Penny Dreadful, Read ’em Here (1830s — 1900s)
Tuesday’s Tale of Terror July 1, 2014
Imagine you are in Victorian England. While you cannot afford to buy one of Charles Dickens’ stories at twelve shillings, you can afford to buy a Penny Dreadful (also known as “bloods” or “shilling shockers”) for one penny and dive into the scintillating stories of vampires, wehr-wolves, pirates, robbers, Roman gladiators, Highwaymen, Goths, and so much more.
At the time, the readers of Penny Dreadfuls were the semi-literate, working class British. The stories were written by hack writers (bad writing is not a crime so let’s keep an open mind) who were paid a penny a line for their—what was considered ‘vulgar’—stories. The readers at the time were mostly young adults, and far more male readers than females. Today, statistics say that males account for only 20% of the fiction readers.
Probably one of the most enticing parts of these stories were the lurid illustrations (woodcuts). Don’t we all have a taste for the visually sensational? And don’t we rely on literature to satisfy our needs for melodrama and murder?
Today we have Penny Dreadful, the current TV-series on ShowTime, created by screenwriter John Logan. If you are looking for a throttling psychosexual horror drama, this will fulfill (see it “On Demand”). We have the beautiful vampire huntress Vanessa Ives, a sharpshooter Josh Harnett, African explorer and vampire hunter Sir Malcolm Murray, a prostitute dying of consumption Brona Croft, Frankenstein (and his monster), and Dorian Grey. This drama is for adults, and it’s far from any kind of hack writing. It is profoundly well written, rich in story, and a stunning interweaving of compelling characters. Thrills and chills for sure!
But, if you want to experience the original Penny Dreadful from Victorian England, I’ve found four stories online for your blood-thirsty pleasures: Varney the Vampire; The Mysteries of London; String of Pearls (A Romance) The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. These are not short stories but more novella length, and were presented in the Penny Dreadful editions as a weekly or monthly series. I’ve included a paragraph of text for you to get a flavor of the writing.
Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest
“The solemn tones of an old cathedral clock have announced midnight—the air is thick and heavy—a strange, death like stillness pervades all nature. Like the ominous calm which precedes some more than usually terrific outbreak of the elements, they seem to have paused even in their ordinary fluctuations, to gather a terrific strength for the great effort. A faint peal of thunder now comes from far off. Like a signal gun for the battle of the winds to begin, it appeared to awaken them from their lethargy, and one awful, warring hurricane swept over a whole city, producing more devastation in the four or five minutes it lasted, than would a half century of ordinary phenomena.”
Read Varney the Vampire at Gutenberg.org
Listen to audio version at Librivox.org (read in a lovely English accent)
The Mysteries of London by George W.M. Reynolds
“Crime is abundant in this city: the lazar-house, the prison, the brothel, and the dark alley, are rife with all kinds of enormity; in the same way as the palace, the mansion, the club-house, the parliament, and the parsonage, are each and all characterised by their different degrees and shades of vice. But wherefore specify crime and vice by their real names, since in this city of which we speak they are absorbed in the multi-significant words – WEALTH and POVERTY … From this city of strange contrasts branch off two roads, leading to two points totally distinct the one from the other. One winds its tortuous way through all the noisome dens of crime, chicanery, dissipation, and voluptuousness: the other meanders amidst rugged rocks and wearisome acclivities, it is true, but on the wayside are the resting-places of rectitude and virtue.
Along those roads two youths are journeying. They have started from the same point; but one pursues the former path, and the other the latter. Both come from the city of fearful contrasts; and both follow the wheels of fortune in different directions. Where is that city of fearful contrasts? – Who are those youths that have thus entered upon paths so opposite the one to the other? And to what destinies do those separate roads conduct them?“
.Read Mysteries of London at VictorianLondon.org
String of Pearls (A Romance), The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
“Before Fleet-street had reached its present importance, and when George the Third was young, and the two figures who used to strike the chimes at old St Dunstan’s church were in all their glory – being a great impediment to errand-boys on their progress, and a matter of gaping curiosity to country people – there stood close to the sacred edifice a small barber’s shop, which was kept by a man of the name of Sweeney Todd). How it was that he came by the name of Sweeney, as a Christian appellation, we are at a loss to conceive, but such was his name, as might be seen in extremely corpulent yellow letters over his shop window, by anyone who chose there to look for it. Barbers by that time in Fleet-street had not become fashionable, and no more dreamt of calling themselves artists than of taking the Tower by storm; moreover they were not, as they are now, constantly slaughtering fine fat bears, and yet somehow people had hair on their heads just the same as they have at present, without the aid of that unctuous auxiliary. Moreover Sweeney Todd, in common with his brethren in those really primitive sorts of times, did not think it at all necessary to have any waxen effigies of humanity in his window. There was no languishing young lady looking over the left shoulder in order that a profusion of auburn tresses might repose upon her lily neck, and great conquerors and great statesmen were not then, as they are now, held up to public ridicule with dabs of rouge upon their cheeks, a quantity of gunpowder scattered in for a beard, and some bristles sticking on end for eyebrows.
