Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful (also called penny number) was a term applied to nineteenth century British fiction publications, usually 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.


Penny Parts

The penny part stories got underway in the 1830s, originally as a cheaper alternative 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 (which introduced Sweeney Todd), The Mysteries of London (inspired by the 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 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.

Penny Dreadfuls

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 storypapers also fell under the general definition of Penny Dreadfuls (also known as Penny Bloods or Blood and Thunders in their early days).

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.

Half-penny Dreadful

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 morphed 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.

References in Popular Culture

The Penny Dreadfuls: A British trio of comedians whose sketches revolve around a fictional Victorian explorer Aeneas Faversham.

A demon in the Terry Brooks novel Angel Fire East takes the name "Penny Dreadful" after seeing one of the novels.

American experimental/indie artists Avey Tare and Panda Bear, members of the band Animal Collective, have a song named "Penny Dreadfuls" on their album Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished.

A metal band in the United States has used the name "The Penny Dreadfuls" and do songs based on some of the stories from old penny pages.

British folk metal band Skyclad have a track named "Penny Dreadful" on their 1996 album Irrational Anthems.

"With one bound Jack was free" became the archetypal phrase writers used to release their hero/heroine from an impossible situation, for example, hanging from a branch half-way down a cliff at the end of one instalment (hence "cliff-hanger"). The phrase could also be in reference to Spring Heeled Jack, an urban legendary character further popularised in Penny Dreadfuls.

Penny Dreadful's Shilling Shockers is a horror host show based out of New England that airs on cable access in several US states. The witch hostess, Penny Dreadful, is based on the name of the cheap paperbacks, as is her show, Shilling Shockers (which were publications similar to penny dreadfuls and available in the early 19th century).

The Penny Dreadful Players is the oldest student-run theatre group at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. They perform 8-10 shows a year for hundreds of students and community members.

In his regular column for an Internet share magazine in c.2005, the infamous English short-seller known as Evil Knievel, quite aptly, referred to risky penny shares as 'penny dreadfuls'.

In 2006, Penny Dreadful was one of the movies produced for the horror anthology 8 Movies to Die For. The movie is about a girl named Penny who encounters several 'Urban Myths', similar to various hand-me-down stories from the Penny Dreadful publications.

Also, in 2006, Chipper Thompson , of Taos, New Mexico released his second solo album, "Penny Dreadfuls". Although primarily driving rock, the album also contains many acoustic moments and is dedicated to the memory of his wife, Lanford, who died on July 4, 2000. The tracks on the CD are: Speed The Night Behind, On The Fly, Down In Flames, Steel Vines, The Month Of January, Pillar Of Salt, Will You Let Me Stay With You?, Tons Of Rain, The Scarlet Letter, Ms. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary, By A Thread, Once I Could Glide, Sunrise Somewhere.

In 2008, Penny Dreadful became the character name in a series of illustrations by the British born artist Andrew Craven Here Penny is an ingenue gothic girl who is on an adventure of decadent experiences and is found with many characters of a subversive trend. One key aspect of Penny's character is that with every individual illustration she is found to be wearing a different gothic outfit, sometimes to match the subject of the rest of the image. It is said that the artist is currently under going the production of more adventures of Penny Dreadful.

Progressive metal band Elvenking included a bonus track "Penny Dreadful" on their album Heathenreel.

Further reading

Derivative works

Penny Dreadfuls have been the subject of other cultural works. Some include:

Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series also draws on the influence of the Penny Dreadfuls and uses some of their motifs. One of the main characters in this series, Jim, is an avid reader.

See also


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