selenak: (Malcolm and Vanessa)
[personal profile] selenak
[personal profile] chelseagirl asked me for comments on my Penny Dreadful story “Falling Towards Apotheosis”, which you can find in its entirety here. Since it is a lengthy tale, I’ll dissect only one chapter, but before that, a few general words: The title is of course pinched from Babylon 5, and was irresistible to me given Vanessa’s story both in the show and here. This was one of my most ambitious enterprises in fanfiction, since I wanted it to be not just a worthy follow-up to the show which brought the various themes and character arcs to a conclusion more narratively satisfying to me than the finale was without ignoring anything that happened in the finale, or in the seasons preceding it; I wanted it to be the definite Penny Dreadful story. (The reason why I wasn’t as angry about the finale as some when it was broadcast was that I thought it was the perfect set up for the conclusion that immediately occurred to me re: Vanessa, and what could have been her true goal.)

As such, it is an ensemble tale, using both past and present characters and the relationships they’ve formed through the show. (Exceptions: Lily, whom I had wanted to use originally, but there was no way I could have included her in this particular story without a complete emotional detour once Ethan finds out what Victor did; Dorian Grey, because there was neither thematic need nor personal interest on my part.)

The opening prologue was a flashback to the scene between Vanessa and Catriona Hartdegen from the actual show with some additional dialogue – after the camera cut away, so to speak - that changes its meaning: Vanessa realized that in order to defeat Dracula not just in his temporary mortal form but for good, in his immortal state, she needed to die first. Then the story proper starts with this:


Malcolm had dreamt of Vanessa before she died. Far more often than he would have ever admitted, least of all to her. When exhaustion and every single one of his many years finally allowed him to sleep after he'd buried her, he was not surprised to find himself in the maze that used to be the pride of all the gardeners employed at his country house.

Malcolm has no psychic gifts. So the dreamscape is definitely Vanessa’s, and of course she’d look for him/make him find her in this particular maze.

He was not surprised to see the dark haired girl leisurely stroll before him, never turning back, no older than twelve, the ribbons in her hair loose, hastily bound. One fell down, and he picked it up, feeling the silk and velvet in his fingers. When he rose, he saw Vanessa standing before him, not the child Vanessa, Mina's playmate, but the adolescent girl eager for womanhood who took an unworthy fool she did not even truly want and broke their lives, hers, most of all.

Vanessa’s appearance changing throughout Malcolm’s dream, otoh, is less of a conscious choice on her part but due to the many different roles she played in his life, and vice versa. I don’t think that after her childhood was over he ever saw her as just one or the other, but always all mixed in one, which contributes to the messed up, intense relationship between them.

"Sir Malcolm," she said, and the iron garden door, the door he closed in her face that day, it was between them.

A better man would ask her if she truly was at peace now, at God's side. A better man would tell her he had loved her, more than reason.

"I took you for so many things," Malcolm said, his hands clenched around the iron, knuckles white, "but never a deserter. How dare you!"

And that’s our Malcolm Murray. He’s finished the show somewhat better emotionally adjusted than he started it, and a bit wiser, but that’s a low bar, and in his subconscious, all barriers would have been removed. How dare she die on him!

Colour rose in her cheeks. She was the woman who'd come into his town house now, years later, fury and strength in her eyes, all dressed in black.

Malcolm’s ability to infuriate Vanessa out of her depressed state did come in handy once or twice, you’ve got to admit.

"You vainglorious, selfish man!" she cried, as she had then.

"We swore," Malcolm said. "Not to give up. Never."

"I didn't," Vanessa said, Vanessa in her ball gown, the night at Mr. Grey's when she had felt the witches surrounding her, the last night he had been sated with the opium of Evelyn Poole's presence. "Do you know me so little? How dare you!"

Her eyes were blazing. She touched the iron with her own hands, and it melted. Some of the burning drops fell on his hands. He did not draw them back, though the pain was excruciating.

Because Vanessa and Malcolm are ever so good at hurting each other. That’s part of their deal.

"You need to go to Egypt," she told him. "Our dear Mr. Lyle is there, and he will help you."

Back in s1, where he shows up only twice, I’d never have guessed I’d come to love Ferdinand Lyle as much as I did through the show, and I was hardly alone in that reaction. When he departed for Egypt in early s3, I was 100% sure this was the set up for a fourth season where the rest of the gang would go there as well. Which turned out not to be the case, but there was no reason to waste a perfectly good set up, and thus in my story, Lyle gets a prominent role and the gang does travel to Egypt.

"Help me to do what?"

Vanessa took a step towards him. Now she was dressed in a way he'd never seen her, like a simple country woman of the High Lands. He could smell the rain in her hair.

