“To her and none other. Swear to give the girl to me to do with as I please, and I will agree that for every person now in yonder town, a death notch shall be made.”
“Red Hatchet agrees. When he can count the death notches of all his sworn enemies, and is free to go back to his once pretty village, he will deliver Siska to the Devil Dwarf to do with as he pleases.”
“Then call the girl. We will tap a vein in her arm, and seal this compact with a draught of her blood!” the avenger said.
~~Excerpt from Deadwood Dick’s Doom (or Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure)
If you love to read like I do, you may be surprised to learn that stories like Deadwood Dick’s Doom (above) paved the way for your favorite author today. These stories, originally known as Penny Dreadfuls, were the first successful mass market paperbacks. First popularized in Victorian Britain, Penny Dreadfuls, sometimes referred to as Penny Bloods, were lurid serial fiction stories published in weekly eight or sixteen page installments, with each part costing one penny. The term quickly became applied to any publication featuring sensational fiction such as story papers and booklet libraries.
Also known in Britain as Shilling Shockers, these stories could best be described in one word, melodramatic. Filled with what today’s editor’s would gleefully strike through as purple prose, these tintillating stories drew readers by romanticizing danger and hardship with larger-than-life heroes defeating villains and rescuing damsels in distress. Rambling plot lines emphasized heinous acts of poisoning, strangling, burglary and narrow escapes from sexual assault that by today’s standards would be considered racist and misogynistic.
Their authors, who might keep ten of these stories spinning simultaneously, were paid at the rate of a penny a line, which had a direct effect on the text. Skilled practitioners quickly learned that short staccato-like sentences not only were the most profitable but increased the dramatic effect as well.
Penny Dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed primarily at the working class who saw a sharp rise in literacy rates with new laws requiring mandatory education for all of Britain’s children through age nine. In addition, the proliferation of the railroad made the distribution of Penny Dreadfuls affordable to the masses at a time when traditional full-length novels by authors like Charles Dickens sold for a dollar each.
The fad took hold on this side of the Atlantic as well when brothers Erastus and Irwin Beadle published Ann Stephens’ “Maleska the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” in 1860. Promoting the work as “a dollar book for a dime,” it was an instant success selling an estimated 300,000 copies in its first year. A feat any author today would would eagerly aspire to repeat.
Beadle’s early publications were printed in orange wrapper papers with no illustrations on the cover. Eventually cover art appeared enticing the curiosity of consumers with illustrations depicting scenes of mayhem and bloodshed.
Drawing on the Beadle’s success, other publishers quickly followed suit and it seemed the American reading public couldn’t get enough of their serialized fiction. Subjects in the early days were pioneer and revolutionary war stories but other adventure genres, such as pirate tales and trapper adventures, also appeared frequently. After the civil war, the focus of the novels turned to the wild west and the detective genres and remained popular through the 1950’s. In the twentieth century the genre became known as pulp fiction after the cheap paper they were printed on.
Dime Westerns, as they became known in America, were often based on real people like Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Calamity Jane. Although purely fiction, these stories helped create a new national identity of patriotism and adventure. In addition, they helped level the playing field between the social classes as people began to judge the ideal man by his actions rather than his wallet.
Just like violent video games and movies today, dime novels were blamed for an upsurge in violence in American society. The New York Tribune published this article in June, 1884, blaming societal ills on the popularity of “cheap” literature, particularly dime novels. People complained that the deviant characters in novels influenced real people, particularly young men, to behave aggressively. “The work of the dime novel is being performed with even more than usual success. The other day three boys robbed their parents and started off for the boundless West. More recently a lad in a Philadelphia public school drew a revolver on his teacher, and examination showed that seven other boys present were armed with revolvers and bowie-knives […] The class of literature which is mainly responsible for all this folly is distributed all over the country in immense quantities, and it is distinctly evil in its teachings and tendencies.”
While penny dreadfuls and dime novels focused on fantastic, escapist fiction for the general masses, there is no denying they encouraged the working class to read and influenced generations of authors and publishers. British bookseller, C.A. Stonehill, noted in 1935 that “It is highly probably that in its day more people read Thomas Prest’s “First False Step” or “The Maniac Father” than had ever heard of a book published in the same decade, entitled Jane Eyre.”
Although I may prefer to read of Jane’s trouble with the enigmatic Mr. Rochester over “Keetsea, Queen of the Plains,” or “Crack Skull Bob,” I think it would be fun to write a character who is secretly hooked on the scintillating stories with the melodrama pouring over into her own life as she suspects something heinous has occurred to a missing neighbor. In her novella, “The Husband Maneuver,” With This Ring?: A Novella Collection of Proposals Gone Awry, Karen Witemeyer (one of my favorites) created a hero whose adventures as a bounty hunter were immortalized as Dead-Eye Dan in a series of dime westerns. Talk about a fun read!
How would you incorporate a Penny Dreadful into a novel’s plot line?