I’ve been speaking about the Gothic as a literary and media genre online and at conventions since the first Gothic novel of my Strangely Beautiful series was published in 2009, albeit during a bit of a lull in the oft-beleaguered genre’s cycles of waxing and waning popularity. I’ve been a diehard fan of the genre since my pre-teen years after exposure to Edgar Allan Poe in an advanced literature class changed my life and set my artistic course towards the dark waters he so beautifully charted.
The first Gothic novel was notably Horace Walpole’s novella The Castle of Otronto in 1764, and the genre has suffered the slings and arrows of literary criticism ever since (the sole purpose of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was to poke fun at the genre).
The Gothic novel is a “dark and stormy night” affair where protagonists battle larger than life characters, family curses, and wild, often paranormal, elements as evils spread liberally across dark and eerie moors. They are stories where emotions, dialogue, and action can be over-the-top and fraught with love, lust, and terror; a land where horror lies waiting just around the corner from the most sublime beauty, and the organic and inorganic are either at war or merging in hybrid ways.
The crux of the Gothic posits the beautiful and the terrible as two sides of a coin, living a hair’s breadth away, and at any point, the story, characters, and plot could take a turn towards either precipice. It’s a world of wild, dark abandon and unbounded imagination where anything and everything is possible.
That’s certainly why I write it—it’s exhilarating. No other genre quenches that particular itch of supreme intensity. It's a polarizing pit and pendulum experience that I believe should be read and viewed like a ride.
While the genre has never, in any of its centuries, been terribly popular with critics, it has sustained a cult and passionate audience in all its incarnations and resurgences. If you look at the bulk of what we still read from the 19th century, stories we constantly adapt and re-hash for the page, stage, and screen, it's Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the bulk of Poe’s stories and poetry…all shining examples of the Gothic. And, it’s many of those iconic characters that make up the cast of Penny Dreadful—a bit like what Alan Moore was trying to do with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
However, a limitation of the traditional Gothic is that it tends to focus on a narrow set of male, often privileged characters that hold all the power, while women and characters made out to be the “other” tend to be victims, plot devices, and cautionary tales.
Enter a show like Penny Dreadful, a film like Crimson Peak, and the work of many modern Gothic novelists, artists, screenwriters, and storytellers who are either writing work set in traditional 19th century trappings or against modern dark alleys and fields across the world. Enter a broader range of possibilities and storylines.
A show like Penny Dreadful is vital to those of us who launched the term “Dreadpunk” at DragonCon this year—a term attempting to reclaim the traditional Gothic for our generation. Dreadpunk seeks to recreate the deliciousness of the Gothic with heavier hitting social commentary relevant to today’s society, as well as, lift up alternative narratives and more empowered characters.
Dreadpunk is to the Gothic as Steampunk is to Victorian Science Fiction—shaking up the strata and power dynamics of the earlier ages within distinct genre trappings. As author Cherie Priest importantly points out, the genres have to keep “punk” at the fore as a reminder to tell a tale that offers some distinct departures from everyday norms and repressive systems.
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the central character in Penny Dreadful and one of the few characters not taken directly from a Gothic novel, is the lens by which we see and care about the show. Keeping her a new character, void of preconceived notions, is a brilliant way to ensure the show will do its own thing and not be beholden to the worlds from which its other famous characters come.
Vanessa is a fearsome, powerful, mysterious woman subject to her own quite literal inner demons. In one sequence in the first season, she receives some aid from the men around her, but for the most part, she is left to do spiritual battle on her own throughout the series—a sharp difference from the choices made for Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) by the men around her in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (I was admittedly surprised and fascinated by what the show did with the character of Mina in the first season.)
Eva Green plays Vanessa Ives with breathtaking, dominating conviction. She is an incredible presence on-screen and holds her own, eye to eye, with anyone and everyone—especially against the similarly powerful, magnetic screen presence of veteran actor Timothy Dalton.
Vanessa Ives trades in the traditional Gothic “damsel in distress” for one who has agency, competency, and the power to change her circumstances with her own intelligence and resourcefulness despite the restrictive Victorian era. For me, keeping Victorian constraints in my storytelling is all the better as it provides that much more conflict and obstacles for my characters to overcome. No matter if they’re shy by nature or bombastic, terrified or fearless; there are many types of strength and ways to show it.
