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Modern Day Penny Dreadfuls

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Bookstores have always been a place of comfort. Books of poetry piled to the ceilings offered solace and spoke to his sense of loneliness and isolation. But not these modern day bookstores. Shiny covers full of bright and colorful photographs seemed childish and gaudy. He knew he should never judge a book by it’s cover and yet he found himself doing it anyway. The flashy covers that gave away all the stories secrets weren’t even the worst of it. No, it was as if the book store went from a place for the lonely seeking thrill, adventure, and romance - a place where the scholarly and educated sought to connect to prose and perhaps another soul - and was now instead a place for children to socialize. Groups of teenagers hanging out drinking beverages that were supposed to be coffees and teas but had names quite unlike any coffee or tea he had ever heard of from the coffee shop located inside the shop (an idea that was incredible but one he felt didn’t have the charm he thought it would) were often loud and could, quite frankly, be rude. Too many times did he hear laughing and snickering from one particular group every time he passed by the shelves opposite them. It appeared to him they were not here at all for the books but simply for their coffee’s and for the status they felt it gave them. The children’s sections were endearing at first. A place for children to learn to read and have every story for every level of reading all in one convenient location but, and perhaps this was more so the fault of the parent rather than their own, they were often rowdy and uncontrolled. Crying, screaming, and tantrums were jarring to the ear and were too much distraction to allow for a pleasant reading or browsing experience. Made worse by the fact their cries could be heard across the store.

Still, his adoration for poetry and prose drove him to continue on rather than leave. He was determined to find something in which to pre-occupy his mind and soothe his soul with. Something for him to get lost in, or perhaps something to allow him the comfortable feeling of home in this new and frightening age. He stumbled among a discounted novel section - the books here had covers that were solid and plain and made of leather (well, okay, faux leather). They were new but tried to pass off as old. It was the closest thing he could get to what he was expecting so he lingered in the section. “Classics” the section was called and most of the stories were collections of works and discounted. The works of Charles Dickens were complied into one edition of a book, a selection of some of Shakespeare’s greats were bound together in a collection of their own, a collection of three works about vampires were in another. Shakespeare pulled at him and he picked up the thick book. It would offer him comfort and familiarity at least. But he found that behind it there was an entirely different book, misplaced by some careless patron or employee who perhaps wasn’t paying attention. Red faux leather with black font and trim, the title: Penny Dreadfuls. Always appreciative of macabre and horror he placed the works of Shakespeare down a moment so he could pick up this new book and see what it might contain. 

He carefully opened the cover and read from the table of contents; works by Poe, of course, The String of Pearls; a work he was familiar with as it had given rise to Sweeney Todd, the play production he had become fond of during his time as a stagehand; a few authors names he couldn’t quite place and one name and title that was so jarring he could have sworn his heart had stopped, though the concept was absolutely impossible: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Two name’s he was all too familiar with but which made no sense with their given context: Shelley and Frankenstein. He knew of a Percy Shelley, his works he was most fond of, but he had never heard of a Mary Shelley. He assumed it was a married name, but he was unaware Percy had married. Most shocking, of course, was the name Frankenstein - written there in ink clear as day on the page was a name he both loathed and knew with such intimacy. 

His hands trembled as he hastily turned to the page indicated to be the start of the work. He skimmed over the words, falling into a false sense of security as names, dates, and circumstance he did not recognize passed by his gaze. Something about a boat, a man near death, a sailor writing home to his wife - perhaps the names had been a coincidence and nothing more. However, he finished skimming the prologue and got to chapter one and began catching key terms and growing once again at the same time fearful, confused, and enraged with each familiar term. The narrative was told in first person and he was trying with all his might to forget about the coincidence of the locations, of the sequence of events, of their familiarity to what he knew about the man he knew as his creator until the moment when the narrator was named. Victor. He was reading the story of Victor Frankenstein. 

In his panic and rage he had forgotten completely about the safety and security of the works of Shakespeare. He tucked the hardcover anthology under his long coat and stormed out of the shop. On his walk back to the place they had managed to secure for themselves to get out of the cold he skimmed through the pages with anticipation and dread, hoping he wouldn’t find what he ultimately figured he would. And alas, he did. A creature. A creation. An abomination. All his names except for the one’s he chose for himself. He snapped the book shut just in time to look up and see he had almost collided with a man standing at the street corner waiting to cross the road. He stopped and waited to cross as well.

“Those are good stories,” the man standing there said when he saw the cover. “Barnes and Nobel, right? They’ve got good collections. I like the old-timey feel to those editions, though.”
Caliban didn’t reply. He wasn’t in the mood for small talk.
It didn’t seem to deter the young man, however, who kept on carrying the conversation. “Bram’s stories are cool, of course, I mean, Dracula and all. But, let’s be real, Frankenstein is the real reason for that collection. I’ve got like, three editions of it, the covers are cool.”
Caliban glared at the man. “There’s more?”
“Editions? Yeah of course,” the man laughed. “One of the one’s I also got at Barnes and Nobel has like lightning on the cover and the pages are colored silver, it’s pretty cool. Hey - have you read it yet or no? I guess I should have asked that first.”
He wanted to laugh. Has he read it yet? He lived it. He shook his head, “I know it, lunatic playing with life and death as though he is a god, a creature neither living nor dead condemned to eternal suffering while his creator never once has to suffer like the thing he gave life to suffers.”
The young man, not put off by the harshness of his voice, smiled, “yeah man! See you get it! So many people just see those old school black and white films or like hear about it from references in Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein and shit. Frankenweenie and like you know, the Halloween shit. Green dude with bolts in his neck - thinking that the monster is Frankenstein and shit and not realizing Frankenstein is the doctor. But you get it man! Yeah, you’ll love it. It’s such a great book!”
Half the things the man said only furthered his confusion but he only added them to the ever growing list of questions he had that there would be hell to pay for should they not be answered and instead said, “No, Frankenstein is the true monster.” He had had enough of the conversation and was sick of waiting for the light to change, he turned and detoured around the block.

