Part II. Forms and genres
28. Popular literature
Comics, dime novels, pulps and Penny Dreadfuls
Dime novels, pulps and Penny Dreadfuls
Erastus Flavel Beadle, father of the American dime novel, a pocket-sized paperback of 128 pages of thrilling fiction selling at ten cents (later reduced to five cents), was born in Otsego County, New York, in 1821. His own father, Irvin P. Beadle, had been a ballad hawker who set up as a printer and issued the best-selling Dime Song Book, a compilation of the ballads he had been hawking for years. By 1840 Erasmus was a printer in Buffalo, and in 1852 he published number 1 of a children’s story magazine, The Youth’s Casket. But it was in June 1860 that his great idea of popular novels at affordable prices took shape with the first volume in his series of The Choicest Works of the Most Popular Authors, otherwise billed as ‘Dollar Books for a Dime’. It was entitled Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, and was a reprint of the ‘Prize Story’ from the magazine, The Ladies Companion, written by Mrs Ann Sophia Winterbottom Stephens and first published in 1839. The Beadle’s Dime Library reissue sold 65,000 copies within a few months.
The title and source of this tattered milestone in popular literature sound romantic, but consider this moment from page 10:
‘Touch but a hair of her head, and by the Lord that made me, I will bespatter that tree with your brains!’ Thus spake William Danorth, white hunter. Many a dusky form bit the dust and many a savage howl followed the discharge of his trusty gun!
Here, in fact, was the dauntless American hero in action, the lone frontiersman opening up an untamed continent, fighting savage odds with rifle, dagger and bare fist and rescuing a beauteous bride along the way - the very stuff at the heart of James Fenimore Cooper’s work, the spirit of whose Hawkeye bestrides the thousands of popular paperbacks that now followed in his trail.
Not that every dime-novel hero was a wilderness scout. Number 2 of Beadle’s series was entitled The Privateer’s Cruise and starred the heroically named Harry Cavendish (‘God of my fathers! Every soul will be lost!’) and his staunch chum O’Hara, the Irishman who acted as comic relief with his brogue.
Editor for Beadle’s books was Orville J. Victor, whose wife Martha Victoria wrote the fourth novel in the series. Alice Wilde, the Raftsman’s Daughter introduced further comic relief in the shape of rustic Ben Perkins (‘That ar log bobs round like the old sea- sarpint!’). Editor Victor was responsible for the first great publicity campaign for a dime novel, posting the countryside with advertisements demanding ‘Who is Seth Jones?’ He turned out to be a white hunter in fringed buckskin, hero of Seth Jones or the Captives of the Frontier, who introduced himself thus: ‘How de do? How de do? Ain’t frightened, I hope? It’s nobody but me, Seth Jones, from New Hampshire!’ A nineteen-year-old schoolmaster from Ohio, Edward Ellis, was paid $75 for the book. The first edition sold 60,000 copies and it finally reached half a million sales, being translated into eleven languages. Ellis never went back to school, writing 150 volumes of juvenile stories, plus many biographies and histories, before his death in 1916.
Beadle himself died in 1894. He had moved from Buffalo to New York in 1858 and formed a partnership with Robert Adams, publishing joke books and almanacs as well as a string of cheap magazines such as Girls of Today and The Young New Yorker. The success of their dime-novel library encouraged further publications, and out came Beadle’s Boy’s Library of Sport, Story and Adventure (Snow Shoe Tom or New York Boys in the Wilderness), Beadle’s Pocket Library (Roaring Ralph Rocked the Reckless Ranger) and the even cheaper - hence more popular with working-class youngsters - Beadle’s Half Dime Library. This series would run to over a thousand titles.
Naturally, other American publishers jumped on the dime-novel bandwagon. Ten Cent Novelettes (1863) came from Boston with The Brave’s Secret; Ten Cent Romance (1867) came from New York with The Mountain Trapper. The most successful publisher may have been George P. Munro, whose Ten Cent Novels (1867) began with The Patriot Highwayman, and who died thirty years later a multimillionaire.
The bloodthirsty descriptions that bespattered dime-novels soon began to bother the ‘better classes’, notably when in 1874 Jesse Pomeroy, a sadistic murderer, claimed to be prompted by ‘literature of the dime novel type’. Beadle and his editors immediately formulated a set of writer’s rules which were sent to all their authors:
We prohibit all things offensive to good taste, in expression or incident, subjects or characters that carry an immoral taint, the repetition of any occurrence which, though true, is better untold, and what cannot be read with satisfaction by every high-minded person, old and young alike.
