Reading was not a popular activity during the early parts of the 19th century. Sure, you had such great writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, but they tended to use big words like ‘pontificate’ and seemed obsessed with making everyone feel bad all the time. Penny Dreadfuls, the earliest form of schlock literature, managed to counteract this on completely unprecedented levels. These gruesome little tales could be purchased for only a penny (hence the name) and were dreadfully written (hence the name).
The stories tended to be extremely bloody, with detailed descriptions of body parts being lopped off and precisely what happens when you push a boulder on top of someone’s head. This made them quite sought after by teenage boys, who quickly became the primary audience. Most of the flip-books tales were also serialized in nature, forcing readers to pony up their cash each month if they wanted to learn whether Jack Harkaway would be able to find his way out of the belly of whatever alligator he had inexplicably managed to end up in.
Despite their inherently bad reputation, many famous authors contributed stories to the genre, including Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins. Penny Dreadfuls were a major form of literary entertainment at the time, so it was simply a matter of going where the money was. The blood-soaked books have the additional fame of introducing Sweeney Todd to the world in the morbid tale, “The String of Pearls.” He would later go on to have a marvelous hairstyling career and operate one of the most fashionable salons on Fleet Street.