A penny dreadful (also called penny horrible, penny awful, penny number and penny blood) 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.
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. 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. 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 harmless. If anything, the penny dreadfuls, although obviously not the most enlightening and 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 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, Spring-Heeled Jack and Varney the Vampire. Highwaymen also were popular heroes.
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 late 1893, a publisher, Alfred Harmsworth, decided to do something about what was apparently perceived as the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls (anticipating later moral panics over horror comics in the USA , the ‘H’ (for “horrific”) film certificate and ‘video nasties’ in the UK). He issued new story papers, all priced at one half-penny. At first, the stories were high-minded moral tales 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.”