For the Love of Horror & History

Jordan Dane

On Monday, my lovely TKZ blogmate Clare Langley-Hawthorne had a post called “Losing the Past” where she discussed the state of the historical. I must admit I’ve been intimidated from trying to write an historical. The research seemed daunting, not to mention the world building and dialogue challenges, but I’ve always loved classic literature set in a historical time period made into movies, like Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre. There is something very compelling about taking a peek into the past to see the cultures, classes, location settings, and period clothing. Whether in a book or on screen, it’s a beautiful escape to a different time and place. Historicals aren’t dying out, they’ve become the new black if they’re reimagined into something fresh.

Lately I’ve become enthralled by TV period pieces, especially if the writing and storytelling are solid and the visuals and world building are memorable. Shows that have pulled me in are: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, BBC’s Ripper Street, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. I watch other shows for different elements towards my writing, but these shows have influenced me into crossing the line of my comfort zone. I firmly believe, for me, that I must seek out projects to push my perceived limits. I think I learn more about myself when I do it. The only limit to any writer is the limit of their own imagination.

So when I was recently asked to contribute to a time travel anthology (with an amazing group of authors), I accepted with great enthusiasm (even though it scared me). I accepted the challenge because of my love for these three shows and my desire to push my writer limits. I wanted to share these feature film quality shows with you to see if they stir your imaginings as writers for inventive plots, attention to detail on world building and research, and the fearlessness of the creative mind to combine ideas that may not connect easily.

Icabod with skullSLEEPY HOLLOW – The motto at Sleepy Hollow these days is “Embrace the Ridiculous.” Show creators and the talented writers have thrown together very unlikely elements to create what’s been called WTF TV. On paper, the pitch for the show would’ve sounded absurd – Washington Irving adaptations of Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle, mixed with Revelations in the Bible and the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and historical conspiracies from the Revolutionary War. Icabod Crane is reimagined as a Revolutionary War hero and Revelations “witness” who arises from his secret grave at the same time as the Headless Horseman (aka Death) starts a killing rampage in the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow. The battle of good versus evil has found a home. Crazy, yet it works. The added touch of humor to this “man out of time” story makes Icabod a very endearing character. There’s tongue in cheek humor and the show is notably very ethnically blended. Sleepy Hollow is making history in more ways than its flashbacks.

Ripper SettingRIPPER STREET is set in Victorian London right after Jack the Ripper left his mark. Fear runs high that the monster will return. The shows are tightly written, very emotional, and there is great sensitivity to social issues of the time that reflect on those same issues today. Another thing I love about Ripper Street is the portrayal of early forensics and crime scene analysis. Many scenes are laughable (ie surgical operations done in the open without sterilization or proper care for infection) yet accurate for the time period. Costumes are stunning and the street settings are vivid with great care for detail.

Penny Dreadful BooksPENNY DREADFUL – The show title of Penny Dreadful comes from history, the name given to paper pamphlets filled with terrifying stories. Such stories (also known as Penny Blood, Penny Awful, & Penny Horrible) plus stage performances of the genre were the rage in London during the Victorian time period. They were printed on cheap pulp paper and aimed at working class adolescents. Fear abounded and made fertile ground for when Jack the Ripper wreaked havoc on the streets.

Cast 1Penny Dreadful is an homage to literary horror and classic monsters of the time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, etc. What I love about Penny Dreadful is the intense world building in every scene. The details of lush sets and gorgeous costuming and the use of practical literary monsters (not animated computer generate imagery). The horror is visceral.

Dr VicHere is Dr Victor Frankenstein slaving over his “creature” in secret. The scene where Victor lays eyes on his living creature (and the creature sees his creator for the first time) is an unforgettable moment where the viewer holds a breath to watch the touching intimacy. Everything about this show speaks to me of good writing, solid storytelling, and memorable characters in classic conflict. Visually stunning. It’s a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart.

For Discussion: What shows stir your writer imaginings? Have they ever influenced you to write a genre you’ve never tried before?

19 thoughts on “For the Love of Horror & History

    • Gsme of Thrones is an international phenomenon. Wouldn’t you like to be George R R Martin?

      What I’m finding with these shows is insight into why I’m drawn to these very different genres as a reader and/or viewer. Elements are universal to good writing. And they give me a nudge to try something new.

      We can get inspiration from anywhere.

  1. I absolutely love Sleepy Hollow for the reasons you mentioned. I love how they mixed all the history together with the legends and made the absurd work. I really need to watch the other two, particularly Ripper Street as I think it’s on Netflix.

    And I share your concerns about writing historical – it’s very daunting. I have plans for a book for 2015, once I’m done with my current new series, that will blend past and present, and it’s very intimidating, because there are so many nuances I have to get just right. Maybe that’s why I put it off;)

    • Hey Stacy. Thanks for stopping by TKZ & joining in. There are some crazy cross genre TV shows out there. It’s the new black, but very inventive. YA has been doing this for awhile & finding much success, as long as the elements are grounded in romance or the strong relationships between the characters. This creative thinking in very encouraging to me.

