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A penny dreadful (also called penny horrible, penny awful, penny number, and penny blood[n 1]) was a type of British fiction publication in the 19th century that usually featured lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one (old) 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.
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Victorian Britain experienced social changes that resulted in increased literacy rates. With the rise of capitalism and industrialisation, people began to spend more money on entertainment, contributing to the popularisation of the novel. Improvements in printing resulted in newspapers such as Joseph Addison’s The Spectator and Richard Steele’s The Tatler, and England's more fully recognizing the singular concept of reading as a form of leisure; it was, of itself, a new industry. Other significant changes included industrialization and an increased capacity for travel via the invention of tracks, engines, and the corresponding railway distribution.
In accordance with these changes, the demand for literature in the mid-nineteenth century intensified dramatically. The penny dreadfuls, named for both their cheap nature, and poor, sensational quality, erupted into existence and met the desires of the poor class. The penny dreadfuls “became by far the most alluring and low-priced form of escapist reading available to ordinary youth, until the advent in the early 1890s of future newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth’s price-cutting ‘halfpenny dreadfuller’ (Springhall 568).” The term "dreadful" was originally assumed to express societal anxiety or moral alarm over the new profitable innovation directed at the youth. In reality, the serial novels were overdramatic and sensational, but generally harmless. If anything, the penny dreadfuls, although obviously not the most enlightening or inspiring of literary selections, resulted in increasingly literate youth in the Industrial period. The wide circulation of this sensationalist literature, however, contributed to an ever greater fear of crime in mid-Victorian Britain.
These serials started 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 (introducing 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 English 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.
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 interest. It was printed on the same cheap paper, though it sported a larger format than the penny parts.
Numerous competitors quickly followed, with such titles as Boys' Leisure Hour, Boys' Standard, Young Men of Great Britain, etc. As the price and quality of other types of fiction works were the same, these also fell under the general definition of penny dreadfuls.
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.
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.
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.
The fictional Sweeney Todd, the subject of both a successful musical by Stephen Sondheim and a feature film by Tim Burton, also first appeared in an 1846/1847 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls: A Romance
Over time, the penny dreadfuls evolved 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.
The Irish literary magazine The Penny Dreadful takes its name from the penny dreadfuls.
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