Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dreadful Books Offered Gratis By British Library

One of the Most Popular Penny Dreadfuls, Starring Dick Turpin, Highwayman. (Circa 1866.)

It's a red-hot, red letter day for Amazon Kindle owners. The British Library has announced that 65,000 rare 19th century literary first editions will be offered as free downloads to owners of the device beginning in Spring of 2010. Thanks to a joint venture with Microsoft, the no-cost titles will reproduce the original type-face and illustrations from such classic works as Charles Dickens's Bleak House, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.

While having an electronic facsimile of a valuable first edition is a treat for fans of highbrow literature, what about readers seeking the pleasure that comes from biting into a nice, juicy, raw, piece of pulp? Can kinky Kindle owners looking for graphic kicks with a side of sensationalism find anything to sate their savage appetites from the staid British Library? Happily, along with the high class fiction, the UK library's freebies will also include the world's finest collection of cheap, tawdry, lowdown, lowbrow, Victorian trash. Get ready to heat up your cold Kindle with a torrid "Penny Dreadful."

A True Crime Penny Dreadful, Based On the Story Of A Real-Life Victorian Era Criminal.
(Circa 1880.)

If horror-master Stephen King fathered a child with "true crime" queen Ann Rule, and the kid became a comic book illustrator, you'd end up with a Penny Dreadful. The British version of a dime novel, these serialized stories were originally aimed at working class readers who couldn't afford the one shilling freight for mainstream monthly fiction produced by authors like Dickens. Instead of costing the equivalent of 12 pennies a month, these weekly cheapies gave avid readers of lurid tales a taste of their drug of choice for a penny a pop. The poorest of the poor formed clubs to share the price of a weekly fix, pooling their cash for the high that only a straight-up shot of scandalous storytelling can supply. The addictive substance that cooled their cravings four times a month was called a "Penny Number" or "Penny Story," but, like most drugs, it soon earned a more colorful nickname that stuck: "Penny Dreadful."

Spring Heeled Jack: Urban Legend Meets Penny Dreadful. (Reprint of 1890 Edition.)

The content of the Penny Dreadfuls ran from rewrites of well-known Gothic works, like The Castle of Otranto, to all new tales of the criminal escapades of pirates and highwaymen. The first pulp publication to pander to the baser instincts of not-so-proper Victorians, The Penny Story-Teller by William Strange, was printed in 1832. But the man who came up with the idea of a lurid, long-running weekly serial at eight pages for a penny was "Dreadful King" Edward Lloyd. A mechanic by trade, Lloyd ran a small London shop and noted the popularity of serialized fiction among his customers. Taking advantage of the lack of copyright laws protecting creative works, he published The Penny Pickwick by Bos, a shameless appropriation of Dickens's Pickwick Papers, in 1839. Eventually he went on to publish more original works, and over the next two decades was responsible for printing over 200 different serial titles.

A Gothic Dreadful: Varney The Vampire, The English Count Dracula. (Circa 1847.)

The most popular of the dreadfuls included highly glamorized sagas of real-life criminals like highwayman Dick Turpin, take-offs on folk heroes like Robin Hood, and horror variants like Varney the Vampire, an English version of Count Dracula. The original Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was a character in one of Edward Lloyd's most successful weeklies, The String of Pearls. Another popular anti-hero was based on a London urban legend. "Spring Heeled Jack" was half-man, half-devil, with superhuman strength, and like a later pop culture icon, the "ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound." His notoriety and evil deeds were later duplicated by a true-life Victorian mystery man, Jack the Ripper. The common ingredients in all of these tales were violence, adventure, crime, mayhem, and gore. The penny weeklies became so sordid they earned the nickname "Penny Bloods," as well as the derogatory name that stuck, "Penny Dreadfuls."

Though originally aimed at working-class men, the audience of the penny weeklies consisted mainly of teen-aged boys. Publishers pandered to the market to such an extent that juvenile delinquency and crime were soon blamed on the influence of "impure literature." As one Member of Parliament wrote in 1895, attention must be "directed to recent revelations as to the pernicious consequences of the unrestricted circulation of cheap literature of a grossly demoralising and corrupting character amongst the young." A publisher with the ironic name of Alfred Harmsworth attempted to stem the tide of moral decay by publishing uplifting boy's adventures attractively priced at a cut-rate half a penny. Alas the poor sales of these purified pulps led Harmsworth to soon begin publishing tales just as lurid as those he once condemned. A.A. Milne (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) wrote that, "Harmsworth killed the Penny Dreadful by the simple process of producing his ha'penny dreadfuller."

Penny Less Dreadful: One Of Harmsworth's Uplifting Pulps. (1891.)

By the time of the First World War, Penny Dreadfuls were evolving into what we now know as comic books. Due to their low price, cheap paper, poor production values, and bad reputation, very few readers saw any reason to hold onto to their favorite adventures once they became last week's news. This perceived disposabilty, along with other threats such as war-time paper drives, has made the early Penny Dreadfuls both rare and collectible. The British Library was fortunate to receive a fine collection of these Victorian pulps from a single donor. In 1948, music hall performer Barry Ono gave over 700 pop fiction titles to the institution's archives. It is from this group that the Amazon Kindle downloads will be taken. So for those who yearn for some spicy and exotic dishes to go with the everyday wholesome fare on their literary menu, the British library has cooked up just the right combination. A little taste of the pulps alongside a dollop of the classics. Let's just hope none of it comes from Mrs. Lovett's House of Pies. You know the one, right next door to Sweeney Todd's barbershop.

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