This, btw, is a sign that Malcolm is actually talking to the real Vanessa here, not a figment of his imagination. Because he never saw her in Scotland, doesn’t know the emotional importance of her time with Joan. (When Vanessa and Ethan return from Scotland in s2 and she could have told him, he was already en route to Evelyn’s.) It’s Vanessa who is reflecting this time of her life to give him his task and sets out the premise of the story for you, kindly reader.

"There are twelve parts," Vanessa said. "I know that now. Twelve here, in the Duat, that let him live forever, and twelve in Egypt. They anchor him to the physical realm. I will destroy those in the Duat. You need to destroy those in Egypt, all of them, or it will all have been in vain. But if we succeed, he will be gone forever, and no more innocents shall die!"

Vanessa defeating and destroying Dracula for good by a quest through the Egyptian underworld was the idea I immediately had after the finale. It just seemed so obvious, given the show had bothered to separate Dracula from his “Transylvanian” origin and instead retconned him as an entity from a mixture of Egyptian and Biblical mythology. A quest through the Underworld is of course a powerful trope in several mythologies, and it allowed me to let Vanessa encounter various people from her past embodying various of her issues and demons to boot, to use all she’d learned in her life both in terms of emotional wisdom and of magic. However, as I said: this was also to be an ensemble story, one where the ensemble works together to accomplish the central goal. And so there also needed to be a counterpart quest for the rest of the gang to accomplish. I can’t say whether or not I’d have gotten the same “destroy the relics that allow him to come back” idea without Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows bringing that trope to new prominence, but yes, that, too, was in the back of my mind.

That was when Malcolm know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was dreaming. The sentimental wish fulfillment of an aged fool, no more.

He has to at least consider the possibility, doesn’t he.

"You were no innocent, Vanessa," he said, finally giving into temptation and touching her face. She wasn't cold, as Mina had been after he'd shot her. No, she burned, as Peter had done, when his son had still breathed.
"And your death was worse than any other. If I dream you, why can't I dream you never died?"

This is as close as Malcolm can get to saying “I love you, and I miss you”.

"I was no innocent," she confirmed. "I made my covenant with death. But I have made one with you as well, Sir Malcolm, and I hold true to my oath. Will you?"
"You are dead," he repeated.

"Speak to Miss Hartdegen and Dr. Seward," she murmured. "Tell them that I succeeded. Tell them about the twelve parts. They will understand."

Suddenly, she caught his hand. "Do not fail me!" she hissed, and now she looked like she had done when their foes had possessed her, had taken her body for weeks, skin parched, hair dirty and wild, wrists showing the marks of binding. "This time, don't fail me!"

This last passage - and the emotional tone of this entire dream encounter - was inspired by The Offers, a poem Ted Hughes wrote about and addressed to Sylvia Plath and published in the Observer only a few days before his own death, which is why it’s not included in Birthday Letters, his collection of poems about Plath. In it, the “I” of the poem sees her three times after her death; the third time and the conclusion of the poem is:

Even in my dreams, our house was in ruins.
But suddenly - the third time - you were there.
Younger than I had ever known you. You
As if new made, half a wild roe, half
A flawless thing, priceless, facetted
Like a cobalt jewel. You came behind me
(At my helpless moment, as I lowered
A testing foot into the running bath)
And spoke - peremptory, as a familiar voice
Will startle out of a river's uproar, urgent,
Close: 'This is the last. This one. This time
Don't fail me.'


"Yes, she came to me," Dr. Seward said. He had found her in her office, listening to a recording of Vanessa's voice. While Malcolm had known such things could be created now, it still was both infuriating and painfully sweet to be confronted with such an example.

I loved this detail in the third season, Dr. Seward making the recording of Vanessa’s voice and listening to it, because, like Vanessa’s telegrams to Malcolm in the same season, it echoes one particular aspect from Dracula the novel which film versions tend to ignore or downplay – Stoker had his heroes use the then newest technologies of record keeping and communication.

"Before she went to him. And she did have a plan. She wouldn't tell me what it was. That, in fact, was why she'd come: she didn't want anyone to know, not even herself. I had helped her recover some of her memories before, things she'd kept hidden in her own mind because they were so painful. Now she wanted me to do the reverse. He and his brother could read what was on her mind at times, she said, dressing themselves up in those faces that had the most meaning for her. But what she had forgotten, had hidden so well in her mind that even she did not know there was something to hide, he could not find."

In order to make my story not an AU but a continuation, I had to provide an explanation that wouldn’t make Vanessa a liar to Ethan in their last scene together. Not that Vanessa is incapable of lying and trickery per se for an important goal, but it would have been cruel to trick Ethan, in particular, into killing her by faking despair. (As a later chapter has her reflect once her memories are restored, she’d thought Malcolm would be the one to kill her, and she knew he could survive that – she wouldn’t have made Ethan go through that if she’d had a choice in advance.) No, her action had to be sincere. Which is where Dr. Seward’s expertise came in handy, and so did the fact that Dracula and Lucifer had shown some limited ability to pick up things from Vanessa’s thoughts. So it would make sense for her to protect her plan this way.