      I’m dipping my toe into historicals in a short story but the shows I’ve mentioned (plus the upcoming Outlander series on TV from Diana Gabaldon) have fueled mu push.

      Happy writing, Stacy. #Espresso

  2. When Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre were written they weren’t historical novels or period pieces, they were contemporary literature that has withstood the test of time. But historical literature *can* illuminate the past – if it’s written with care and respect. Pirates wouldn’t say “OK,” an Irishman wouldn’t sing “Danny Boy” in the 19th century, etc.

  3. I love historicals as well, and read a ton of regency romance and historical novels. I love it when they make things exciting and interesting.

    I enjoy Gothic Horror and Steampunk for those reasons, with the added benefit of a fresh new take on how things might have been.

    I feel more comfortable writing Steampunk than I would a straight Regency novel because I feel less intimidated by the amount of research. I’ve done a fair bit of research into the era, but since I’m changing a lot of what really happened, I don’t feel like I have to get every tiny detail historically correct.

    Plus, I can’t seem to write anything without magic creeping in, so there’s that. 😀

    I’m glad to see that Penny Dreadful is good! I was worried they would be too tongue in cheek with it, like they were with the Sweeney Todd remake.

    • Sounds like we have much in common, Elizabeth. I love evocative prose with atmosphere yet without too much unexplained magic. I want the feeling that my story could almost happen. That makes hair standpup on a reader’s neck & look under their bed.

      You will love Penny D. Film feature quality. No Tim Burton in sight. Try it & let me know what you think.

    • Elizabeth, I’ve published three regency novels, not typical because they are a bit darker than the the usual regency romance. But I had to laugh because I want to write some Steampunk and am intimidated by that. 🙂 I’ll do it anyway.

      Great post,Jordan, I love Ripper Street and I can’t wait to see Gabaldon’s Outlander series on the screen. Maybe that will give historicals a boost. Ripper Street fans may be interested in this article.

    • Thanks, Jillian. The gentile romance of a different time period really appeals to generations of readers/viewers. Ripper Street writing is a standout.

    • *&%$! Foiled again. I recently moved to Puerto Rico, and I’ve been having issues watching TV shows online because of “region” restrictions. So I’ll have to find another venue for watching it (we don’t watch enough TV to have Cable. Just Netflix and Hulu). It looks great, though, so I’ll make sure search Amazon or iTunes for the episodes.

      I totally agree about the magic thing. I’m a weirdo in fantasy because I want my magic to make sense and feel like it could happen in real life. The only time I didn’t write magic in a knowable fashion was for my dark fantasy serial, and then I knew what the rules were, but the characters didn’t for a more creepy effect (much like they did in the early Gothic horror novels).

      Jillian, thanks for the heads up on your novels! I’m always on the lookout for a good historical. I’ve really enjoyed the Summerset Abbey series, as it scratches my Downton Abbey itch.

    • Try Penny D on Showtime’s online website. They could post eps there. Not sure. Amazon Prime & Hulu may get it eventually, but it’s worth checking out.

      I KNEW you like that “could be real” paranormal or fantasy. I like things that tap into our natural fears, like urban legends, ghosties, or mystical/spiritual connections like VooDoo or Native American beliefs. Thanks for chatting.

  4. I watch very little TV. I have enough influence from all the little people in my crawlspace, Leonard and the muses going in and out and lately a troupe of medieval jugglers showed up out of the blue (I think Leonard left the time machine open last time he went out).

    That said, History’s VIKINGS, a Korean War drama called Road No. 1, and yes Game of Thrones, are the only series I’ve gotten into in the past few years. We don’t even have cable or satellite TV, but only watch online via netflix or hulu. The shows I watch tend not to be much of an influencer of what I write, but rather a distracting break from writing.

    Although I will say that after enjoying a lot of Terry Pratchett’s books in audio as well as a couple his movies has my mind moving such that I might end up doing some works along those lines with starring some of my aforementioned house guests.

    Just gotta finish the series I’m on now first.

    • “Ooooh! Did you hear that Berthold? We’re going to stars in Jerry Hatchet book!”

      “Jerry Hatchet? Whoa! He’s my favourite…er…um…who is he again?”

  5. I’ve always said that being in your mind could be frighteningly fun, Basil. Consider donating your brain to science, preferably after you’re done using it. Happy writing, my fine friend.

  6. Ooh – haven’t seen Penny Dreadful yet but it sounds right up my alley. For some reason I couldn’t get into Ripper Street but Sleepy Hollow is lots of fun. I get inspired all the time to add to my historical writing bent though I think it would be hard for me to veer to much towards horror as I am a wimp at heart!

    • Ripper Street had an excellent season 2. For season 3, they are broadening their location setting & bringing in The Ripper. Should be good.

      The humor that Tom Mison brings to Sleepy Hollow really makes the show work. Love him.

      I have to reign in my horror, but you can dabble in something more visceral by darking your setting & tension/fear factor. Horror isn’t always graphic violence.

      Thanks Clare. Try Penny D. You’ll love it.

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