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American Studies
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01 Dec

Chapter in Edited Collection on Horror Television

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Fredric Jameson has suggested that pastiche is "speech in a dead language," "a neutral practice … without any … ulterior motives" (17). In other words, pastiche resurrects the ghosts of the past for no good reason. Showtime's Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) draws on the homonymous British pulp serials of the late nineteenth century and combines a host of source texts within a Victorian setting, turning the show into a perfect example of pastiche. But does the series merely exploit Gothic tropes and reiterate well-known Gothic stories "without any ulterior motive"? If this were the case, Penny Dreadful would provide testament to the critiques several scholars have leveled at the contemporary Gothic for losing "its older intensity," as Fred Botting has put it.

To be sure, Penny Dreadful's intertextual (and intermedial) monster mash allows the show to utilize a wide array of Gothic themes and motifs, from the empathic, insightful, and sensitive monster to the past's powerful grip on the present. This latter topic will be central to my proposed contribution to this volume. By setting its narrative toward the end of the nineteenth century, Penny Dreadful practically becomes a specter, invading the present moment of the early twenty-first century from the past. In the same way that the show's characters uncover their dark, repressed pasts (and the viewers uncover characters' dark, suppressed pasts) in a piecemeal fashion, so Penny Dreadful, I will argue, not only reveals its origins but also showcases the interrelations between the genre's past and present. Indeed, Penny Dreadful excavates the horror genre's foundations in the nineteenth century. However, by resisting contemporary horror's urge to putting a modern spin on its monsters, Penny Dreadful does not degenerate into "candygothic" (to quote Botting again), but rather demonstrates why the iconic monsters the show resurrects have proven immortal.