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Penny dreadfuls

Related: paraliterature - British literature - British exploitation

In other countries Groschenroman (DE) - dime novels (USA) - romans de gare (FR)

The term penny dreadful, meaning "cheap and gory fiction" dates from c.1870 --Online Etymology Dictionary [Jan 2006]


In the United Kingdom in the 19th century, a penny dreadful was a low-priced magazine or novel that could be purchased for a penny. In the United States they were called dime novels.

Penny dreadfuls often involved melodramatic tales of vice and virtue in conflict, often with strong elements of horror and cruelty.

Philip Pullman has written several "modern penny dreadfuls" in this style including Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, (The Sally Lockhart Trilogy) which, while themselves penny dreadfuls, also incorporate the atmosphere in which the novels thrived. [Jan 2006]

In the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain, developments in printing and an increased literacy rate amongst the general population encouraged the production of publications aimed at a wide range of people, many of whom had little money to spend on reading material and limited reading skills. Thus arose the market for the penny dreadfuls. Penny dreadfuls were magazines published on inexpensive paper with fairly simple but exciting stories crammed together with often crude, vivid visuals seen at the time as being just as important as the written material. In 1873, Hotten’s Slang Dictionary defined them as "those penny publications which depend more upon sensationalism than upon merit, artistic or literary, for success." The term is also sometimes used to refer to the stories and serialized novels themselves. --http://www.ryerson.ca/~denisoff/dreadful-defined.html [Jan 2006]

Sweeney Todd, demon barber

For generations, scholars and historians have debated the existence of the Demon Barber. Sweeney Todd's first known appearance in print was in an 1846 "penny dreadful," a type of horror tale of the era published in serial form, The People's Periodical. The razor-wielding barber who turned his victims into meat pies was a secondary character in the short story The String of Pearls: A Romance, written by Thomas Prest. With its bloody killing spree, ghoulish villain and macabre recipe for disposing the evidence, "The String of Pearls" was perfect fodder for the Victorian imagination. --http://www.pbs.org/kqed/demonbarber/penny/ [Jan 2006]

Todd first appeared in a penny dreadful called The People's Periodical, in issue 7, dated November 21, 1846. The story in which he appeared was called "The String of Pearls: A Romance" and was probably written by Thomas Prest who created a number of other gruesome villains. He tended to base his horror stories on grains of truth, sometimes gaining inspiration from real crime reports in The Times. However an episode in the legend of Saint Nicholas may represent yet an even earlier version. This episode, which likely developed in the eleventh century, sees three clerks seeking accomodations for the night. In the night, their host murders them and, at the advice of his wife, decides to dispose of the evidence by baking the clerks into meat pies. The saint eventually resurrects the young scholars. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_Todd [Jan 2006]

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