Friday, 11 December 2015

Penny Dreadfuls 

During the 19th century, a sub-genre of sensationalist literature called Penny fiction (also referred to as "Penny dreadfuls" or "Penny bloods") flourished in the urban environments of England. These cheap serialised stories were published weekly in booklets of 8 or 16 pages, and was especially popular amongst the working classes. Because the continued publication of a penny dreadful depended on a stable readership, publishers often pressured their writers to make the storylines as dramatic and shocking as possible as well as prioritising resplendent illustrations over substance (Haining 31). As they were not particularly concerned about the quality of writing or a consistency between the different issues, much of it now looked at as subpar in comparison to the "regular" novels of the time, but that isn't to say that many great works of fiction weren't also created. 

The Boy Detective (1866), Jack Harkaway's Schooldays (1880), and Black Bess, Or, The Knight of The Road: A Tale Of The Good Old Times (1868) are just a few examples of penny dreadfuls with great illustrations. The drawings were designed to catch the eye of any potential reader, and thus didn't necessarily correlate with the plot of the booklet. (Haining 31)

  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

An illustration of Sweeney Todd with one of his victims
Amongst some of the most notable penny dreadfuls to be published is The String of Pearls: A Romance (1846-47) written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, where the famous fictional character Sweeney Todd had his debut. Todd is a barber and a serial killer, who murders his customers before looting and disposing of their bodies by pulling a lever which sends them down to his basement; subsequently, his partner in crime Mrs. Lovett makes pies of the corpses and sell them to unknowing citizens. Of course, there is much more to it than that, but looking at the main plot summarised it is quite ironic that the original title has "romance" in it.

"Of all the tales of crime and bloodshed which it has fallen to the lot of the historian or novelist to chronicle, we doubt if any other can compare on the point of horror with the story of Sweeney todd" (Mack, 2007, paratext)

Throughout the years The String of Pearls has seen countless adaptions and reinterpretations. Between the years 1847 and 1848 an expanded version of the story was published and later turned into a novel version. It was also adapted into a musical in 1847 and has since then been performed in different versions over the world. In recent times, Sweeney Todd is still a widely recognised name; Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter starred in the most recent cinematic adaption of the story, called "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and directed by Tim Burton. This film was my first introduction to the story and I personally really enjoy it.

A poster from the Tim Burton film adaption
of Sweeney Todd. 
It is definitely interesting to see the evolution of the character as time has progressed. Contrasted to the original version, the film's title makes it clear it is supposed to be scary. It's not referred to as "a romance" anymore, yet the film does romanticise his character nonetheless. If the makers really wanted Todd to be a "demon," they would not have cast Johnny Depp to play him. So readers are supposed to sympathise with him as he has been wronged and his murdering ways are justified in the name vengeance.

When I visited The London Dungeons in 2012, they had a section dedicated to Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. We were asked to sit down in barber chairs, before the lights went out and scary sound effects played to make it sound like we were about to become his next victims. There was also a section where an actor playing Mrs. Lovett was telling us about her "special pies" which contained a secret ingredient. It was quite funny and only slightly scary. I think the story of Sweeney Todd is so sensationalist and over the top that people find it less scary and more morbidly intriguing.


Varney The Vampire

Another hugely popular penny dreadful is Varney The Vampire; or A Feast of Blood (1845-47) to which authorship is also credited to Thomas Preskett Prest and James Malcolm Rymer. A significant thing about Varney The Vampire is that it is one of the earliest vampire stories ever published, predating other famous vampire stories like for instance Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and Le Fanu's Carmilla (1871-72). Varney is and excellent example of a penny dreadful's tendency to not bother keeping up consistencies between the issues. As this story was released over several years and spanned over a thousand pages, several plotlines were started off and dropped without any conclusion, yet it was a vastly popular series (Owen). 

"The following romance is collected from seemingly the most authentic sources, and the Author must leave the question of credibility entirely to his readers, not even thinking that he in his peculiarly called upon to express his own opinion upon the subject." (Prest, paratext). Varney The Vampire was no doubt intriguing and entertaining for the public as it kept them interested for so long, and it also helped pave the way for other works of fiction about vampires.

Illustration from the first chapter of Varney. Here,
Varney attacks a young woman and drinks her blood.

I first learned about Penny Dreadfuls from the Showtime TV series with the same name. This is a show set in Victorian times mixing together several popular sensationalist novels (ex. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.) The name is very fitting because the plotline is sensational, the visual elements are put in focus and it borrows a lot of material from other works of fiction, something penny dreadfuls were notorious for.


Works Cited (Research): 

Flanders, Judith. 'Penny Dreadfuls'. The British Library. N.p., 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Haining, Peter. Mystery! An Illustrated History of Crime and Detective Fiction. London: Souvenir Press Ltd, 1977. Print.
Lesvampires.org,. 'Varney The Vampire'. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
Mack, Robert L. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. N.p., Oxford University Press UK, 2007. Ebook
Owen, Lauren. 'Varney – The Forgotten Vampire | The Gothic Imagination'. Gothic.stir.ac.uk. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
Prest, Thomas Preskett. Varney The Vampire Or The Feast Of Blood. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Ebook.

Works Cited (Images):

Viles, Edward. Black Bess, Or, The Knight Of The Road : A Tale Of The Good Old Times. 1868. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Unknown,. The Boy Detective; Or, The Crimes Of London. A Romance Of Modern Times. 1866. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Prest, Thomas Prescott. Varney The Vampire. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Rymer, James M. Sweeney Todd And A Victim. 1850. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Sweeney Todd Poster. 2007. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

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