As the Showtime series Penny Dreadful captures the hearts and imaginations of horror lovers everywhere, it has come to my attention that not everyone is familiar with what an actual Penny Dreadful is. Let's change that, shall we?
Also referred to as a Penny Awful, Penny Number and Penny Blood, Penny Dreadfuls were a type of British fiction publication prevalent in the 19th century. They featured serial stories, of a lurid and horrific nature, appearing in parts over several weeks; each part cost one penny. Soon, the term began to encompass a variety of publications that focused on sensational stories. Penny Dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and aimed, primarily, at working class adolescents.
Victorian Britain saw social changes that brought increased literacy and this, in turn, created a demand for literature. The Penny Dreadfuls, named for their cheap nature and sensationalist stories, met the desire of the poor class who desired literature, but could not afford Charles Dickens,which cost a shilling (twelve pennies). By the 1850's, the stories were aimed at teenagers and the stories themselves were reprints or rewrites of traditional Gothic thrillers, the best example being the introduction of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls: A Romance.
Numerous competitors followed and American dime novels were also rewritten and edited for the British audience. Soon, Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick were popular with the Penny Dreadful audience . Over time, the Penny Dreadfuls evolved into the British comic magazines. Because of their perceived lack of value and cheap production, a true Penny Dreadful is a rare item to come across today.