It's Halloween, and what better way to celebrate than with a bit of Victorian Gothic?
Hic Dragones is having a one-day sale of complete collections of 3 excellent penny dreadfuls, perfect reading for a stormy winter's night.
The String of Pearls, a Romance is perhaps one of the best-known of the penny dreadfuls, though it's probably now more famous for the adaptations that have followed. It's the story of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. But it's also the story of Johanna Oakley, a feisty young woman determined to unravel the mystery of her lover's disappearance. As Johanna's investigation moves her into the path of the demon barber, we are also introduced to Mrs Lovett, proprietor of the local pie shop. Lovett's pies are the talk of the town - but just what is the secret to their delicious flavour?
The String of Pearls is probably best known to modern audiences from the Tim Burton musical Sweeney Todd (starring Johnny Depp as the demon barber himself). While Burton's film captures much of the macabre humour and gruesome fun of the original story, much of the story has been altered. The cinematic Sweeney Todd is something of a sympathetic character - extracting revenge for the loss of his family. The barber that stalks the pages of the penny dreadful is a different sort of creature altogether. Gloriously unrepentant and bad to the bone, the literary Todd is a wonderfully awful creation and highly recommended. And the scenes in Lovett's kitchen rank among the creepiest to be found in Victorian popular fiction.
The complete eBook collection of The String of Pearls, a Romance contains all 39 chapters of the original serial, plus bonus Gothic short stories ('The Evil Guest' by J Sheridan LeFanu and 'The Last House in C-- Street' by Mrs Craik). For today only, it's just £2.50 from the Hic Dragones' website.
By contrast, Vileroy; or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle is not particularly well-known to modern audiences (maybe Tim Burton should do a film version...) But it's absolutely classic Victorian Gothic. As you can probably tell from the title, Vileroy is set in a castle - and a horrific one at that. Our heroine is Caroline Mecklenburg, a young woman seeking refuge from sad circumstances at the home of her aunt. But her aunt is married to Baron Zindorf, and he isn't the sort of host Caroline was hoping for. The baron is grappling with his own demons, and things are set to get worse with the arrival of his dodgy friend Count Durlack. Add to this some spooky noises, terrifying storms, a lost heir, a hidden dungeon and some sinister banditti, and you've got everything you need for Halloween. Oh... and there's a cup made out of a human skull. Obviously.
I love Vileroy for its in-your-face Gothic style. It's like a distillation of every trope and motif that you expect to find in early Victorian Gothic. In many ways, it is reminiscent of earlier Gothic (like The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho), which is no bad thing. But Caroline Mecklenburg is to eighteenth-century heroines what Buffy is to final girls, and you have to admire her attempts to stand up for herself against two thoroughly unpleasant men.
The complete eBook collection of Vileroy; or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle contains all 62 chapters of the original serial, plus bonus Gothic short stories ('The Library Window' by Mrs Oliphant and 'The Doom of the Griffiths' by Elizabeth Gaskell). For today only, it's just £3.00 from the Hic Dragones' website.
My current favourite penny dreadful is definitely The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist. It's 100% bonkers and 100% Victorian - it's really hard not to get wrapped up in the weird little vignettes of Valentine's adventures in London. Valentine Vox is a young man blessed with an amazing gift of ventriloquism (and mimicry). Sent to London by his Uncle John, he experiences (and disrupts) all the entertainments the city has to offer. He is befriended by Uncle John's friend Grimwood Goodman and meets a lovely young woman called Louise Raven. Valentine's story is a cornucopia of Victorian oddities - from phrenology lectures to waxwork exhibitions, from Equal Rights marches to diving bells. And there isn't a single one that doesn't fall victim to Valentine's mischievous (and somewhat iconoclastic) sense of fun.
But the story has a dark heart, as Grimwood's family have their eyes on his money. Worried that Valentine might replace them in Grimwood's will, they decide to take measures into their own hands and get Grimwood out of the picture for good. To do this, they take advantage of the dubious practices of a private lunatic asylum and have the unsuspecting man incarcerated in a brutal and cruel institution. The 1840 edition of the serial included a polemical introduction by the author on the laws concerning private asylums. This seriousness undercuts Valentine's silliness, and forces the young man to consider the important things in life. In many ways, it's a bit of a coming-of-age story - but one with a talking skull and a steam packet! I love it.
The complete eBook collection of The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist contains all 69 chapters of the original serial, plus bonus Gothic short stories ('The Doll's Ghost' by F. Marion Crawford and 'The Lost Ghost' by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman). For today only, it's just £3.50 from the Hic Dragones' website.
If you'd like to know more about what to expect from reading Victorian penny dreadfuls, click here to read a recent blog post I wrote about them.