"I thought all doctors swore an oath to do no harm," Malcolm retorted. "If she went to him dazed and weakened from some mesmerism, no wonder she..."

"Sir Malcolm," Dr. Seward said with calm disdain, "I am not here as a convenient vehicle for you to transfer your guilt to. Now if you were my patient, I might sit still for such an attempt, since you'd be paying me. But since you don't, let me point out that I had only just started to believe in the existence of this creature, that Miss Ives knew him better than the rest of us, and that she needed to feel she was supported, not critiqued in how she wanted to defeat him."

Dr. Seward giving a dressing down was fun to write, I admit.

There was something in a woman calmly dressing him down that Malcolm, under almost all circumstances, regarded as a challenge to be met not just in words but flirtation. This was not one of these circumstances.

"If you knew she wanted to die, you had no business of letting her go. She could..."

"She did not want to die when she left me," Dr. Seward interrupted him. "If I had thought that, I would never have agreed. But she knew it was a risk. She would not tell me even what her plan was. She simply asked me to take the memory of the last few hours from her. I might add that if the stories she told me are true, you asked her to give her mind to him and creatures like him when trying to find your daughter, and you told her, more than once, that you cared not if she died of it. Between the two of us, who showed more respect for her will and mind?"

One of the reasons why I’m as fond of Malcolm as I am is that I never once had the impression the show wasn’t aware of every single flaw he has; it is, and calls him on said flaws, and on his bad choices, on a regular basis. And that’s how I like my antiheroes. And thus I continue that proud tradition here.

There was no reply that he could give her to this. Nor did he wish to. He had fought beside this woman against Dracula, and so he respected her, but there were only a few people whose regard or understanding Malcolm had sought in his life, and near-strangers who practiced Alienism and called it medical were not among them. Yet he had witnessed how she had dealt with the insane Renfield. She was efficient in her field.

Malcolm respecting competence is also a well established character trait, from the pilot onwards. And if you’ve got experts at your disposal, it would be stupid not to use them. Thus:

"How do you tell," Malcolm asked, slowly, unwillingly, "how do you differ between dreams that are but longings of the heart, and those that carry truth?"

Dr. Seward regarded him thoughtfully. "They all carry truth, Sir Malcolm," she returned. "Or else I would not practice. Yet if you wish to know whether it was truly Miss Ives you saw, I would apply deduction. If she were but a figment expressing your own mind, she could not have told you what you did not know. I certainly never mentioned her last visit to you, or anyone else. What did Miss Hartdegen say?"

That conversation had been brief. "Yes, she said that only in the realm of death would she be able to defeat him for good. I told her that she should leave the immortal part of him to posterity, if there was one, and use the first chance she got to shoot the bastard," the young woman had snapped. "I thought I had persuaded her, and later that she had succumbed to him. Who told you about this?"

Lengthier Malcolm and Catriona Hartdegen interaction in a later chapter, but I wanted to avoid two very similar scenes right after another here, and so only the meeting with Dr. Seward gets fleshed out.

He had not spoken to Ethan about his dream, not yet. Maybe he was learning kindness in his old age. To kill the one you love: Malcolm knew only too well what it meant. If there was consolation for Ethan, then it consisted of the fact that Vanessa was at peace now. To take this away, and have the reason turn out only the feverish delusions of a bitter old man, that would be cruel even for Malcolm, who had always found cruelty coming naturally to him.

Malcolm’s changing relationship with Ethan, and in another way with Victor is one of the examples where he’s shown himself capable of learning from his past.

And yet, and yet. Dr. Seward was right. What Vanessa had told him in the dream had been specific, and just been verified by her, and he could not have known this on his own.
This time, don't fail me.

Going to Egypt because of a dream was a fool's errand. But Malcolm had travelled for worse reasons. If there was even the slightest chance that Vanessa was still battling the foe who had destroyed her life, who had used Mina as one more tool for such destruction, then Malcolm could not, would not desert her in this fight.

You bet he wouldn’t. Of course, as Ferdinand Lyle points out in a later chapter, this is a very obvious escape from facing the reality of Vanessa’s death day after day, but fortunately for Malcolm, he’s living in a universe where conversations with the dead and mythological quests are an actual possibility…

Date: 8 Jul 2017 13:37 (UTC)
chelseagirl: Alice -- Tenniel (Default)
From: [personal profile] chelseagirl
Thanks for this! Now, of course, I need to reread the whole story!

Date: 8 Jul 2017 15:24 (UTC)
d_generate_girl: PD - Malcolm/Evelyn, king and queen of hell (cut his hair myself one night)
From: [personal profile] d_generate_girl
Oh, this was lovely. I was so excited to get this amazing story for Yuletide, and the DVD commentary is even lovelier. Malcolm is, forever and ever, my problematic colonialist fave, and you write him so well.


selenak: (Default)

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