No. Sweeney Todd was a barber of the old school, and he never thought of glorifying himself on account of any extraneous circumstance. If he had lived in Henry the Eighth’s palace, it would have been all the same to him as Henry the Eighth’s dog-kennel, and he would scarcely have believed human nature to be so green as to pay an extra sixpence to be shaven and shorn in any particular locality.
A long pole painted white, with a red stripe curling spirally round it, projected into the street from his doorway, and on one of the panes of glass in his window was presented the following couplet: Easy shaving for a penny, As good as you will find any.”
Read String of Pearls (Demon Barber) at VictorianLondon.org
Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf George W.M. Reynolds
“It was the month of January, 1516. The night was dark and tempestuous; the thunder growled around; the lightning flashed at short intervals: and the wind swept furiously along in sudden and fitful gusts. The streams of the great Black Forest of Germany babbled in playful melody no more, but rushed on with deafening din, mingling their torrent roar with the wild creaking of the huge oaks, the rustling of the firs, the howling of the affrighted wolves, and the hollow voices of the storm. The dense black clouds were driving restlessly athwart the sky; and when the vivid lightning gleamed forth with rapid and eccentric glare, it seemed as if the dark jaws of some hideous monster, floating high above, opened to vomit flame.
And as the abrupt but furious gusts of wind swept through the forest, they raised strange echoes—as if the impervious mazes of that mighty wood were the abode of hideous fiends and evil spirits, who responded in shrieks, moans, and lamentations to the fearful din of the tempest. It was, indeed, an appalling night! An old—old man sat in his cottage on the verge of the Black Forest. He had numbered ninety years; his head was completely bald—his mouth was toothless—his long beard was white as snow, and his limbs were feeble and trembling.”
Read Wagner the Wehr-Wolf at Gutenberg.org
If you’ve read any of these stories, I’d love to hear your comments. Have you been watching Penny Dreadful on ShowTime? Don’t be shy about comments. We all friendly here: no bites or blood-sucking allowed. And of course, if you prefer the quieter side of horror (more psychological or ghostly without blood and violence), there’s plenty of free short stories in the archives (browse the Index above). Since I’m a quiet horror reader and writer, most of the stories here are at the soft-core horror level.
Other Reading Web Sites to Visit
Horror Novel Reviews Hell Horror HorrorPalace
Monster Librarian Tales to Terrify Spooky Reads
Lovecraft Ezine Rob Around Books The Story Reading Ape Blog
The Gothic Wanderer Sirens Call Publications The Fussy Librarian
For Authors/Writers: The Writer Unboxed
Don’t forget to view the INDEX above of more free Tales of Terror classic Authors.
3 responses to “Penny Dreadful Stories, Read ‘em Here!”
I think the penny dreadfuls cost a penny each. Someone earning sixpence a week could therefore afford them. I had no idea that Sweeney Todd was one of them, and I must say that I like the Dickensian literary style, with its long sentences and exaggerated language. Great fun!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, Jay. Showtime has done a great job with this series. The violence is pretty high, in my opinion, and that’s usually a turn-off for me, but they handled it pretty well so I managed through. The storylines and the psychological horror is irresistible. I think a lot of people are seeing it On Demand now.
What a fascinating post! I am aware of the Showtime series but haven’t seen any of it (these premium cable channels are really putting the full court press on my miserly tendencies lately!). I wasn’t aware of the actual history of the Penny Dreadfuls, though, and am now lost in imaginings of myself as a “semi-literate working class” Londoner (as opposed to a semi-literate working class Hoosier) waiting in line with a pence or two to purchase the latest episode of a series…
I love those illustrations as well. And Spring-Helled Jack! I haven’t heard that name in years, though his “legend” was part of a paperback book (of “Stranger Than Fiction” stories) my brothers and I read often when we were kids. Thanks for excavating that memory. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person