Penny Dreadful, the gruesome and entertaining reading of the Victorian era

They’ve been compared to video games, blamed for causing youth violence and suicide. The Conversation has called them “the true crime podcasts of their time”, for their relationship with journalism and sensationalism. We’re talking about the penny dreadfuls, those cheap and popular serial stories from the 19th-century United Kingdom.

With pages filled with colorful characters and thrilling stories, penny dreadfuls were a popular form of escapism from the challenges of everyday life that shaped the literary landscape of the time…

The Origins of Penny Dreadful

Victorian England. The rise of capitalism and industrialization led people to spend more on entertainment, making the novel more popular. By the middle of the 19th century, demand for the novel had increased dramatically.

And so penny dreadfuls were born. These were serialized novels that were eight to sixteen pages long, aimed at the increasingly literate working class and teenagers.  London was a dangerous and spooky place to be, especially late at night, and reports of ghosts were quite common. Inspired by the macabre of folklore and real life, the Jacobean tragedies, and the gothic novel of the past, penny dreadfuls offered intrigue, adventure, murder, and gruesome violence

They were generally published every week, with a crude illustration on the front page to attract buyers who could purchase them for a penny. High production meant low-paid authors. The publisher didn’t care what was written, as long as they could fill the pages and sell them. The series lasted as long as it remained popular – because some things never change. The success of certain publications even suggests that a more affluent public also consumed them, possibly as guilty pleasures.

Although William Strange’s The Penny Story-Teller is maybe the first penny magazine to be published in 1832, it was not until Edward Lloyd arrived on the scene that the format became popular. Lloyd was one of the first and biggest publishers of penny dreadfuls, which also included E. J. Brett, George Purkess Snr, and the Hogarth House run by the Emmett brothers. He started in the 1830s by bringing out works plagiarizing Charles Dickens (copyright did not interest many people then) before embarking on periodical publication.

As the historian Judith Flanders explained, Edward Lloyd found massive success with Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, a collection of biographical articles about the careers of Britain’s most famous criminals past and present. It was so popular that he had to rush out a companion work, History of the Pirates of All Nations. The serial production, in large volume, on cheap paper, associated with the violent content, led to such publications being called ‘penny bloods’, later renamed ‘penny dreadfuls’.

A Cover of Varney the Vampire.

Penny Dreadful and The Vampyre Myth

Soon enough, Edward Lloyd specialized in “romances” – exciting tales of love and adventure – a category in which Varney The Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood was classified. The title was one of the longest and best-known penny dreadfuls. Written (certainly) by the prolific James Malcolm Rymer, the story, originally published between 1845 and 1847, ran for 109 weeks and recounted the torments inflicted by Sir Francis Varney on the Bannerworths family, who had plunged into poverty following the death of their father.

Varney usually attacked his victims at night, having to flee the scene when he was heard. But he was not afraid of the sun, crosses, or garlic. He possessed great strength and was very agile. His immortality came from his ability to regenerate under the rays of the moon. Throughout the story, he is killed several times, only to “wake up” later.

Gradually, the author developed a diverse mythology, from the more humorous (with the introduction of Count Polidori) to the more serious, focusing on the relationship between the vampire and his prey. It was also in that story that the dark image of the vampire in his castle and his depressive nature saw the light of day, a trait that would be exploited in the twentieth century. An aristocrat, Varney was not described as handsome, but as having a yellow complexion, a long nose, protruding canines, long fingers, nails and strange eyes. All this was repeated in the 1922 film Nosferatu.

After Polidori’s novella The Vampire (1819), Varney played his part in the development of the vampire myth, mainly through his influence on Bram Stocker’s Dracula, a work that is now emblematic of the genre. Despite being presented as low-quality work because of their production style, Varney is a good reminder of the impact some penny dreadfuls could have.

The successful penny dreadful The Mysteries of London.

The rise and fall of Penny Dreadful

To satisfy demand, writers of those dark tales had to fill the pages. Varney perfectly illustrated how such criteria could affect the story. At a time when people were less inclined to accept supernatural elements, a rational explanation was introduced at one point to put the action back into reality. Thus Varney revealed that he had pretended to possess demonic powers in order to frighten the family, before discovering – surprise! – that he really was a vampire.

An unofficial ‘literary genre’, Penny Dreadful didn’t have to respect any conventions of character development, credibility or continuity, explained Hephzibah Anderson on BBC. They had to hang the readers on the words with some twists and murder, poisoning, drawing, burglary and more. It offers access to different worlds, filled with foreign princesses, thieves, ghosts, and many creatures of the night. The more sensational, the better.

While Varney the Vampire stands out as one of the Penny Dreadfuls still recognizable today, Sweeney Todd is another iconic figure whose story continues to resonate in popular culture. 

Co-Created by Thomas Peckett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer, Todd made his debut in the penny dreadful story The String of Pearls (1846–1847). In the tale, he’s a barber on Fleet Street, London, who kills his customers. He works with Mrs. Lovett, who helps him by turning the bodies into meat pies.

Penny Dreadful immersed the reader in sordid tales and lives of criminals, such as in Black Bess, a fictionalized account of the life of the English highwayman Dick Turpin published over five years.

Developments in printing improved the quality of publications and distribution. From the late 1830s onwards, a number of penny dreadfuls were brought together to form a monthly with a color cover to help sales. Various techniques were used to attract readers: the first part of one story was given with the conclusion of another, or some penny dreadfuls were sold with cards bearing the characters’ likenesses. In short, this is where the gift that came with the magazine originated.

One of the longest penny dreadfuls was Mysteries of London, published in 624 weekly volumes over 12 years, and one of the most successful serial publications in history. Bringing together members of high and low society through the means of a sensational mystery plot, the story was written – at least until 1946 – by George W M Reynolds (1814-1879) and helped those serial stories go beyond their Gothic influences to be closer to the reader’s everyday lives. Penny Dreadfuls evolved to find more success in true crime stories and sometimes (it is said) almost pornographic tales of adventures.

From the 1860s on, those cheap publications mainly targeted the youth, such as the Boy Detective or the Boys of England. Victorian society was split by growing concerns about the effects of penny dreadfuls on young people. Many wanted to make it illegal to consume penny dreadfuls, but it was just impossible to enforce such a law. It was believed that penny dreadfuls encouraged British kids to be unsatisfied with the banality of their daily lives, and inspired them to want more adventures or to engage in criminal activities.

In an attempt to turn away young readers from penny dreadfuls, a publisher introduced new stories deemed appropriate and nicknamed “penny delightfuls”. Ultimately, the gruesome tales found in the penny dreadfuls were simply pushed out toward the exit by a classic advertising effort associated with the production of half-pennies that included comparable but more ethical tales.

This wave of panic had, at least, helped generate an interest in delivering quality fiction to working-class youths, resulting in a significant shift in the children’s publishing business.

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A Victorian-era publishing phenomenon, the penny dreadful provided readers with thrilling tales. Boosted by the evolution of the printing industry they attracted readers with cheap prizes and bloody illustrations.

While quality was not a defining element of those publications, penny dreadfuls helped some writers start their careers or simply inspired them. They, in the end, created a shift in children’s literature, helped the emergence of the Sensation novel and shaped the way from British boys’ magazines to modern adventure comics. Not bad for some cheap publication!