Moving away from Fenimore Cooper-style frontiersmen, dime-novel heroes began a new trend when somebody had the bright idea of dramatising real-life ‘folk’ heroes. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and especially Kit Carson were soon starring in ten-cent libraries of their own. ‘Kit Carson, Mountain Man’ apparently wrote his own reports of his adventures, which were then edited by Jessie Benton Fremont into readable narratives. Published in the early 1840s, these formed the foundation for wilder versions adapted for the excitement-hungry readers of weekly story papers. These were the broadsheets of fiction published in the big cities for family consumption, containing exciting and romantic fiction in serialised chapters. Compiled, these episodes were reprinted (both with and without permission) as dime novels, such as Kit Carson, the Prince of the Gold Hunters.
It was in The New York Weekly at Christmas 1869 that the greatest of all Wild Western heroes of the combined fact-fiction genre made his gun-toting bow. The title was Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men, the hero was Colonel William F. Cody, and the author Colonel Ned Buntline. Buntline’s real name was Edward Zane Carroll Judson, born 1822 in Philadelphia, and he had started writing hack fiction for The Knickerbocker Magazine in 1838 at the age of sixteen. His many early titles included The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main, or The Fiend of Blood - a typical title for a typical tale of bloodthirsty buccaneering. Buntline met Cody in Nebraska, saw the possibilities in the Indian scout’s meat-hunting enterprises, and formed a partnership that would prove one of the most prosperous of the day. It is safe to say that the ensuing worldwide popularity of the dime novels and magazine serials made Buffalo Bill the box-office attraction that he shortly became. However, although Buntline profited by $20,000 in the deal, he and Cody fell out over how the profits should be shared. As a result he was fired by Cody, who hired another ‘Colonel’, Prentiss Ingraham. The dime novels continued without interruption or noticeable change in literary style: ‘I could see his eyeballs start in agony from his head, the beaded sweat, blood colored, ooze from his clammy skin, each nerve and tendon quivering like the strings of a harp struck by a maniac hand!’ Ingraham would write 600 novels before he died in 1904, and is said to have completed a 35,000-word book in one day and a night.
Western heroes continued to reign supreme. There was ‘Deadwood Dick, the Rider of the Black Hills’, created for Beadle and Adams by Edward L. Wheeler, for the first issue of their new Pocket Library (1884). Wheeler, a city man all his life, described Dick thus: ‘A youth of an age somewhere between 16 and 20, trim and compactly built with a preponderance of muscular development and animal spirits, broad and deep of chest, with square iron-cut shoulders, limbs small yet like bars of steel.’ Dick was clearly designed to appeal to the younger reader, who might not care for Buffalo Bill and his flowing gold moustache. Wheeler’s titles also had youth appeal, being invariably alliterative, such as Deadwood Dick at Danger Divide.
Another army officer, a Major Sam Hall, created another Western hero in Buckskin Sam, who starred in a dime novel with perhaps the unlikeliest title of them all: Ker-Whoop Ker-Whoo! or the Tarantula of Taos. The Major was a specialist in colloquial dialogue: ‘Woop-la! Shove out a bar’l o’ bug-juice afore I bu’st up yer she-bang!’
With the untamed frontiers taking up so much paper and print, dime-novel publishers looked eastward for their next heroes. They came up with the detective, a hero who first saw public print through the open-eye trademark of Allan Pinkerton and his detective agency (motto ‘We Never Sleep’). Pinkerton’s casebook of reminiscences was an early best-seller and became a plot source for many of the dime detective writers.
First of the new breed of city dicks was ‘Old Sleuth’, created by Harlan P. Halsey for The Fireside Companion, a family story paper in 1872. Halsey used the pen-name of ‘Old Sleuth’, and was thus able to write about other detectives he ‘knew’, such as Old Electricity the Lightning Detective (1885). Old Sleuth, however, was not in fact old. He was a young detective who regularly assumed the disguise of an old man. The gimmick caught on, and in 1881 arrived ‘Old Cap Collier’ in a ‘real life mystery’ entitled The Bashful Victim of the Elm City Tragedy. Not content, as was his predecessor, with one disguise, the Cap had a repertoire of eighteen, ranging from ‘Fat Dutchman’ to ‘Masked Cavalier’, although how frequently this latter was used in modern New York is unknown. He was also adept at turning his clothes inside out in an instant. There would be over 700 novels of the Old Cap published by 1898.
