The following is Part Five of a five-part series of Jesse Teller’s reviews for the modern classic, Penny Dreadfuls.
Sometimes it is not what you learn, but where you learn it that has the greatest effect. Learn to paint from a friend, you can make a picture. Learn to paint from a master, you can make a work of art.
Well, a lot of my friends are masters. A lot of the people in my life are fantastic writers. But I am trying, with my work, to create something different, so I have chosen a different teacher. I most often do not read my contemporaries. Most times I do not read modern fantasy because I do not wish to sound like others you will read. I could reach into so many modern novels and pull out quality, but I choose to seek knowledge in another place. I read classics, attempt to improve my work by reading the old masters. And this has brought me to the book Penny Dreadfuls.
There are five installments in this review series. This book is filled with so many great works of art that to try to fit the full picture in one review cannot really be done. So here, I will look at the collection and focus on the final installment, a story called In Kropfsberg Keep by Ralph Adams Cram. I will rate this story with four stars.
There is great power in knowing the origin of a thing. If you can trace it back to its source, you can understand an idea or a story better than any other study can manage. In fiction, we call them tropes. It’s a name I despise because I feel as though it is often overused. However, I live in a world of fiction, and must use the vernacular made available to me. So, I find myself talking about tropes today.
There is one we all know. It is a tired tale of a bunch of young idiots who, for their own amusement or for some sort of study, usually of college origin, go into a haunted house for a night.
With little trouble you can find six movies with some form of this plot. Always they are warned by some wise source who knows the danger, sometimes by legend, sometimes by experience. But they throw all caution to the wind and, desperate for the thrill or the information they might find, rush into the haunted feature for the night.
The feature is sometimes an abandoned lunatic asylum, sometimes an old church. I have seen haunted houses, of course, and a few haunted forests, but this time it was a haunted castle. A keep, more put, with a story of a man who died there and legend of the last person to enter it having died during their trip. Then, off we go.
As I read this story, I saw a lot of where it was going. The trope played out very similar to what I was expecting, and I began to think about the origin of things and how they are often underappreciated. Many say that Sword and Sorcery, a subgenre of fantasy, is overdone. They say it has all begun to sound the same, and even call it sexist and at times racist. This is because of its age, not its lack of originality. When these stories were first introduced, they were groundbreaking. They were ahead of their time. This is why they were mimicked so many times as to make them cliché.
In Kropfsberg Keep may be the very beginning of these haunted stories. It is dated. The language and diction are old and dry, the imagery stuffy. And as I read this, I began to think about the things we discard as overplayed, and what I might learn from them.
I had done this before.
Everyone knows the character the vampire. We have seen so many versions of this monster that we roll our eyes when we hear the name spoken. Many people will not even read a story or watch a movie that is about a vampire. Many others adore them. Like this beast, and any trope, the idea is not to avoid the tale. The idea is to make it fresh. Mix things up and recreate the trope in a way that cannot be expected or predicted.
You can make the night in the haunted house trope work if you can stretch the thing out and find its weaknesses. You can retell the story of the vampire in a way no one has seen before, and make it worth reading and engaging for the reader. But in order to do this, you have to have seen where it came from, and you have to go beyond what it has become.
My love of classics came into play when I wrote the book Hemlock. I told a vampire story, but before I did, I went back, as far back as I could reach, and I brought to the twenty-first century an old legend. I resurrected the oldest vampire I could.
Do not let yourself think Stoker. Bram did not invent the vampire. I passed him by without a second glance. I had studied that beast so many times, I knew I could not bring that to my readers. So I went even further, back into the first tales of the monster itself.
Hemlock is filled with the original vampire. It looks quite different than what we see now. It is not beautiful or mysterious. This is not a thing to stare into the eyes of. The oldest legends say that vampires were only pale when starving. When they had eaten, they took on a ruddy color. When they had gorged, they had so much blood in their system that they turned the color of a bruise. They were often purplish in color. What was a thin, trim creature when hungry was now bloated with the blood it drank. Facial features blurred, fingers swelled like sausages, and they became grotesque.
These were the vampires I presented to the public, a creature that had not been seen in untold years. I was able to find virtue in this beast because of my love of classic literature, and the need I find in my heart to go back and seek the old way, the overdone trope.
What I am saying is that my love of classics brought a kind of understanding to the way a book is written that cannot be found in any modern book.
So when you read a good book, trust that it is a new telling of an ancient tale. And when you have a chance, when you find yourself in a reading slump and you cannot pull out of it, go find a copy of Penny Dreadfuls.
Take a look at where it all came from. You will not be disappointed.
Sawney Beane being referenced in an anime about man-eating titans is very cool, in my opinion. Those two dots connecting on the same night, fifteen minutes apart, is mind-blowing. The idea that the same thing might one day happen when a reader finds their way out of the jungles of Kipling and walks into Liefdom gives me a thrill.
Jesse Teller fell in love with fantasy when he was five years old and played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game gave him the ability to create stories and characters from a young age. He started consuming fantasy in every form and, by nine, was obsessed with the genre. As a young adult, he knew he wanted to make his life about fantasy. From exploring the relationship between man and woman, to understanding the qualities of a leader or a tyrant, Jesse Teller uses his stories and settings to study real-world themes and issues.
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