He reached the hole-in-the-wall room of the inn they’d managed to get and slammed the door open, startling those who chose to remain inside rather than explore their surroundings at that particular time. Among them was Victor, who’s head snapped up from it’s position cradled by his arms folded on top of the dresser he had propped a chair in front of, just the very person he wanted to unleash hell itself upon. Too bad he couldn’t. Sir Malcolm Murray and Ms. Vanessa Ives had also apparently chosen to stay in, or perhaps had gone out and already returned. 

Victor looked worse for wear. He was in the beginning phases of withdrawl and was currently in a situation where he was clueless and had no means of obtaining his next fix. Caliban felt no pity for him. He tossed the book at him, aiming for his head, and was disappointed when the heavy book collided with the wall just shy of his creators head instead. It left a hole behind where the corner had hit the drywall. If Victor hadn’t have moved it most likely would have broken his nose. 

“What the –” Victor began but Caliban cut him off.
“What is that?” Caliban shouted.
“A… book?” Victor answered like he had been asked the most stupid question in the world.

Caliban growled in response and made to cross the tiny room with the intent of wringing the wiry man’s neck but Vanessa sprung up from her seat on one of the beds and stood in his path. 

“Mr. Clare,” she said calmly, “what is wrong?”
He didn’t cross the boundary line she’d created between him and Victor with her own body but he did look around her and direct his next instruction at the man who liked to pretend he had all the answers, “read it.”

Victor picked up the book and turned it right side up so he could read it. “Penny Dreadfuls,” he read out loud for the benefit of the other two occupants of the room who were, undoubtedly, just as confused as him. Sir Malcolm’s attention was on him but Vanessa held Caliban’s gaze steady, her presence seemed to calm him. 

“Open it!” Caliban growled, impatient. 

Victor opened it and turned to the table of contents. “Poe, Stoker, Doyle, Mary Shelley’s –” he cut himself off and the silence it left behind was almost tangible.

“Read. It. Aloud.” Caliban said.

Victor swallowed, his throat felt like it had closed off and he was having a hard time breathing. “Mary – Mary Shelley’s… Frankenstein.” He whispered his own name as he couldn’t muster anything louder. He realized his body was shaking. He was thankful he was sitting down.

Vanessa had turned around to look at her friend. Caliban moved around her and loomed over Victor. Luckily Vanessa’s presence helped to dissipate some of his anger - certainly helped curb his murderous intent - but he still wanted answers. 

“How?” he asked.
“I-I- I don’t know,” Victor stammered.
“How can you not know?” Caliban asked.
“I know just as much as you about this!” Victor yelled at him, then added, softer, “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how… have you read it?”
Caliban replied, “I skimmed it. It’s about us. You creating me. You creating a bride for me. It’s not all right. But it’s right enough.”
“Anyone else?” Victor asked, as he looked up and saw Vanessa and Malcolm’s eyes focused intently on them. 
“No,” Caliban answered, catching what he meant. “But there’s more.”
“What do you mean?” Victor questioned.
“I spoke to a man about it. He said there’s more editions. Something about films and chipmunks meeting you or me and something called Frankenweenie,” he answered.
Victor looked as if Caliban may as well have been speaking a different language, “What?”
Caliban shrugged, “Apparently most people think I’m you.” 
Victor groaned. 
“You’re not the only one who’s disgusted by the thought!” Caliban growled, his anger rising again.

“May I see it?” Vanessa spoke up to draw their attention away from each other.

Victor hesitated but Caliban ripped the book from his grasp and handed it gently to her. For some reason he felt more comfortable with it in her possession than in anyone else’s. 

“Do either of you mind if I read it?” she asked.
Neither of them answered right away. 
“Maybe it will give us answers,” she explained. “Unless one of you would like to read it instead?”

Victor felt the bile rise in his throat at the thought. He didn’t want to read about his life. It was either accurate or it wasn’t but one thing he knew: if it mentioned him piercing the veil that separated life from death and creating life anew than it told enough of his misdeeds and he was not keen on reading about all his errors in print. He knew them well enough.

Caliban considered it but ultimately decided it would be for the best if it was Vanessa who read it. He had no interest in knowing his creator any more than he already did. He had no interest in reading about some version of his birth. He lived what he lived and had no interest in the past. 

When neither of them answered in protest she concluded, “then it is settled. I’ll read it on your behalf.”

The tension in the room defused and the atmosphere began to calm down. 

“I am curious, however,” Sir Malcolm spoke up, “what the hell a Frankenweenie is.”

Vanessa smiled along with Sir Malcolm but Victor groaned again and hung his head, this time out of some sense of embarrassment. Caliban sneered and looked away but only because he was trying to hide his own smile creeping at the corners of his mouth. He was still confused and upset by his discovery but he decided he was going to have to look into the situation more closely some other time when he had more resources available to him.