England in the nineteenth century was a city full of innovation and anxiety. Especially in large cities like London, Manchester and Liverpool, the industrial revolution brought on rapid technical and cultural change. England was faced with a rise in working-class and the poor conditions that came with working in factories, as well as an increase of crime and poverty throughout the cities. As Michael Anglo describes London in 1843: “It abounded with festering slums, refuse-covered streets and yards, where open sewers overflow, swirling over dead cats and dogs, cess-pools leaked into wells, and graveyards were full to bursting. Male and female drunks fought or dozed in the streets. Youngsters grew up callously indifferent to the suffering of others, and often the only highlights in their lives were the Roman holidays provided by public hangings” (19-20). While living conditions worsened, new laws on education improved, leading to the highest literacy rates the country had ever seen. It wasn’t long before these despondent people flocked to literary fiction to distract them. The most popular quickly becoming the ‘penny dreadfuls’ which followed in the Gothic tradition and capitalized on the English macabre fascination by printing mysteries and horror stories weekly – for the low, low price of one penny. Consisting of eight sheets of paper, with two columns on each page, and episodes often ending abruptly at the bottom of the last page, they were efficiently concise (Haining 14-15). Cheaply produced and easily distributed, these penny papers were ripe with bloody entertainment that even the poorest and youngest Londoners could afford. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years late, give or take, to an era of equal innovation and anxiety, where employment rates are rapidly falling along with the economy and the threat of terror is always at the forefront of our minds, the question needing to be answered, is where is the twenty-first century ‘penny dreadful’?
While the production of a penny paper may seem obsolete in the digital age, where information reaches millions world wide, and the penny itself is virtually useless, this project was created to demonstrate the prevailing necessity for catharsis through the tradition of the ‘penny dreadful’. Through the delineation of the rise and fall of the original ‘penny dreadful’, as well as its motivations and fandom, we can see that the environment in which these papers were mass consumed is not that much different then our present day. Moreover, with the advent of ‘fake news’ in the twenty-first century, traces of the salacious ‘unreal’ stories found in the ‘penny dreadfuls’ still remain. Therefore, combining all of these elements, it only makes sense to harness the once powerful form in order to serve our information hungry population. What follows is a historical account of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ and an exploration into how and why I created the modern day ‘penny dreadful’.
Historical Review of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’
Taking shape in the early nineteenth century, what we now know as ‘penny dreadfuls’ have a long and complicated history. With little historical work done on these texts – as well as a multifarious, and hard-to-pin-down definition – academic study on this topic is hard to find. In a special issue of the Journal of Popular Culture, ‘penny dreadfuls’ were described as:
Publications rang[ing] from high quality to worthlessness and many of the earliest were “vulgar imitations of works by well-known authors who never received a penny in recompense.” The great demand among the masses for such publications, which was in part the result of the increase in literacy during the nineteenth century and “the commercialization of literature,” was met by cheap paper and printing and the development of the “New Journalism” (Baylen, 710).
Heavily relying on historical background, this particular definition showcases the way in which these publications were a product of their environment in every sense of the word. Not only did the rapid increase in technology and literacy allow for the wide distribution of these texts, but the stories themselves also borrowed from writers of the time – as well as crime stories and villain well known to their audiences. As Timothy Smith D’Arch explains, “this new fiction was coloured by both past and contemporary elements in literature, the Gothic romances or tales of terror, the historical novel, the domestic romance, and was also spiced by the influences of French and American fiction” (44). While Baylen and D’Arch perfectly denounce the cultural aspects of the ‘penny dreadful’ definition, Michael Anglo’s definition of these texts encompasses and simplifies the breadth of various research perfectly. He writes, “these books, with their heroes and villains, old and new, culled from dozens of sources and involved in a variety of horrific adventures against a background of mystery, came to be known as ‘penny dreadfuls’” (11). Notably, however, in this definition, the term ‘penny dreadful’ is almost always surrounded by single quotations, suggesting that the term is invented. Indeed, through my research, I found that the term ‘penny dreadful’ is a fictive term adopted for stories of this kind. Springhall explains further:
The pejorative and habitually misleading ‘dreadful’ label was adopted into common
discourse in England during the 1870s, constructed by middle class journalists in order to amplify social anxiety or ‘moral panic’ over the latest commercial innovation directed at the young. Accordingly, ‘penny dreadful’ is used here, within inverted commas, to represent the profusion of melodramatic and sensational, but generally harmless, serial novels, published in instalment, periodical, and complete novel form (“Disseminating Impure Literature” 568-569).
Therefore, while it is clear that the term is one of cultural adaptation, it has become widely accepted as an accurate description of the penny papers of this time.
