What is a penny dreadful?

Showtime Penny Dreadful Eva Green as Vanessa Ives

Tonight is the official premiere of Showtime’s new critically-acclaimed gothic thriller series Penny Dreadful, and the publicity surrounding the show has many people wondering, “Who is Penny Dreadful? Was she a real person?” However, the question that should be asked isn’t “Who is Penny Dreadful?” but rather, “What is a penny dreadful?”

Penny dreadfuls were serial stories that were first published in Great Britain in the 1830s. Printed on cheap pulp paper these flimsy booklets telling lurid tales of suspense and horror were created to fill the demand created by an increased literacy rate in Britain after the rise of capitalism and industrialization.

Penny_Dreadful Spring Heel'd Jack

Initially they would often feature notorious criminals, or were simply retellings of classic Gothic stories. As you probably guessed, the publications cost one penny and were meant as a less expensive alternative to popular fiction at the time written by such authors as Charles Dickens, which cost a shilling, or twelve pennies.

Though originally intended for adults, the penny dreadfuls eventually began to focus in on the young adult and adolescent audiences.

Penny Dreadful Varney the Vampire

These penny dreadful became hugely popular among British youth and would eventually expand their subject matter to include numerous varieties of sensational fiction, leading eventually to American dime store novels and British comic books.

Two of the most popular characters to originate in the penny dreadful publications were “Jack Harkaway, introduced in the Boys of England in 1871, and Sexton Blake, who began in the Half-penny Marvel in 1893,” according to Wikipedia.

Penny Dreadful String of Pearls Sweeney Todd

Another famous character who debuted on the pages of a penny dreadful is Sweeney Todd (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), who first appeared in The String of Pearls: A Romance (photo above) in 1846/47 and was later the subject of both a full-length motion picture directed by Tim Burton as well as a musical by Stephen Sondheim.

Penny Dreadful airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on Showtime, but you can also check the premiere out now online at www.sho.com/sho/penny-dreadful/home

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