From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A penny dreadful (also called penny horrible, penny awful, penny number and penny blood) was a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing a penny. The term, however, soon came to encompass a variety of publications that featured cheap sensational fiction, such as story papers and booklet "libraries." The penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed primarily at working class adolescents, primarily at teenage boys from the working class, though there is some evidence that many girls read them as well.
These serials started in the 1830s, originally as a cheaper alternative to mainstream fictional part-works, such as those by Charles Dickens (which cost a shilling (twelve pennies)), for working class adults, but by the 1850s the serial stories were aimed exclusively at teenagers. The stories themselves were reprints or sometimes rewrites of Gothic thrillers such as The Monk or The Castle of Otranto, as well as new stories about famous criminals. Some of the most famous of these penny part-stories were The String of Pearls: A Romance (introducing Sweeney Todd), The Mysteries of London (inspired by French serial The Mysteries of Paris) and Varney the Vampire. Highwaymen were popular heroes. Black Bess or the Knight of the Road, outlining the largely imaginary exploits of real-life English highwayman Dick Turpin, continued for 254 episodes.
Working class boys who could not afford a penny a week often formed clubs that would share the cost, passing the flimsy booklets from reader to reader. Other enterprising youngsters would collect a number of consecutive parts, then rent the volume out to friends.
In 1866, Boys of England was introduced as a new type of publication, an eight page magazine that featured serial stories as well as articles and shorts of interests. It was printed on the same cheap paper, though sporting a larger format than the penny parts.
Numerous competitors quickly followed, with such titles as Boy’s Leisure Hour, Boys Standard, Young Men of Great Britain, etc. As the price and quality of fiction was the same, these also fell under the general definition of penny dreadfuls.
American dime novels were edited and rewritten for a British audience. These appeared in booklet form, such as the Boy's First Rate Pocket Library. Frank Reade, Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick were all popular with the Penny Dreadful audience.
In late 1893, a publisher, Alfred Harmsworth, decided to do something about what was widely perceived as the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls. He issued new story papers, The Half-penny Marvel, The Union Jack and Pluck, all priced at one half-penny. At first the stories were high-minded moral tales, reportedly based on true experiences, but it was not long before these papers started using the same kind of material as the publications they competed against. A.A. Milne once said, "Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha'penny dreadfuller." The quality of the Harmsworth/Amalgamated Press papers began to improve throughout the early 20th century, however. By the time of the First World War papers such as Union Jack dominated the market.
Two phenomenally popular characters to come out of the penny dreadfuls were Jack Harkaway, introduced in the Boys of England in 1871, and Sexton Blake, who began in the Half-penny Marvel in 1893. In 1904 the Union Jack became "Sexton Blake's own paper" and he appeared in every issue thereafter, up until the paper's demise in 1933. In total Blake appeared in roughly 4,000 adventures, right up into the 1970s, a record only exceeded by Nick Carter and Dixon Hawke. Harkaway was also popular in America and had many imitators.
Over time the penny dreadfuls evolved into the British comic magazines.
Owing to their cheap production, their perceived lack of value, and such hazards as war-time paper drives, the penny dreadfuls, particularly the earliest ones, are fairly rare today.
- Anglo, Michael. Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors
- Chester, G. K. "A Defense of the Penny Dreadfuls"
- Haining, Peter. Penny Dreadfuls
- James, Louis Fiction for the working man 1830–50 Harmonsdworth, Penguin, 1963 ISBN 0-14-06037-X
- Turner, Ernest Sackville. Boys Will be Boys ISBN 0-8103-4091-7
- Penny Dreadfuls and Comics, catalogue of exhibition, Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood
In other countries
The term penny dreadful, meaning "cheap and gory fiction" dates from c.1870 --Online Etymology Dictionary [Jan 2006]