But the great Master of Disguise was undoubtedly Nick Carter, who made his detecting debut in The New York Weekly in 1886. The Old Detective’s Pupil was subtitled ‘The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square’, and it was credited, as would be all the Nick Carter stories, to Nick Carter himself. The author was in fact John Coryell, who wrote the weekly stories for three years and withdrew into romance. The task was taken on by Frederick Marmaduke Van Rennsselaer Dey, who proceeded to write one thousand Nick Carter stories (as ‘Nick Carter’), over forty million words, before shooting himself in 1922. Dey’s stories began with number 1 of the Nick Carter Library (1891), which turned into the New Nick Carter Library (1897), soon to be renamed Nick Carter Weekly. With other title changes this ran right through to 1915, when publishers Street and Smith turned it into a ‘pulp’, the current craze, called Detective Story Magazine. Nick Carter was billed as editor.
Nicholas Carter owed little to the classic English detective, Sherlock Holmes. A handsome young man, son of one Sim Carter (murdered by gangsters), he is never seen without his smart bow-tie, unless he is in one of his many disguises. These, arrayed around the lettering in the title of his Weekly, included that of a hunchback involving a false hump that lay
deeper than the coat or the flowered waistcoat that covered it. It was deeper than the shirt beneath the heavy, coarse woollen undershirt he wore, in fact, so that if the occasion should arise to remove his coat, as was likely to happen, the hump was still there.
Carter, nicknamed ‘Little Giant’ (he was not much more than five feet tall), was strong enough to tear four packs of cards in half and ‘lift a horse with ease, and that, too, while a heavy man is seated in the saddle’. Nick is the longest lived of any fictional detective in the world, spanning radio, films and television with ease, and entering the James Bond era of secret agents in a new series of paperbacks.
In 1882 one Frank A. Munsey, a telegraph operator, left Augusta, Maine, for the lights of New York City, with a long-standing ambition to publish a weekly children’s magazine of uplifting fiction. And on 2 December of that year number 1 of Golden Argosy went on sale. It was subtitled ‘Freighted with Treasures for Boys and Girls’, and within its eight pages carried the opening chapter of ‘Do and Dare, a Brave Boy’s Fight for a Fortune’. This serial was written by Horatio Alger Jr, an author whose basic theme - if a poor boy perseveres he will win fame and fortune - would eventually fill 118 books, sell 250 million copies, and inspire juvenile weeklies (Brave and Bold, Might and Main, Wide Awake Weekly and others). But meanwhile Munsey’s children’s paper was not doing too well. He had more success with a new adult title, named Munsey’s Magazine. He worked on the first, shortening its title to Argosy, increasing its page-count and generalising its fiction, until in 1896 a thick, new Argosy was born, with 192 pages printed on the cheapest possible paper, coarse, bulky stuff known as pulpwood in the trade. Its value for money at ten cents acted as inspiration to other publishers, especially as Argosy’s circulation rose to half a million. The pulp magazine was born.
Pulp magazines, counting 128 pages or more, with their cheap paper bound into art paper covers sporting ever more exciting artwork, would last for sixty years before shrinking in size (to Pocket Digest proportions) and number (from hundreds to tens) by 1957. From assorted fiction they started to specialise into themes: Westerns, detectives, adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction and even erotica (Snappy Stories was the first in 1912). Pulps were only briefly for the young, who quickly took to the half-price (five cent) story weeklies. These continued into the 1920s, averaging sixteen pages of cheap paper bound within thin art paper colour covers. The boys’ heroes were cowboys, outlaws (Jesse James Stories), college boys like William Patton’s ‘Frank Merriwell’ in Tip Top Weekly (from 1896), and incredible inventors whose extraordinary sci-fi adventures were recorded by ‘Noname’ in The Frank Reade Library. Inventor Reade was first read about in Irwin’s American Novels, when he fought Red Indians with his incredible Steam Man of the Prairies (1865).
This was the origin of a genre which would eventually flower under editorial genius Hugo Gernsback in his monthly pulp Amazing Stories (1926). But as for the juvenile reader, he would soon be wooed away from nickel novels by the ‘all in color for a dime’ illustrations of the comic books.
