Modern Echoes of the ‘Penny Dreadful’

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penny dreadfulBy Katherine Sharma

The term “Penny Dreadful” has been revived by the recent Showtime horror-thriller series. “Penny dreadful” refers to cheap and lurid British publications catering to the newly literate youth of the late 19th century. Thanks to increased public education, a growing number of English working class adolescents had learned to read at a basic level, and had income for inexpensive escapist entertainment. An American parallel would be the “dime novel.” Aimed mainly at young adult males, the “penny dreadful” began as serialized stories on cheap pulp paper (costing a penny per installment). They offered sensational tales of paranormal chills, violent crime and youthful adventurers. For example, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who has been recently reincarnated as a Broadway and film star, was a penny dreadful invention. Other series featured “Varney the Vampire” and “Wagner the Wehr-Wolf.” Actually, the penny dreadful tales don’t sound that different from current best sellers in the Young Adult genre. Clearly, the teen taste for horror-thriller adventure is unabated. But I wonder if the penny dreadful content has modern-day parallels because the elementary literacy of Victorian youth–who demanded short-attention-span excitement devoid of literary and historical allusions and difficult vocabulary–is also still with us. A 2012 study of reading trends among high school students found that the average student reads at the 5th grade level–the reading level of the Hunger Games and Twilight series. For more on penny dreadful history, see

NOTE: Showtime’s Penny Dreadful series has been picked up for a second season. Watch a trailer of the series:


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.

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