by Ian Sputnik
England in the early 19th century was a violent place. The Napoleonic wars had only just been concluded. The streets were a spewing gutter of prostitution, gang culture, and theft. Murder was rife. The industrial age was starting to give steady employment to the masses and putting a bit of money in the common people’s pockets. One might think that the often violent surroundings would lead to people wanting to escape their reality with a more pleasant one, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, young men had a thirst for violence and relished in it. And, with the upturn of literacy, the Penny Dreadful publications were born.
These were graphically embellished tomes of crime, murder, and—eventually—horror tales. They were sometimes based on fact, like the life of the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin (albeit romanticized for the reader’s pleasure), but they often delved into fiction and, more specifically, work in the vein of horror.
Penny Dreadful (sometimes known as Penny Blood, Penny Awful, and Penny Horrible) was a generic term for these cheap, serial literature pieces, published weekly and which were now available to the masses due to their affordable price. Up until this moment, reading as a pastime was deemed exclusive to the middle and upper classes. Hard copy editions of the likes of Charles Dickens were well out of the reach to the majority of people.
Unfortunately their place in history has mostly been forgotten. But what we take for granted in literature is so often related to later resurgences in a particular genre, and remakes of these originally stories branded as something else. For instance, if one were to look at a copy of a work of fiction entitled The String of Pearls: A Romance, it could be easily dismissed. But this was the first showcase of a story that would later be reworked and renamed Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Penny Dreadfuls were first unleashed onto the population around 1830. They would continue to be popular up until around 1890, a good 60-year run. They were replaced by an even cheaper version, “Half-Penny” publications, by an enterprising individual by the name of Alfred Harmsworth. He used cheaper manufacturing methods and cunning political and moralistic tactics to corner the market, driving his competition into obscurity and then having free reign over the genre.
His attack may well be very familiar to anyone of our age. In his publication he wrote, “It is almost a daily occurrence with magistrates to have before them boys who, having read a number of ‘dreadfuls’, followed the examples set forth in such publications, robbed their employers, bought revolvers with the proceeds, and finished by running away from home, and installing themselves in the back streets as ‘highwaymen’. This and many other evils the ‘penny dreadful’ is responsible for. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols.”
This echoes those who attribute blame of violence in our age to console games. Harmsworth chose to publish tamer stories. The hypocrisy of his tact should not go unnoticed though; after he had forced the Penny Dreadfuls out of business he soon reverted to publishing equally bloodthirsty stories.
Penny Dreadfuls deserve to be acknowledged for their contributions to literature, and this bi-monthly column aims to explore some of the most impactful stories to come from them and how they changed horror—and pop culture—forever.
Be sure to check back for the next instalment of our monthly Penny For Your Thoughts retrospective!