With every new advent of a popular medium, there is a creator to blame. As Anglo writes, “it is easier to criticize the publishers of ‘dreadfuls’ than to criticize the books themselves. The sole aim of the publishers was to make money…the stories cannot be condemned if they are not up to the usual literary standards of plot, construction, characterisation, and narrative, for the writers were grossly overworked and underpaid” (74-75). As for the writers of these stories, even less recognition was given to them. As highlighted before, these texts plagiarized famous stories and authors, and so, most of the time they were uncredited or signed. Even Rymer – perhaps the most famous writer of ‘dreadfuls’, known for Varney the Vampyre series – borrowed from a Lord Byron tale (Anglo 18). Moreover, the majority of the successful penny stories were re-tellings of famous criminals. Such as, Dick Turpin, Jack Sheppard, Catherine Hayes; or, Crime and Punishment & Melina the Murderess, Jonathan Bradford; or, The Murder at the Roadside Inn, and The Lady in Black, to name a few. Keeping this in mind however, research revealed that this constant recycling was a result of poor working environments for the writers of penny papers. As Anglo explains:
Many writers of ‘dreadfuls’ laboured under enormous pressure, racing against time to meet deadlines. Summer and winter, often far into the night, their frantic pens spluttered to conjure up the words for their turgid tales, while their thoughts connoted way ahead, in the constant struggle to maintain the output demanded of them – the thousands of lines they must scratch to earn a living. Naturally, the style of many ‘dreadfuls’ was governed by writers whose scant rewards led them to resort to various stratagems to stretch out their tales, sacrificing quality for quantity (95).
This hectic and strenuous writing environment then, is in many ways to blame for the production of these ‘dreadfuls’. While writers may not be the ones demanding the horror stories, they are the ones producing these exuberant, ill-executed tales.
In the late 1800’s however, the form went through a distinct metamorphosis. As most critics and scholars agree, what started out as Gothic-inspired stories for the working-class, slowly turned into adventure stories for young boys. As Patrick A. Dunae explains:
The early Victorian dreadful, many of which were published by Edward Lloyd, were based on the traditions of the Newgate Calendar and the Gothic novel… By the latter decades of the century, however, the connotations of the term had changed; instead of referring to long-running serial publications which had been read by both sexes and all ages, the term came to be applied almost exclusively to boys’ periodicals of the lowest stratum” (133-134)
Springhall goes even further into detail of this transformation as he delignates five distinct stages of the ‘penny dreadful’. The first being a general term for “cheap papers or fiction”, the second being the “Gothic penny-issued novels” that Dunae speaks of, and the third used from the1850s onwards when the publication developed a more specifically “juvenile market”. The fourth stage was a label for all penny magazines and “weekly boys’ papers” from the 1860s, and lastly, the fifth stage involved using the term not only for journals but for “the long-running weekly serials they contained” (“A Life Story for the People” 126). Springhall offers an explanation for this change in audience when he writes, “the enormous expansion of Victorian cities, a result of population growth, rural migration, and industrialization, containing hard working families with an insatiable desire for amusement, made it increasingly profitable to commercialise the reading of even the poorer and younger sections of English society” (“The ‘Penny Dreadful’” 20). However, perhaps ironically, this renovation from adult to youth reading had in large part to do with the passing of Forester’s Education Act of 1870. As Dunae explains, “the campaign against the dreadfuls was also colored by conservative middle-class reactions to educational reforms. Some conservative groups, notably churchmen, had of course always been wary of popular education; they had also distracted the street literature, which accompanied the growth of mass literacy. Specifically, it was feared that millions of youths educated in the new Board Schools would become readers and ultimately victims of sensational literature (136). Of course, their fears came to fruition as the youth of London quickly became engulfed in these stories and were the ‘penny dreadfuls’ most insatiable consumers.
It is at this pinnacle moment of the revolution that the ‘penny dreadful’ comes under the most scrutiny. While previously criticized for being useless writing, when placed in the hands of children, the anxiety quickly turned to the effects of such stories on young minds. Dunae writes, “tales of this description, critics argued, were psychologically harmful in that they provided readers with excessive stimulation and a distorted view of the world. The tales were also considered to be a threat to society, not only because they glorified physical aggression, but because they seemed to encourage disrespect for authority” (134). Especially susceptible to persuasion and stimulation then, these youths were seen as needing to be protected. In an article from the late 1800s entitled “Combatting the ‘Penny Dreadful’”, the author writes, “attention has been recently called by the Press and in the courts of justice of the injury done by the disastrous characters of the cheap literature placed in the hands of boys”, and that they must, “do their part in raising and maintaining the character, purity, and educational and moral value of the best type of class of English literature” (3). This demonstrates the Victorian, and ancient ideals of the canonical framework: where mass literature and culture is squashed beneath the feet of ‘great’ authors and the aristocrats that determine ‘acceptable norms’. However, as Springhall suggests, “the sales-driven incentive to frighten readers of mass circulation newspapers with exaggerated reports about the ‘effects’ on their children’s behaviour of sensationally-violent or lubricious forms of commercial entertainment” (“Guilty Pleasures” 34). Therefore, the people who are so afraid of the effects of these cultural artifacts influencing their kids, might unknowingly be perpetuating the spectacle they are trying to suppress. This motif of sheltering children from the horrors of everyday life as well as media that demonstrates less than noble actions has, of course, followed us well into the twentieth and twenty-first century.
