Long before the current television show hijacked the name, a penny dreadful was one in a series of cheap and popular stories produced in 19th century Britain. They were sold for one cent – hence the name – usually in 8 (and later, 16) page weekly or monthly installments. Primarily aimed at young, working class men, these illustrated stories with colorful covers generally involved supernatural entities, criminals, detectives, pirates, or some sort of romantic adventure.
Some of the stories were reprints of Gothic thrillers such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Others were original works inspired by criminal biographies and death-cell confessions. Some of the titles have been reprinted as collections or novels, or portrayed on stage or screen.
– The Flying Dutchman; Or the Demon Ship. Written by Thomas Preskett Prest and published in 1839, this tale based on the legend of the ghost pirate ship doomed to sail the oceans forever was one of the earliest of the penny dreadfuls.
– Varney the Vampire: or the Feast of Blood. This novel is alternately attributed to James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Preskett Prest. Published between 1845 and 1847, its over 800 pages concerns the persecution of the Bannerworth family by Sir Francis Varney, a vampire with a taste for the young Flora Bannerworth’s blood.
– The String of Pearls: A Romance. Also attributed to the prolific Rymer and Prest, this story was published between 1846 and 1847 and introduces Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.Todd is a barber in 1785 London who murders his customers and turns their remains into meat pies, sold at his partner in crime’s rather dubious pie shop. (You may recall him from Tim Burton’s 2007 musical film Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp.)
– The Mysteries of London: This series was begun in 1844 by George William McArthur Reynolds and later continued by various other authors. It tells a tale of depravity and squalor, exposing inequality and injustice towards the poor in the London slums. Notable characters include Richard Markham and Eliza Sydney, and a serial killer/body snatcher called The Resurrection Man.
– Black Bess or The Knight of the Road is a heavily fictionalized account of the life and death of the infamous English highwayman Dick Turpin, as written by Edward Viles. Black Bess was named for Dick Turpin’s horse on which Turpin allegedly rode the 200 miles between York and London in a single night. It was published as a serial between 1866 and 1868.
– The Boys of England: Edwin J. Brett’s magazine exemplifies the new focus of penny dreadfuls on exciting, but healthy fiction for boys. It was an instant success, and ran from 1866 to 1899.
Between 1830 and 1850, there were up to 100 publishers of penny fiction. By the 1890’s, however, penny dreadfuls were being challenged by periodicals priced at only one half-penny.
These were followed by the more substantial tuppenny (two penny) dreadfuls, and short, sensational novels such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which sold for a shilling. The penny dreadful was gradually replaced between the world wars by the modern horror genre and the more easily read and highly illustrated comic book.