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The True Delights of Penny Dreadfuls

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What’s not to love about Showtime’s new gothic series Penny Dreadful? It features Doctor Frankenstein and his monster, Dracula’s Mina Harker, and Wilde’s Dorian Gray, along with séances, ancient Egyptian vampires, gunslingers, serial killers, and maybe even a werewolf, set against the mysterious backdrop of Victorian London. My one bone to pick is that the series and its rich online media presence make so little reference so far to the actual penny dreadfuls that inspired the title. “Penny dreadful” and the earlier “penny blood” are terms used to refer to cheap serialized gothic, mystery, and adventure stories that were produced for a mass audience in 19th-century England. These writers drew upon the classic gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th century like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but also cribbed true crime stories like the criminal narratives of the Newgate calendars. Showtime’s series invokes Frankenstein (written before the penny dreadful era proper), Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray (written at the era’s end), but they makes no reference to actual penny stories like Sweeney Todd.  

Penny bloods and dreadfuls were printed on poor-quality paper and so surviving issues are usually reserved for use in the rare book and special collections divisions of research libraries. Some of the best examples in the New York Public Library’s collection are held in the Arents Collection of Books in Part served through the Rare Books Division. Pictured above is an Arents copy of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street from the 1870s, a revision of the original story The String of Pearls from the 1840s. This gruesome series served as the inspiration for later adaptations by Stephen Sondheim and Tim Burton. Not all penny stories were so gothic. Many were adventure and bandit stories like the The Blue Dwarf: A Tale of Love, Mystery, and Crime pictured below from the Arents Collection.

The Blue Dwarf features Richard Turpin, a famous 18th-century highwayman who was fictionalized in many penny dreadfuls like Black Bess, or a Knight of the Road. These criminal narratives became increasingly controversial for their supposed bad influence on young boys, who were main consumers of these tales in the later 19th century.

Thanks to many digitization projects you don’t necessarily need to consult special collections in order to access these original sources. Digitized versions of penny bloods and dreadfuls are available in online text archives like the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and HathiTrust, as well as in subscription databases like Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO), which is available onsite at all New York Public Library locations. Digitized versions can be found in our catalog under the subject heading “Penny dreadfuls – Specimens” with links to the digital file in NCCO. Here are some links to selected titles available in the Library’s collection, online through Hathi and Internet Archive, and in the subscription database NCCO. At the end are vampire and werewolf anthologies that include some penny stories available to borrow from our circulating collections.

Thomas Peckett Prest.  Life of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  London: Charles Fox, ca. 1878.

George William MacArthur Reynolds. Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf.

Percy B. St. John. The Blue Dwarf: A Tale of Love, Mystery, and Crime: Introducing Many Startling Incidents in the Life of that Celebrated Highwayman, Dick Turpin. London: Hogarth House, [ca. 1885]

Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood. [New York] Arno Press [c1970]. 

Nineteenth Century Collections Online

James Malcolm Rymer. The Night Adventurer, or, The Palaces and Dungeons of the Heart. London : E. Lloyd, 1846. 

James Malcolm Rymer. The Black Monk; or, The Secret of the Grey Turret London, E. Lloyd, 1844. 

Edward Viles. Black Bess, or, The Knight of the Road: A Tale of the Good Old Times. London: F. Harrison, [1868]. 

Hathi Trust

George W. M. Reynolds. The Mysteries of the Court of London. by George W. M. Reynolds. London J. Dicks, 1850-56. 

George W. M. Reynolds. The Necromancer. A Romance. London, J. Dicks [1888]. 

Circulating Titles

Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. New York, NY: Walker & Co., 2010. 

The Literary Werewolf: An Anthology. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002. 

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