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What is a Penny Dreadful?

Updated on August 27, 2015
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I hold a Masters in Public History and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

"It's an invitation..."

So starts Penny Dreadful, a new Showtime series that builds off a long tradition of horrific short stories. Started in the Victorian era, by those dapper gents with twisted minds, penny dreadfuls are both the bane and the delight of Victorian popular literature. They focus on the gothic, macabre, horrific, and terrifyingly delicious dangers that haunted the minds of working class Victorian England and continue to inspire and intrigue us into the modern era.

The Blue Dwarf,
The Blue Dwarf, | Source

So what is a penny dreadful, you say?

They are also called penny horribles, penny awfuls, penny numbers, and penny bloods. A work of British literary minds in the 19th century, penny dreadfuls were inexpensive novels published in serial form - usually a specific number of pages at a time - and distributed at newsstands and dry goods stores. The name "penny dreadful" was twofold - each serial cost only a penny, and each contained stories that were simply dreadful.

The penny dreadful arose in the late 1830s, and gained notoriety by the 1880s. They built upon the success of an earlier serial, the Pickwick Papers (referenced in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women). The Pickwick Papers had demonstrated that books, when published as serials, could be profitable and were in demand by the lower classes that couldn't afford to buy full books or wanted stories that were easier and quicker to read.

The reason penny dreadfuls could be sold so cheaply was threefold. First, the early nineteenth century had experienced a dramatic increase in the mechanization of printing, making it far cheaper to print books. Second, the unprecedented growth of rail and canal shipping had dramatically lowered shipping costs, again helping to decrease the cost of printing in general. Finally, literacy rates were rising due to the work of many charitable organizations; this was especially true after the passage of the Elementary Education Act in the 1880s, which ensured that most children (though not all) were receiving at least a basic education before becoming part of the workforce.

Thus, the penny dreadful was primarily a working-class publication. They were printed on cheap pulp paper, though eventually publishers began using bright colour-printed wrappers and folding coloured plates into the serials to attract more sales. In the 1830s, penny dreadfuls were typically published eight pages at a time; this increased to sixteen pages at a time by the 1880s.

And just for your reference, the American equivalent of the penny dreadful was the Dime Novel (though these were far less morbid). Such Dime Novels include Frank Leslie's Boys of America, Happy Days, and Beadle's New York Dime Library.


What Stories were in a Penny Dreadful?

Penny dreadfuls featured a delightful array of stories - usually of the horror genre. The readership was largely juvenile and working-class, so you won't find any high-reaching philosophies or intense gothic romances here. Though, originally, the penny dreadfuls did contain gothic, historic, and domestic romances -- but that didn't last long in favor of demons and murderers. They quickly evolved into brutal tales of urban adventure and lively mysteries. As Michael Anglo notes in his book Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors:

"There were dark dungeons and torture chambers, sepulchral vaults, secret panels and stairways, cobwebs, and bats. The eerie atmosphere, reeking of the charnel house, was designed to make the hackles rise, the flesh creep, and the blood curdle -- no easy task in the days when people were inured to the gruesome and the macabre by the frequent public hangings and floggings, and the sight of criminals' decomposing corpses dangling on gibbets."

Titles for penny dreadfuls were usually a poor indicator of the fantastic tales that lie within. These included "Vice and its Victims," "Wagner the Wehr-Wolf," and "Varney, the Vampire."

The titles were simple, and the story lines simple but horrible, but the penny dreadful was immensely popular. Even the illiterate took to the craze, sitting around at pubs to listen as someone read the latest serial after long hours at the factories. It was a precious hint of a world outside their own dank, dark, and simple existence, and yet one that they could easily relate to and escape into. Gilbert Keith Chesterton summed it up best in his 1901 The Defendant:

"It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories."

The upper classes tended to look down upon the penny dreadful. In fact, such serials were often blamed as inspiring young children into becoming thieves and murderers themselves by magistrates. Yet the evidence for this was all conjecture. Again, Chesterton came to the defense of the penny dreadful:

“The poor—the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life—have often been mad, scatter-brained and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their driveling literature will always be a ‘blood and thunder’ literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.”

And so it was that the penny dreadful, however dreadful it really was, meant something to generations of young English boys who dreamed of escaping their lives into something extraordinary and yet familiar.

G.W. Reynolds

"An indescribable sensation of fear crept over him; and the perspiration broke out upon his forehead in large drops... He was alone - in an uninhabited house, in the midst of a horrible neighborhood; and all the fearful tales of midnight murders which he had ever heard or read, rushed to his memory..."

One of the greatest writers for these young English boys was G. W. Reynolds. Born on July 23, 1814, Reynolds was destined for a life of military service. Yet this changed in 1829, when both his parents died and left him a significant inheritance. Reynolds chose to leave the military, devoting himself full-time to his literary pursuits.

He was a prolific writer, often read more than Dickens or Thackeray during the Victorian period. He is best known for The Mysteries of London, which sold 40,000 copies per week as a penny dreadful and over a million copies before it was cumulatively bound and sold in volumes. The Mysteries of London also enjoyed international success, being published in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Yet his most popular series was the sequel to The Mysteries of London. This was entitled The Mysteries of the Court of London, and was published in serial form over twelve years, form 1844 to 1856! It, too, enjoyed international success, being published in Marathi and Urdu while enjoying widespread success as a best-seller in India. You can read this series here.

Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. | Source

The Most Famous Dreadful of All

Yet G. W. Reynolds is not remembered today as much as one other nefarious character from those terribly penny dreadfuls: Sweeney Todd.

Sweeney Todd first appeared in the November 21, 1846, issue of The People's Periodical in a serial entitled "The String of Pearls: A Romance" by Thomas Prest. Sweeney was only a secondary character. This story was quickly dramatized for the stage by George Dibdin Pitt, to whom we owe our sincerest thanks for immortalizing the demon barber. On March 1, 1847, Pitt debuted "The String of Pearls: The Fiend of Fleet Street" at the Hoxton Theatre in London. He advertised the play as being "founded on fact" and set in the reign of George II.

Of course, being as there is so much on it, we'll leave you to see the play (or, if you prefer, the movie) to get a true sense of the horrors of Fleet Street.

Modern Revivals

There is little information as to why the penny dreadful declined. As society changed - and the Great War changed British society forever, surely that which was once popular fell into decline, evolving into new forms of literature to excite the masses.

Yet, the penny dreadful would not stay gone for long. Just over a century later, we are experiencing a revival of the penny dreadful. One such revival - and perhaps the only revival that retains the elements of the originals - is the 2014 debut of Showtime's original series, Penny Dreadful, a "frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama." And as enticing as the trailers appear to be, it has yet to be seen if the series shall live up to its long heritage of terrifying and thrilling the masses.


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    • Brittany Kussman profile image

      Brittany Kussman 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Loved your hub! I honesty thought the show was going to be just a woman serial killer, but your research here has helped me understand what the show is really going to be about. I am a huge fan of horror literature and never new about the penny dreadfuls of the Victorian era I will have to give them a read sometime. Thanks again for sharing.


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