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Penny Dreadful

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Black Bess; or, The knight of the road. A romanticized tale of Dick Turpin - a popular subject in fiction.

Penny Dreadful (also called penny number and penny blood[1]) 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.[2]



Penny Parts

The penny part stories got underway in the 1830s, originally as a cheaper alternative to mainstream fictional part-works, such as those by Charles Dickens (which cost a shilling (twelve pennies)), 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.[3]


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.

Popular culture

There is a troupe of British comedians called The Penny Dreadfuls, composed of three performers: Humphrey Ker, David Reed and Thom Tuck. The Penny Dreadfuls perform sketches all of which are set in Victorian Britain. Their most famous work to date is their radio series The Penny Dreadfuls Present....[4]

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. It was later included on Skyclad's albums Folkemon and No Daylights... Nor Heel Taps. A remake, titled "Penny Dreadful (Full Shining Mix)", was included on Skyclad's album Oui Avant-Garde á Chance. It was later covered by the Italian Progressive/Folk metal band Elvenking and included as a bonus track on their The Winter Wake album and on the Japanese release of their Heathenreel album.

"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 actual character from 19th-century England further popularised in Penny Dreadfuls.

Penny Dreadful's Shilling Shockers [5] is a horror host show based out of New England that airs on cable access in several US states. The witch hostess, Penny Dreadful XIII, 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.

A "wandering steam pirate" entertainment troupe in New England called the Penny Dreadfuls[6] make appearances at several science fiction conventions each year.

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'.[citation needed]

In 2006, Penny Dreadful [7] 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.

In 2007, New York Producers/Actors Bryan Enk & Matt Gray began producing a 12 part theatrical serial event called, "Penny Dreadful." The stories were based around a fictional magician named The Amazing Viernik, a fictional detective Leslie Caldwell, and Penny, a showgirl from the early 1900's transported to 2012 via a dark magic trick. Month to month the episodes would continue, each ending with a "to be continued" feel, much like the Penny Dreadful novels of the early 1900's. Both fictional, and real life characters fill the story, such as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Houdini. The final episode plays on March 28-29th, 2009 at the Brick Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

Penny Dreadful was the nickname of a character in the White Wolf Mage: The Ascension universe. Two stories featuring her can be found in the Truth Until Paradox paperback compilation. She is a young mage in San Francisco who does battle with the Nephandus Jodi Blake. Her tradition is the Hollow Ones.

The Ruthless Organization Against Citizen Heroes[8], a real-life supervillain counterpart to the RLSH[9], boasts a member named Penny Dreadful, a villainess who claims mastery over a variety of poisons.

Further reading

Derivative works

Penny Dreadful's 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.
  • Mr. Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series (based on literature of the 1800s) featured covers that hearkened back to the look of the Penny Dreadful covers. As well as this, the story Allan and the Sundered Veil featured as a part work. Written and produced in the style of the penny dreadful, the story featured illustrations by Kevin O'Neil.

See also


  1. ^ Collecting Books and Magazines
  2. ^ James, Louis/Fiction for the working man 1830-50Penguin University Books, Harmondsworth, 1974 ISBN 014060037X
  3. ^ Editorials in early issues of papers such as the Union Jack or Boys' Friend make frequent references to "the blood and thunders", but as time went on the mentions disappeared. Letters were frequently printed, sent in by parents or teachers, praising the papers for putting the "trash" out of business.
  4. ^ official website http://www.pennydreadfuls.co.uk/about
  5. ^ http://www.shillingshockers.com
  6. ^ http://www.myspace.com/ssicarus
  7. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454224/
  8. ^ http://www.joinroach.com
  9. ^ http://www.worldsuperheroregistry.com/

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