For decades, since their conception in 1832, Penny Dreadfuls, 8 pages of lurid tales printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, specialized in highly gruesome material.
For the first 10 years or so there was a fair amount of romance mixed in as they initially attempted to rip off gothic novels, but the fact is, the horror and crime titles are what sold and they eventually dominated the penny dreadful landscape. In fact, another name for Penny Dreadfuls were Penny Bloods.
The typical reader of the dreadful was barely literate. The 8 pages were not dedicated to character development and layered themes. The point was to get to the action. Often a literate working class man at the pub would read the latest installment of Sweeney Todd and his murderous shenanigans to a table of his illiterate mates.
However more and more children were becoming literate too. In 1866 Edwin J Brent began publishing The Boys Of England, which featured tales of adventure with schoolboys as the heroes. It introduced the character of Jack Harkaway, who became beloved by an entire generation of british boys, and Boys Of England soared to record sales.
Thus penny dreadfuls began the shift to the youth market. Sweeny Todd and Varney the Vampire continued to sell well and heaven knows, boys ate their adventures up with great relish also, but despite everyone’s assumption that the working class youth was out of their minds with lust for the high gore content of the penny bloods, the truth was that they perferred high adventure and heroism with protagonists they could identify with over the murderous content that had thrilled their fathers.
As far as their fathers went, as the 1800s rolled on more and more periodicals began to be printed cheaply for a working class audience. Newspapers were a little expensive and difficult to read, but sure enough, tabloid press started to appear, culminating in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, the father of tabloid rags, still around today.
Thus the adult audience drifted away and the youth audience drifted in. From the 1870s to 1900 penny dreadfuls became cheap adventure serials for boys. (We’ll touch on what on earth girls had to bloody well amuse themselves with, although Victorian society being victorian society the content is not nearly as interesting and indeed was mostly morality and virtue lessons.) Dreadful after dreadful started throwing the word ‘Boy’ into every title.
Boys could not often afford the penny to buy their favorite dreadfuls, especially if they wanted to follow more than one. And thus the great tradition of the Boys’ Club came to the rescue.
Men form clubs. Boys form clubs. Groups of boys would pool their money together to buy their favorite dreadful(s) and pass them around.
New stars emerged. Tom Wildrake, Jack Harkaway, Tom Merry, Billy Bunter… Tom Wildrake, introduced in 1870 was particularly influential on the genre as it established certain tropes most later heroes followed. The story goes through the hero’s school days after which he gets on a boat and sets sail for some exotic location, like the Wild West or the Orient and of course high adventure ensues.
By the 1880s the transition was complete. Penny dreadful were entirely youth based and many groups concerned with the corrupting infulence of the penny dreadfuls on their children were publishing their own versions, with careful morality tales always built in.
Dime novels were big in the states. They were the cheap mass market paperbacks on the 1800s and they would be imported to England and serialized in the dreadfuls. The American West was in fact a source of never ending fascination and gave rise to characters such as Deadwood Dick, an immensely popular wild west outlaw who, along with Sexton Blake, lived long past the end of the dreadfuls. Deadwood Dick not only found himself the subject of many pulp adventures but starred in movie serials in the 1930s. He was so well known, that a number of actual American men living in infamous Deadwood, South Dakota adopted the name to increase their notoriety.
As the 20th century hit, perdiocals featuring adventure tales were being put out which were longer, featured more stories, and cost a bit more. Thus the transition to pulp books began.
The moral watchdogs of Victorian society had been decrying the dreadfuls for decades. Interestingly, the transformation of the penny dreadful from lurid to youth entertainment had done nothing to silence the critics. Indeed, the most vocal elements against them were opposed to escapist fiction of any type, especially for the the young. They blamed escapist fiction for juvenile crime utterly ignoring such petty reasons as poverty and prostitution. Actually, at the height of the storypaper boom juvenile crime went down.
In 1893 published Alfred Harmsworth took it upon himself to end the penny dreadful market and its corrupting influence upon the young by publishing story rags at a HALF penny, but with well written, highly moral tales. He began The Union Jack. The Union Jack story is quite famous as within a few years the Hamrsworth publication had resorted to the exact same level as the penny dreadfuls he was trying to run out. The creator of Winnie The Pooh, A.A. Milne was quoted as saying “Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.”
Leading up the WWI another change that signaled the end of the penny dreadful was the invention of the comic. Basically, the cheap rags that were the penny dreadful started becoming devoted to reprinting comic strips and eventually serialized comics, which attracted the young and the barely literate formally wooed by the dreadful. Adventure tales moved to pulp magazines and with the paper drives of WWI the era penny dreadful was well and truly finished. Afterwards it was comics and pulps.
By the late 20th century of course the comic book had become dominant and people such as myself grew up reading the fantastic, serialized adventures of mighty heroes battling nefarious villains in fantastic and often cosmic settings. Comic books combined what had been the comic and the pulp.
As for the literate once catered to by the pulp, in recent years there has been a sudden explosion in the market for childrens and young adult books. Spurred on by Harry Potter the young adult book market occupies a place the penny dreadful and the pulp novel once did. Supernatural elements, gothic romances, adventure stories, fantastical heroes, it’s all there. Hell, VAMPIRES! Remember the runaway success of the Varney the Vampire penny dreadful? Well….vampires, still around. Still selling. Still dominating the same market. And even better, the writing of young adult fiction, while not always pulitzer prize winning, is consistently better then many of the predecessors AND is quite friendly to the female market, offering girls also fantastic and imaginative adventures.