The bloodstained saga of the ‘penny bloods’ later known (both popularly - by their readers - and unpopularly - by those who disdained them) as the Penny Dreadfuls, has its roots in the records of the eighteenth-century’s worst criminals, known as The Newgate Calendar. The prime edition of this seems to be The Malefactor’s Register or New Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, an illustrated collection published by Alex Hogg in book format, but which had a cheap edition in penny parts, published once a week. Pirate publishers quickly pounced on the series and printed their own, including one James Catnach of Seven Dials, a noted publisher of broadsides of many kinds, including criminal confessions known as ‘Goodnights’. There followed The Tell-Tale (1823), Legends of Horror and The Terrific Register (both 1825). This last ran two years (104 penny parts) and in number 11 featured Sawney Bean and family, ‘The Monster of Scotland’ and king of the cannibals, while The Tell-Tale saw the first English reporting of the man who might have been Sweeney Todd: ‘Horrible Murder and Human Pie-Makers’ (1825).
The ‘father of the Penny Dreadfuls’ was Edward Lloyd, a farmer’s boy from Surrey. He was not more than a youth when he came to London and set up as a bookseller, from whence it was but a small step to becoming his own publisher. He was twenty-one when he issued number 1 of his first partwork, Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. It ran for sixty weeks, but well before it expired Lloyd had started three more popular pennyworths: The Gem of Romance, The History of Pirates of All Nations and The Calendar of Horrors. Criminal history could not provide enough material for Lloyd’s profitable presses, and so a new industry was launched, fiction-hacking at a halfpenny a line.
Lloyd’s leading hack, who also acted as editor on many of the weekly parts, was Thomas Peckett Prest, a relation of the Archdeacon of Durham. Although Prest relished blood and thunder (he wrote some 200 series with titles like Mary Bateman the Yorkshire Witch (1840), The Maniac Father or the Victim of Seduction (1842) and the classic Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood (1847)), he was also sufficiently well educated to successfully write pirate versions of current best-sellers by Charles Dickens, as well as the now ‘standard’ version of the Sweeney Todd story, The String of Pearls (1840).
The villain as hero was popular in both ‘proper’ fiction and penny parts. Dick Turpin, who died on the gallows in 1739, was raised to high stardom by W. Harrison Ainsworth in his 1834 novel Rookwood. The ride to York on Bonnie Black Bess is said to have been an author’s invention, and it seems to have been the key to the story’s popularity. It featured ever after in the many rewrites of Turpin’s career, and was the centrepiece of action in a number of stage and circus dramatisations as well as early films. Turpin weeklies and libraries were being published into the 1930s, and the hero and his horse were illustrated in Thriller Picture Library (a pocket comic) as late as 1957.
Several of the hack writers found a fair living churning out Dreadfuls before ascending to better things. One such was George William MacArthur Reynolds, whose partworks included the plagiarised imitation Pickwick Abroad (1838). Son of a sea captain, Reynolds spent some time in Paris where he read Eugene Sue’s popular partwork The Mysteries of Paris. Inspired, he returned to England and commenced his own Mysteries of London (1845), a long-runner which wove into its fictional narrative factual reports on the evils of the nation’s capital. Five years later Reynolds founded his own Sunday journal, R^eynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, a title which would run, latterly supported by the Co-operative movement, until it turned into the tabloid Sunday Citizen in the 1960s.
The change from penny parts to penny magazines came about in 1866 when Edwin J. Brett, operating as the Newsagents Publishing Co. and publisher of some of the ‘fiercest’ (to use a contemporary term) Dreadfuls of the day, including The Wild Boys of London (which was eventually suppressed by the police), issued number 1 of Boys of England. There were already plenty of religious-based weeklies and monthlies for boys and girls, especially ‘Mr’ Samuel Orchard Beeton’s Boy’s Own Magazine which began in 1855. But these were either too ‘goody-goody’ for a young taste corrupted by Dreadfuls, or were too expensive: Beeton’s magazine cost sixpence a month, and was therefore thoroughly middle-to-upper class.
Boys of England, sixteen pages of stories, serials, illustrations and competitions (prizes ranged from fifty pairs of ducks to a hundred concertinas!), was at the beginning not far removed from a Dreadful; the lead story was ‘The Skeleton Crew’. But in time, as the Victorian era progressed, Brett boasted on his front page that the weekly was ‘subscribed to by HRH Prince Arthur, the Prince Imperial of France and Count William Bernstorff’. It was the start of a publishing gold rush as publisher after publisher put out penny weeklies for boys. Brett’s main rival, William Laurence Emmett, also of Penny Dreadful fame, issued his Young Gentleman’s Journal (1867). Brett answered with Young Men of Great Britain (1868), and Emmett counterpunched with Young Gentlemen of Great Britain. Finally both men issued virtually identical papers on the same day: Brett’s Rovers of the Sea and Emmett’s Rover’s Log (1872).