Penny Dreadful gives us fascinating insights into the Victorian era through many outcast characters, making class, gender, and personal struggles of difference very real. This portrayal serves as a pointed reminder that these struggles are still alive and well in our modern societal fabric. For example, when the character of Brona…transforms, as it were, and becomes something else, she isn’t recognized by the more privileged characters.
And why would she be? Her first incarnation was lower class, ignored as unimportant by the higher-class characters, cast aside and unquestioned in the dog-eat-dog world of London. She becomes something powerful and terrifying, not only because of what she’s become, but also because of what she has been and the sheer, staggering weight of it all.
Another brilliant example of the new Gothic for the modern age and woman, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, is set in a visually stunning, gorgeous Victorian past. In it, two polar opposite women are pitted against each other in a captivating and terrifying way, both fully realized and uniquely motivated, fiercely battling their respective circumstances. While there are victims aplenty in the plot, it is not the exclusive purview of the female to be victim, victimized, or without resource. The film happens to escalate from a knife-to-cleaver-to-shovel-fight in the swirling snow that’s one for the record books. It is wild, wrought, and wonderful.
For all the Gothic may reveal of the real polarities of society and the night terrors of the human psyche, nowhere should the Gothic abandon its suspense, power, and reckless if not ridiculous adventure. That’s part of the appeal, and often what is criticized when viewers or readers don’t allow themselves to give over to the ‘ride’ of the Gothic.
The Gothic juxtaposes the beautiful and terrible right next to one another, often in a very jarring manner. In fraught times, in difficult, changing, violent times, the Gothic can be a balm—real in its own way—daring to say and do things we can’t, don’t dare, or want to say. It reveals stark ugliness but redeems in sumptuous beauty. And thankfully, in the modern Gothic of Penny Dreadful, Crimson Peak, and those embracing Dreadpunk like yours truly, these peaks and valleys are granted to a wider range of gender, race, and socioeconomic background, allowing for anyone to be powerful amidst dark, often morally ambiguous struggles.
What we are seeing very prominently in the genre is that complex, richly defined, and self-possessed and self-actualized women are becoming more of the core, heroic, driving forces of Gothic narratives in ways few writers of the past centuries allowed them to be. I find that affirming, as I want to see myself in the genre as much as I love writing in it.
While many modern novelists are depicting a more diverse world, and we’re seeing a more diverse range of storytelling voices, Hollywood has a ways to go in terms of allowing the Gothic to be more racially diverse. In a modern setting, the show Sleepy Hollow showcases strong Gothic elements with a talented, diverse cast. I look for the Gothic to continue to grow in the ways it should to stay true to the broadest spectrum of people as it is a genre born of popular, populist fiction.
The charge for modern creators of the Gothic, regardless of setting, is to allow for that wide range of beauty and terror to be the purview of an equal set of characters, and for the bold tropes of the Gothic not to be relegated to one gender, class, race, or creed.
As a New Yorker and licensed tour guide who has written several Gothic, historical fantasy books set in 19th century metropolises, I can tell you the world’s great cities and civilizations have always had a rich diversity. Now, we simply have access and the duty to pay attention to those expansive narratives; to be more connected across what would have been strict societal, historical boundaries keeping people apart. We are now more aware of all human possibility, and when it comes to the Gothic, those possibilities are boundless.
I can’t wait for the next of what I hope to be several more seasons of Penny Dreadful, led by one of the most captivating female presences on any screen. I hope we’ll be granted some answers to the previous seasons while introducing a few new familiar traditional Gothic characters in a fresh light. In the meantime, I hope the genre I love so deeply will continue tugging on our dark and stormy heartstrings in all kinds of innovative, tantalizing ways. Happy haunting!
Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, artist, and the author of the new Eterna Files trilogy of Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels for Tor Books, the Magic Most Foul saga, a Gothic Victorian YA trilogy, and the acclaimed, bestselling Strangely Beautiful saga which will release in new, revised, author preferred editions 4/16 from Tor Books. A classically trained actress and proud member of Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City and works in film and television, is a tour guide for Boroughs of the Dead, and crafts Steampunk, Gothic and Neo-Victorian jewelry and art. Visit her website, follower her on Twitter, and check out her Facebook.