The Twenty-First Century ‘Penny Dreadful’
There still persists today, a desire to manipulate literature of the masses in order to produce a satisfactory view of the world. As another columnist of the nineteenth century pointed out, “all we want is able and unselfish publishers. Indeed, it is the respectable newspaper, with its part bitterness, gambling news, blood-lust, and general pruriency, that is the real “penny dreadful” of to-day” (“The ‘Penny Dreadful’ Seems Only to Have Flourished” 329). This damning definition of the news media in London at this time gives great insight into the issues that today’s era faces within our digital media. While perhaps originating in the nineteenth century, unpaid work, harsh deadlines and reusing stories are still characteristics of today’s news and general authorship. Moreover, a new phenomenon has appeared on our global platforms as the insurgent of information is being used and abused by all. As Russel Frank explains, “journalism ethicists use the term “fake news” to refer to promotional material disguised as news” (316), and, “fake news stories range from benign to malicious, clever to insipid, polished to inept. They may parody the rhetoric and design of serious news; mock the incompetence, hypocrisy, or venality of people in the news; express a yearning for a saner world; or, as a gag, turn a friend into a newsmaker” (330). Given our current journalist climate then, it appears that the desire for hyperbolized and at times, unbelievable, stories persists still. Moreover, it is common practice within the journalistic field of education, to teach writers the rule of determining frontline news stories; that is, “if it bleeds it leads”. Thus, suggesting the priority of bloody tales over any other. Dunae quotes Talbot Baines Reed as he “drew the sad conclusion that the ‘dreadfuls’ survived because “a taste, more or less disguised, for the terrible, is inborn in most of us”” (143). Springhall highlights this through a tongue in cheek quote in his writing from The Wild Boys of London ‘dreadful’ where a character explains that, “It’s fine, it is; somebody’s killed every week, and it’s only a penny” (“The ‘Penny Dreadful’”14). Therefore, exemplifying the celebrated tradition of watching other people’s pain for free.
The Dragon Lady; Or, Arena of Feminist Blood
When beginning the creation of the proto-type for a modern day ‘penny dreadful’, I quickly realized that the character of the story would be most important. In his book entitled “Penny Dreadful: Or, Strange, Horrid & Sensational Tales!”, Peter Haining provides detailed analysis of various penny writers and how they chose to write their stories; more often then not, choosing well-known anti-heroes to star. Haining quotes E.S. Turner, “wage slaves had no intention of spending their scanty leisure hours reading about age slaves. They wanted to read about fiery individualists, men of spirit who defied harsh laws and oppressive officialdom, even though they finished at the end of a hempen rope” (36). In similar fashion then, I must choose a character that is more than a “commoner”, but who speaks and fights for the public that reads these stories. Moreover, largely dominated by male writers and male characters, I wanted to reflect the feminist movements that began in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Haining recalls a shift within the ‘penny dreadfuls’ themselves in relation to women: “The heroines have become changed in character from the delicate, swooning, incredibly naïve maidens of the Gothic novels, to young women actively seeking love and not entirely tied to the commands of home and parents. Now that reading material was finding its way into the hands of the poorest women, the voluminous and whimsical romances which had delighted earlier generations had little or no appeal” (134).
