagines, this “Penny Dreadful” series from the good folks at Titan Books, featuring the star-making original appearances of several characters who are now emoting so attractively on Showtime. The three books are turned out in an attractively matching set, each with colored page-edges, cloth bookmarks, and original artwork, Dorian Gray by Ian Bass, Frankenstein by Louie de Martinis, and Dracula by Martin Stiff, whose first piece, a murky non-image accompanied by the text’s eerie pronouncement about the Count, “He make in the mirror no reflection,” is quite a good, moody opener (the subsequent pictures, all done in collage fashion, are more striking than moving).
Unlike its Showtime inspiration (for which no expense has been spared either on-screen or, given the cast, very likely off), these “Penny Dreadful” books are entirely bare-bones affairs aside from the creature comforts of design; they contain no Introductions – having each pertinent star pen a few paragraphs for each corresponding book would have been good fun but might have, shall we say, entailed delays – and no notes of any kind. They’re just good solid attractive $20 hardcovers of the texts in question, done up for the growing number of fans of Logan’s show. They’re handier and more visually attractive than their counterparts in Penguin Classics’ “Hardcover Classics” series, and there’ll be plenty of readers – myself included – who’ll give these “Penny Dreadful” versions extra points for having the bad taste to be lurid.