October 31, 2018

“Penny Dreadful” Intimations of Halloween on John Keats’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

Too bad Rory Kinnear can’t join the other Frankenreaders at Chancellor Green for tonight’s bicentenary Halloween celebration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For me the finest hour of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was Kinnear’s portrayal of the Creature, who finds his soul in poetry and names himself after the “outcast” English poet John Clare. As the show’s executive producer John Logan put it in the Sunday New York Times, “I wanted to bring the Creature back to Mary Shelley because it has been so badly used over the years in movies.”

Kinnear’s reading of lines from Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” over images of the funeral of Vanessa Ives and then when kneeling at her grave gives a touch of grace to a somewhat flawed series finale. Although Logan told Variety in June 2016 that he had conceived Vanessa’s demise during the filming of the second season, the Dracula-driven circumstances were unworthy of a character of her dimensions. During the scenes between John Clare and Eva Green’s extraordinary Vanessa, it was almost as if the Creature were conversing with his true creator, Mary Shelley.

“Not Keats Again!”

That’s what my wife said when I mentioned where I was headed this week. “But it’s his birthday,” I told her. “October 31, Halloween. He’d be 223.” Keats was also the subject six years ago on this date, the last time Town Topics appeared on Halloween, which is my excuse for bringing him in now. Not that I have any problem with the Creature’s fondness for Wordsworth, whose magnificent Ode was an inspired choice for the Penny Dreadful finale. But I can’t help imagining the chilly reception the Creature might receive were he to knock on Wordsworth’s door one dark and stormy Lake Country night. Keats would have extended his hand without a second thought and invited the poor fellow in. So would Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy and so would Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for that matter.   

Anyway, what has Wordsworth got to do with Halloween compared to the man who once said of his face “Tis a mere carcass.” Coleridge has haunted worlds of readers with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of Mary Shelley’s inspirations, and “Christabel,” a reading of which is said to have so terrified Percy Shelley that he ran screaming from the room. As for Keats, consider his haunted birth date and poems like “La Belle Dame sans Merci” or his letters meditating on the “Vale of Soul-Making” and “Negative Capability,” that state “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Chance Meeting

It was in one of Keats’s epic letters to his brother George in America that he reports running into Coleridge and a friend on Hampstead Heath and asking if he could join them. In the course of a two-mile walk on a Sunday afternoon in April 1819, Coleridge “broached 1,000 things,” including nightingales, poetry, poetic sensation, metaphysics, nightmares, dreams accompanied by a sense of touch, monsters, the Kraken, mermaids, and, finally “a Ghost story.”

Besides revealing a fascination with the paranormal relevant to the holiday at hand, Coleridge’s conversation with Keats took place just prior to the harvest that yielded the peerless Odes, along with “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and “Lamia,” among others. While the encounter may not have directly influenced these works, you can find echoes of the conversation in “Ode on Indolence” (“So, ye three Ghosts, adieu!”), “Ode to a Nightingale” (“Was it a vision or a waking dream?”), “Ode on Melancholy” (“For shade to shade will come too drowsily,/And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul”), “La Belle Dame” (“I saw their starv’d lips in the gloom/With horrid warning gaped wide”), and “Lamia” (“A deadly silence step by step increased,/Until it seemed a horrid presence there,/And not a man but felt the terror in his hair”), a poem that ends with the bridegroom’s arms “empty of delight” as “with a frightful scream” Lamia vanishes.


Wordsworth’s Ode, the very one adopted by the Creature, was among the literary wonders I discovered in my father’s study; and the first lines of verse I ever knew by heart were from the  “song of thanks and praise” to “those obstinate questionings/Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings;/Blank misgivings of a Creature/Moving about in worlds not realised.” I didn’t know the lines by heart because I wanted to; it was because once I read them they wouldn’t leave me alone, “Fallings from us, vanishings,” in particular. These accompanied every fearful thought, every ominous image — an empty swing creaking, still in motion, and no one in sight, the sound of footsteps on a stairway in my mind. I was haunted for years by a newspaper photograph of a dark street at night with a circle drawn to mark the spot where a 12-year-old girl (same age as me) had disappeared, “never to be seen again,” said the caption. In October 2018, the big story haunting the news before the pipe bombs and the Pittsburgh massacre was the one in which a Saudi journalist walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and was never seen again.

Something Behind You

That scary things usually happen at night is pretty much conventional wisdom. But it was broad daylight when I was chased across a park near our house by a man making scary noises. I could hear him behind me, snorting like a horse. I was six. I told my parents. In time I began to think I must have imagined it, so often did it happen in nightmares, a storybook boogie man straight out of the child’s garden of horrors. No wonder I felt a chill the first time I read these lines from Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”: “Like one that on a lonesome road/Doth walk in fear and dread,/And having once turned round walks on,/And turns no more his head;/Because he knows, a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.”

The same lines so haunted Mary Shelley that she incorporated them into Frankenstein.

Years later when I put the boogieman into my first novel, my father assured me that it had actually happened. “They finally caught the person.” So much for the “obstinate questionings/Of sense and outward things,” the nightmare pursuing me had been real.

Flag of Fear

Something happened the other day that grows more sinister with every piece of breaking news.  Actually, nothing happened; it was what might have happened. In broad daylight.

My wife and I had been about to take a favorite walk along the lake, on the upper path on the Princeton side between Harrison Street and Washington Road. It was late afternoon, the October light muted, the air mild. As we were parking, we saw a group of people heading toward the same path, maybe as many as 20, moving in a straggling line, not quite a parade. At first I assumed they were on an outing, nature lovers, bird watchers, nothing menacing. Thinking that we’d follow along behind once they’d passed, I was on my way out of the car when my wife motioned me to get back in. Her gestures seemed unusually urgent. She looked nervous. I followed her gaze to a man at the rear of the procession. He was carrying a huge American flag and staring right at me. He did not look friendly. The massive flag put an instant end to the notion of an innocent nature walk. This was Trump’s America, after all. But surely not here, not in Princeton, not on a trail by the lake in broad daylight. But then why not Princeton? We’re in the cross-hairs, a sanctuary city. If there’s a map of Trump-rally hate zones, you can be sure Princeton’s one of the towns with a black circle around it.

I got back in the car and we drove to another lakeside spot, saying nothing about what we’d seen until much later. How strange, how sad, to think that an American flag could become something to fear.

Becoming John Clare

On the other hand, how strange and how wonderful that a series as daring and inventively literary as Penny Dreadful was ever made. I recommend a YouTube visit to the closing sequence, where Rory Kinnear’s Creature reads with perfect-pitch feeling and understanding, “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?/Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

To appreciate the situation of John Clare reciting those words at the tomb of the only person who loved and understood him, look for the scene where the Creature explains to Vanessa Ives why he chose to become John Clare, who (like John Keats) “was only five feet tall.”

As Kinnear relates Clare’s poem “I am,” with its lines “yet what I am none cares or knows,/My friends forsake me like a memory lost; /I am the self-consumer of my woes,” Eva Green takes up the next stanza (“I long for scenes where man has never trod; A place where woman never smil’d or wept”) and they finish it together,  “And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:/Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;/The grass below—above the vaulted sky.”

Rory Kinnear and Eva Green may not be reading at Chancellor Green tonight or the next two nights, but 71 readers from all over our sanctuary city will be there sharing Mary Shelley’s story.

The image from Showtime’s Penny Dreadful shows Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) with the Creature/John Clare (Rory Kinnear).