A History of the Penny Dreadful

How many of us of the millennial age set remember spending weeks saving a few dollars in anticipation of the Scholastic Book Fair in order to buy copies of Goosebumps or Fear Street books? Perhaps, if you were lucky (and had the “cool” parents, or just unobservant ones), you could also sneak a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark in your stack for purchase. For those who didn’t grow up with the admitted economic privilege to do such a thing, staying after school to take out the books from the school library was also a common pastime. There was something so alluring about the pulpy pages filled with scary stories of kids fighting back (and sometimes even losing!) against the forces of darkness.

While many of our generation’s parents were swept up in the terror of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s, many still also had a simultaneous love of horror. Stephen King’s book sales were still chart topping successes, as were many other contemporaneous authors, and horror films were still raking in audiences especially with movies like Scream becoming a cultural phenomenon.

Televangelists and moral crusaders rang their hands about the dive in moral quality due to horror and crime and occult content and imagery being so readily available. Never in history, they cried, had such filth been available so easily to corrupt the children.

It was bullshit, of course. Just like it was bullshit when generations before said the same, and when generations now say the same, and generations to follow will likely do so, well. Now to be clear, I’m not advocating for kids to actively watch content that might be too mature or legitimately traumatizing or desensitizing to them. What I’m stating, clearly, is that violent media has always always been available to be witnessed by the public, often including kids.

No historical horror embodies the spirit of public, mass market demand (including amongst kids) like the Victorian penny dreadful. These oft-serialized pulp stories were as gruesome, if not moreso, than many modern splatterpunk books!

Increased public literacy in 19th century England, especially in urban areas, led to a prominent boom in popular literature for the masses. While this certainly gave us many novels and stories we now know and love (Dickins and Conan Doyle, immediately come to mind), one of the most popular ways to disseminate written entertainment was through broadsides of 8 to 16 pages, sold for a penny.

Crime broadsheets soon became some of the most popular sellers; printers would send paperboys to public executions with illustrated tales regaling readers of the grisly tragedy leading up to the execution. They often ended in a “doggerel verse”, a rough, uneven verse of poetry that warned the reader to not get trapped in the same moral pitfalls of the soon-to-die criminal.

Publishers soon realized there would be money in printing more than just moral warnings. Illustrated and serialized reprints of early Gothic literature such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Lewis’ The Monk soon began making appearances on street corners, and specialty fiction written specifically for the penny dreadful papers soon followed. Crazed cannibal killers like Sweeney Todd, villainous vampires like Sir Francis Varney, antiheroic highwaymen like Dick Turpin, and urban legend cryptids such as Spring Heeled Jack were all born from the pulp paper pages of the penny dreadful.

Plagiarism in the form of parody was also extremely common. Edward Lloyd’s papers were most infamous for this, with his paying authors to essentially reprint the serials with misspelled titles and only the most minor detail changes. Plagiarism was endemic, and after a failed lawsuit brought to the high courts by legitimate publishing house Chapman and Hall, who published Dickens’ works, it seemed there was little impetus to stop publishers from plagiarism as long as they made no claims to being the originators of the intellectual property (omitting the fact that they didn’t own it, was also not required at the time, leaving the impression up to the reader).

There was public outcry from moral crusaders at the time, of course, that the broadsheets were inspiring an increase in youth murder and suicide, as well as other violent incidences. In particular, the case of matricide committed by Robert and Nattie Coombes of their mother Emily captured national attention, ironically landing the young teen criminals as subjects of the crime stories they loved so much.

“We consider that the Legislature should take some steps to put a stop to the inflammable and shocking literature that is sold, which in our opinion leads to many a dreadful crime being carried out….There can’t be any difference of opinion about that,” stated the record from the coroners’ inquest. The new wave of a literate population of youngsters were hungry for more drama than the stiffly written moral tales they were forced to learn from at school, but as per usual, adults of the time didn’t care for this newfound freedom of the youth (particularly youth from the working class). Like films, television, and video games afterward, the scary tales were an easy target for Victorian moralizing and fear of violent crime, which was being whipped up into a frenzy by the news media (sound familiar, anyone?).

There was also fear from the wealthy that the new wave of literacy in the working class “rabble” might take the tales of adventure and ambition as inspiration for revolution against the oppressor class. This fear is always an undercurrent in the wealthy, but particularly as more power for education and social value is put into the hands of the masses. I could get on a soapbox here (and may in future articles), but for now, we’ll continue on.

However, in contrast to most of the wealthy, the fact that nearly one million penny dreadfuls were selling weekly was a powerful financial motivator for publishers to continue printing them. Publisher Edward Lloyd, a huge influencer of popular culture at the time through the stories and news reporting style he encouraged at his papers, flourished in this time (mostly despite his own many personal foibles), and many papers began to publish more serialized fiction to tap into the market. The famous Sherlock Holmes detective stories were born as Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle began selling his tales to The Strand magazine to fund his novel writing and struggling ophthalmology practice. Authors such as Charles Dickens also continued to have mainstream success as a serialized writer, making the argument against accessible popular literature eleven less convincing. As many penny dreadfuls made their way across the pond to be localized as American dime novels, it seemed the phenomenon was nowhere near stopping.

While some magazines tried to tap into the morality market with jingoistic heroes of high ethical standard, most papers continued to publish for the common man’s market demands. Erotically charged versions of the penny dreadful began making headway, with noted Irish author James Joyce getting his start with such fictionalized “true tales”, that became popular in 20th century Americna publications such as Playboy and Hustler. While there were some decrying the corruption of young male readership, most were more horrified by the possibility that young women had access to buy them.

Overall though, like later media, the “concerned public” linked youth violence to the stories, holding regular inquest juries to determine the effect it had on the corruption of moral good and breakdown of social contract. Suicides were also blamed on the stories, instead of on hopeless working conditions or domestic abuse or potential mental illness. A record into one suicide inquest stated: “Deceased committed suicide whilst in an unsound condition of mind, probably produced by reading novelistic literature of a sensational character.” Despite one man convicted of murder explicitly blaming financial abuse as the reason he murdered his employer in a fit of rage, the judicial members still blamed the man’s possession of penny dreadful as the cause of his low moral character.

Even in the case of the poor Coombes family tragedy, it seemed to be far more than the penny dreadfuls which were blamed–one of the boys had symptoms documented that we now could categorize as migraine headaches and ADHD. Both boys had expressed anger and despair at their mother telling them they would have to leave school to support the family through backbreaking work in the shipyards. Neighbors also alleged that their mother berated and beat the boys’ regularly, and that their mostly absent father was no source of joy to the brothers on his scarce visits either. Yet rather than examine any actual social ills and how they might be relevant in the case, the jury placed the blame on the easiest target.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The history of penny dreadful is reflective of the history of popular media, particularly media targeted for the youth market. History is cyclical, and no better example is quintessential to this than the penny dreadful moral panic. As we continue to see mass moral panic in the public, this time over the specter of “critical race theory” and “grooming” in kid’s media (i.e. any book or show that discusses anything other than the cishet white experience, preferably through a Christian lens of ethics), remember the penny dreadful moral panic and the real motivator behind it: controlling the classes of people that those in power felt shouldn’t “be getting ideas.”

Get ideas. Get all the ideas.

And do something with them.


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