13 April 2010

News and Media: Penny Dreadfuls

By Lorelie Brown

Once upon a time, there was a whole genre of fiction decried as trash and pilloried as not worth the time it took to read it.

No, I'm not talking about romance novels.

Penny dreadfuls were published in mid 19th century Britain, and were often called "shilling shockers" and "bloods" and a host of other names. They started around 1830, because Charles Dickens' works were just too expensive for many, at a whole 12 shillings each. Heh. To you and I, the cheap paper and bindings would make them look more like magazines, but to the newly-literate of the day, they were books. Awesome books that they couldn't get enough of.

They carried titles like "Varney the Vampire" and "Wagner the Wehr-Wolf." (I love that second title, personally. I think I'm going to have to read it.) They were cheaply made and cheaply sold, and packs of boys in Britain would either save up together to buy them or trade them around from hand to hand. Supposedly particularly enterprising young men would scrape together the money for a set and rent them out.

I love this idea. Love it, love it, love it, especially in the face of those that complain that pure literature is going downhill and evil, mean publishing is throwing to the wolves those that write enduring classics. Seriously. Publishing has always been about giving readers what they want and if "classics" happen to shake out from it, so much the better. But we won't really know what gets classified as a classic until our great-great-grandchildren are in their college level English classes.

Eh, I'm good with that.

For now, I'd much rather poke around what was considered trash more than a hundred years ago.

In the United States, Penny Dreadfuls were known as "dime novels," because they usually cost a dime. (Duh. Heh.) But despite that name, there were tons of different series and costs and printings. Different sizes, both in terms of pages and dimensions, abounded as well. Publishers would come out with new covers, and re-release old best sellers. (Sound familiar?)

The only thing that killed the penny dreadfuls and dime novels were even cheaper, trashier stories. In about 1893, a guy named Alfred Harmsworth started publishing story papers for only a half-penny each. Sweet.

Buffalo Bill featured heavily in many of the later dime novels. There were others with highwaymen, gothics and stories about famous killers. Spring Heeled Jack, a psychotic killed who haunted London. A Stringful of Pearls: A Romance was the original title of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Butcher. Fun times. No, seriously, I think they do sound like fun. Stanford University has a collection of 8,000 dime novels, some of which they've converted to be read online. Look, they've got Jesse James, the Outlaw! There goes the rest of my afternoon.