Therefore, it only made sense to highlight perhaps the most notorious female of the 2000’s. In an article entitled “All the terrible things Hillary Clinton has done – in one big list”, Brett Arends addresses fandom that surrounds Clinton, and all the salacious stories that have circulated through the media; including, but not limited to: “she murdered White House lawyer Vince Foster”, “she’s a lesbian”, “she’s a frump”, “she yells into the microphone”, “she’s in the pay of the mafia”, “[has] the soul of an East German border guard”, and of course, the one that appears in my ‘penny dreadful, “she’s a dragon lady.” While this sardonic article could be pulled apart by many a politician and feminist for all the issues surrounding it; what it provided me with, is the proof that Hillary Clinton is the perfect villainous hero to represent our era’s penny paper. Once having decided on the main character, next was the curation of the perfect cover piece to illustrate the purposed mission of the modern ‘penny dreadful’. As Haining explains in his introduction, “undoubtedly one of the most important “selling” features of these publications were the lurid engravings – “fierce” plates as they have become known – which decorated the front page of each issue” (15). Therefore, with the help of the graphic designer, Danielle Belliveau, I attempted to generate a “fierce plate” that highlighted Clinton’s pragmatic and devilish qualities. While there is an obvious difference between mediums, the nineteenth century being mainly wood engravings, and the modern being a product of digital photoshop, I tried to re-create the essence of the old ‘penny dreadfuls’. I also chose to contain the cover in a digitized pdf file, as the modern day ‘penny dreadful’, if ever created in full, would have to exist within a digital platform. When finishing the piece, I had the realization that this was a commodity, that needed to be priced; and with the penny no longer in circulation in Canada, I haphazardly marked it five cents. While this may seem like an unreasonable price in the current economy, the point of this project is to produce a literary artifact that is both cathartic, and available to the entire population – just like the original ‘penny dreadful’ was to nineteenth century Britain.
Conclusions / The Future of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’
In a time where literacy rates, as well was general interest in literature is dropping as a result of the digital media that we are inodiated with, the advent of a new, accessible form of fiction is crucial. Just like any medium, ‘penny dreadfuls’ have their flaws; amateur writing, graphic violence and scandalized historical fiction. However, it is through the adaptation and re-working of these flaws that can make this medium so advantageous to today’s population. As we are faced with the problem of fake news, we must reclaim the fictional genre as an outlet to work through political and historical horror stories, so that journalism can come back to telling the truth. Moreover, by creating a cheap and entertaining medium, we can capture the attention of otherwise, unwilling youths. G.K.C. points out in his defense of these publications, “as for the Penny Dreadful’s crudity, it supplies the demand not for art, which is a luxury, but for fiction, which is a necessity” (240). Therefore, we can surmise then that traces of the ‘penny dreadful’ tradition are still pervasive, and that the need for scandalous and titillating fiction is ever present, if not essential to the twenty first century.
Anglo, Michael. Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors. London, Jupiter, 1977.
Arends, Brett. “All the terrible things Hillary Clinton has done – in one big list.” MarketWatch,
Feb. 7. 2016, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/all-the-terrible-things-hillary-clinton-
has-done-in-one-big-list-2016-02-04. Accessed 5 April 2017.
Baylen, Joseph O. “Stead’s Penny ‘Masterpiece Library’”. In-Depth: British Popular
Culture, special issue of Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 9, no. 3,
1975, pp. 710-725. Periodicals Archive Online,
“Combatting the ‘Penny Dreadful’.” Londoner, 20 Mar. 1896, p. 3. Nineteenth Century
Collections Online, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4QFjK5. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.
d’Arch Smith, Timothy. “The Penny Dreadful.” Dickensian, vol. 60, no. 342, 1964, pp. 44
Periodicals Archive Online,
Dunae, Patrick A. “Penny Dreadfuls: Late Nineteenth-Century Boys’ Literature and Crime.”
Victorian Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 1979, pp. 133–150., www.jstor.org/stable/3826801.
Frank, Russell. “Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 128,
- 509, 2015, pp. 315-332,370, Research Library,
Haining, Peter. “The Penny Dreadful: Or, Strange, Horrid & Sensational Tales!” Victor Gollangz
Ltd., London, 1975. Print.
MacNeil, Alexis. “Literature Review of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’.” 2017.
“Penny Dreadful, “G. K. C. ” on the.” The Academy, vol. 60, no. 1504, 1901, pp. 240 Periodicals
Springhall, John. “‘A Life Story for the People?’ Edwin J. Brett and the London ‘Low-Life’
Penny Dreadfuls of the 1860s.” Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1990, pp. 223–246.,
Springhall, John. “’Disseminating Impure Literature’: The ‘Penny Dreadful’ Publishing Business
Since 1860.” The Economic History Review, vol. 47, no. 3, 1994, pp. 567–584. New
Springhall, John. “‘Guilty Pleasures’: Moral Panics Over Commercial Entertainment since 1830.”
Historian, no. 122, 2014, pp. 33-37 Research Library,
Springhall, John. “The ‘Penny Dreadful’.” Historian, no. 103, 2009, pp. 14-21 Research Library,
“The ‘Penny Dreadful’ Seems Only to Have Flourished Because the Children of This World Are
Wiser in Their Generation than the Children of Light.” The Commonwealth, vol. I, no. 9,
1896, p. 329. Nineteenth Century Collections Online,
tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4QFhU8. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.