Brett holds the distinction of publishing the first boys’ weekly printed in full colour. This was the slightly fabulous Boys of the Empire, but after a year he had to revert to standard monochrome printing. However, the paper led to another Brett battle. A rival, Melrose, revived the Boys of the Empire title in 1900, seven years after Brett’s paper collapsed. Immediately Brett rushed a Boys of the Empire (New Series) on to the bookstalls, and beat Melrose by two weeks. The battle of the bloods ended with surrender, and Melrose’s paper changed to Boys of Our Empire on 29 June 1901, while Brett’s added the subtitle ‘An Up-To-Date Journal’, as it incorporated another of his failed weeklies.
The modern boys’ weekly was born in 1893 when Alfred Harmsworth, who had created the boom in comics with his Comic Cuts (1890), now tackled the story-paper field. He used the same tactic, known as the ‘Harmsworth Touch’. He priced his paper as he did his comic, at half the current market price: one halfpenny. The Halfpenny Marvel was also launched on a spearhead of anti-Dreadful publicity. Number 1 carried the slogan ‘No more Penny Dreadfuls! These healthy stories of mystery, adventure, etc, will kill them!’ An editorial exclaimed: ‘The Penny Dreadful makes thieves of the coming generation and so helps fill our jails! If we can rid the world of even one of these vile publications, our efforts will not have been in vain.’ Soon The Marvel (as it would later be known when Harmsworth raised the price to one penny) proclaimed an unsolicited tribute from the Revd C. N. Barham of Nottingham: ‘So pure and wholesome in tone,’ said the Revd. But on the cover of that issue was a picture of Greek bandits at work, with this caption: ‘The gaoler screwed up the horrible machine until the brigand’s bones were nearly broken and he shrieked aloud for mercy, though none was shown.’ Small wonder a contemporary critic wrote, ‘Harmsworth has killed the Penny Dreadful by inventing the Ha’penny Dreadfuller!’
Although Harmsworth’s ha’porths revolutionised the market for cheap reading matter for boys, with smaller hack publishers issuing halfpenny weeklies as fast as they were able, it would not be until the turn of the century that the weeklies began to settle into the formula still remembered by readers of what came to be popularly called ‘tuppenny bloods’. These were the more sumptuous successors to the ha’penny (penny by the 1900s; penny-halfpenny by 1918) weeklies with more pages (leaping from eight to sixteen to twenty-eight to thirty-two), coloured covers (from black on pink paper to mixtures of red and blue, to four-colour photogravure), and very often a Grand Free Gift, which might be anything from a booklet about pirates to a tin jumping frog. The formula changed from one long story, or a serial or two, to ‘Seven Star Stories’, a favourite headline of the ‘Big Five’.
These were the D. C. Thomson weeklies, which began issuing from Dundee, Scotland, in 1921 with number 1 of Adventure. Instant success soon brought on Rover (1922), Wizard (1922), Skipper (1930) and Hotspur (1933), with only Vanguard (1923) falling quickly by the way. Each paper had a character of its own via its choice of heroes: ‘Dixon Hawke’ was Adventure’s answer to Harmsworth’s Sexton Blake; ‘The Wolf of Kabul’ was Wizard’s empire-builder, and ‘The Chums of Red Circle’ was the innovative school story in Hotspur. This rival to Magnet’s long-running Greyfriars, home of the bulging Billy Bunter from 1908, was unique in that, during its 1,197 episodes, boys arrived at school, rose from form to form, and in six years or so left as other boys came in to replace them (masters, however, stayed on for ever!).
The Second World War saw the demise through paper shortage of many of the British boys’ weeklies (by then, fortnightlies). The Amalgamated Press was left with one, Champion, while Thomson lost only one, Skipper. After the war some of the papers went over to serial strips and became comics (The New Hotspur, 24 October 1959); others died and were incorporated into comics (Tiger and Champion, 26 March 1955). The last of them all to go was Rover, joining Wizard (revived as a comic) from 20 January 1973. Some heroes continued as strips (‘The Wolf of Kabul’); some went into paperbacks (‘Sexton Blake’) - but it was the end of an enjoyable and nostalgically remembered era.
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