So-called Penny Dreadfuls were a type of short fiction publication that started in Britain during the 1830s. Each one typically contained a chapter of a serialized story. The hastily written stories were often sensational and even lurid, but they were cheap, hence the moniker they earned. Despite that, the Penny Dreadfuls appeared during a time of rising literacy in Britain and being popular fiction probably helped contribute to that literacy.
One of most famous Penny Dreadful series was Varney the Vampire.
It’s not entirely clear who wrote the serial. The chapters were published anonymously, but most often, they are attributed to either James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Preskett Prest. Rymer and Prest are also the likely authors of A String of Pearls: A Romance, the Penny Dreadful series that introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. One might be tempted to believe the anonymity is the result of some shame on the part of the authors. I think that’s a misunderstanding of the period. At the time of the Penny Dreadfuls, authors did not “own” their stories or characters like modern authors. These were simply works made for hire and the “brand” was the title.
What makes Varney the Vampire interesting is that it was the first story to introduce many of the familiar vampire tropes. Sir Francis Varney was the first vampire with superhuman strength and the first vampire to mesmerize his victims. He left two puncture wounds on the victim’s neck and, in fact, he’s the first vampire to appear at the window of helpless young lady’s boudoir. He was also, arguably, the first sympathetic vampire. There is one interesting feature of vampires in this story that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere. Although Varney heals from horrible wounds, he needs the light of the full moon to do so. This would be something fun to explore in a story.
If you’re curious about Varney the Vampire you can download the first half of it for free, with or without the original illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.
I’ve always liked the idea of cheap, serialized fiction. It’s a great way to keep people engaged with a story over time. It strikes me that the Penny Dreadful could make a resurgence on the internet.
The vampires in Dragon’s Fall explore and twist many of the tropes introduced by the author of Varney the Vampire. Beyond that, I see Dragon’s Fall as a successor to Varney the Vampire in the sense that it was designed to be inexpensive, serialized fiction. Of course, each installment that’s been published costs a little more than a penny and I hope you don’t find them “dreadful!” Nevertheless, reading the first two installments is a good way to sample the novel and get a taste of the work as a whole.
To buy part one of Dragon’s Fall visit:
To buy part two of Dragon’s Fall visit: