“A world of dormant peerages, of murderous baronets, and ladies of title addicted to the study of toxicology, of gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses” – George Augustus Sala, The Seven Sons of Mammon: a story, 3 vols. (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1862), ii, p. 22-3.
Victorian London life had a plethora of creepy aspects, such as their love for freak shows, the slayings of the horrific Jack the Ripper, and their obsession of Memento Mori (Latin phrase for “Remember you shall die”) where families used to pose for photographs with their dead loved ones. With such morbid and beautifully gothic things going on in this era it was only right that they produced a small booklet of stories called Penny Dreadful’s. For a penny, you could buy a piece of a horror/gothic story. The String of Pearls: A Romance, introducing Sweeney Todd and Varney the Vampire for example where a few of this era’s favorites.
In the birth of the Penny Dreadful , their stories focused mostly around adventures, pirates and highwaymen. But later the themes grew much darker to stories filled with murder, vampires, and witches. These series of stories were priced especially low for the young working class males due to increased literacy rates in the 1830s. The Penny Dreadful itself was made from wood pulp with colorful haunting images printed onto the fronts of each series.
Slowly but surely the commodity of the Penny Dreadful faded away but not the fascination. In 2014 Penny Dreadful a Showtime series featuring Eva Green and Josh Hartnett premiered based on many characters from 19th-century Penny Dreadful’s, including Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Renfield and Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Victor Frankenstein and his monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Dr. Henry Jekyll from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Sadly in 2016 the show ended its 3 year run (which many fans were disappointed in), but I do recommend reliving the fantastic stories of each haunting character by catching the entire season now on Netflix!
For your enjoyment, here’s a little taste of an original Penny Dreadful story below, a treat for your October reads.