Beginning in the mid-1800s, lurid and largely fictionalized accounts of rogue highwaymen, professional criminals and other larger-than-life characters were often published in a cheaply-produced pulp magazine known as a dime novel in America or a penny dreadful in Great Britain. A penny dreadful's primary audience were working-class adolescent males who enjoyed reading melodramatic tales of over-the-top derring-do. American outlaws and legendary lawmen also became popular protagonista in serial dime novels reworked for a British audience.
A penny dreadful really did cost a British penny, and was generally filled with short articles and a serialized novel written especially for a young male audience. The cover art often featured action scenes with lurid title graphics. A typical penny dreadful was limited in size, rarely more than 10 pages per issue, but publishers would often release new issues weeks apart. The paper used to produce these books was notoriously cheap, which gave rise to the term pulp fiction, a genre which features the same sensational or melodramatic plot lines often found in them.
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The British penny dreadful and the American dime novel were generally dismissed in their day as low-brow literature, but many future writers found inspiration in their pages. Many of the early silent films' plots and characters can be traced back directly to popular penny dreadful series. The idea of serializing adventure novels became popular with readers of these books, then became the template for serialized shorts often shown before the main feature films.
Because the quality of the publication was not high to begin with, and the paper used was prone to decay quickly, there are very few original penny dreadfuls in collections today. The first readers may have also formed informal reading clubs in which the same issue of a penny dreadful would have been passed from member to member. For many British boys from lower-class families, even earning a British penny would have been a challenge. It was not unusual for groups of boys to combine their funds in order to purchase the latest penny dreadful, much like the comic book culture of the following era.