Top 4 Victorian Penny Dreadfuls You Can Read for Free

Top 4 Victorian Penny Dreadfuls You Can Read for Free

Do you want to know which are the best Victorian penny dreadfuls out there? The term “penny dreadful” is a pejorative term used to describe the cheap publications from Nineteenth-Century Britain. They were also known as penny awful, penny blood, or even “penny packets of poison” because of their sometimes gruesome and shocking content. They had detectives, criminals, and supernatural entities and were not very different from the EC Comics that were so popular during the forties and fifties of the past century.

They were serials and sold for just a penny (hence its name).

Below you can find a list with four of the best Victorian penny dreadfuls ever released. And, being no longer under copyright, you can read them for free!

Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood (1845–47)

Author: James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood (1845–1847)

These penny dreadfuls tell the story of the troubles that a certain Francis Varney causes to the Bannerworths, a family of wealth now impoverished because of the recent death of their father. Sometimes, Varney appears as a real vampire, and sometimes, he seems to be rather like a human who behaves as such.

The plot is convoluted and lacks incoherence, but we must not forget that this book was one of the greatest influences for a much more famous and successful novel. I’m talking, of course, about Dracula. Most of the vampire tropes we love are already present here.

Also, the whole series ran to an impressive length of 667,000 words! I would say that it looks like an impressive record, but apparently is only about one third the size of the five books of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin put together! I’ve learned something new today.

The Mysteries of London (1848-56)

Author: George W. M. Reynolds, Thomas Miller, and Edward L. Blanchard)

Partly based on a similar publication, Les Mystères de Paris by Eugene Sue, this penny dreadful had an enormous success and was continued for more than a decade, with a new chapter published weekly.

From the Goodreads book description:

“The Mysteries of London is a sprawling tableau, seeking to depict life as Reynolds saw it in mid-Victorian London and expose what he viewed as gross injustice toward the poor. Some of the notable storylines involve Richard Markham and Eliza Sydney, two virtuous but ingenuous youths inveigled into the fraudulent schemes of rogues; George Montague, a libertine who appears literally out of nowhere and nearly overnight becomes one of the richest and most powerful men in London; Anthony Tidkins, the “Resurrection Man,” a ruthless murderer and body-snatcher; and Ellen Monroe, an impoverished girl forced to submit to the worst degradations to earn money to feed her elderly father. The story takes us from royal drawing rooms, offices of cabinet ministers, and chambers of Parliament to the bowels of Newgate prison, the workhouse, and the lowest of taverns and gambling dens as Reynolds unfolds his thrilling plot, which never flags for an instant over the course of nearly 1,200 pages.”

The String of Pearls (A Romance) (1846-47)

Author: unknown, but perhaps James Malcolm Rymer and/or Thomas Peckett Prest)

I’m sure you’re familiar with Sweeney Todd, the devilish barber from Fleet Street, maybe because of the Sondheim musical, but most probably because of the Tim Burton movie based on it. This, however, was the original debut of the character.

Basically, Mr Todd is a barber who murders his customers before robbing them. His establishment is connected through an underground passage with Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, which acts as her partner in crime and makes delicious pies out of the remains of Mr. Todd’s victims for profit. After the disappearance of a certain Lieutenant Thornhill, one of his friends (Colonel Jeffrey) starts to investigate Sweeney Todd, who is joined by Johanna Oakley, who also wants to know what happened to him.

This work was very popular and soon after its publication there were multiple literary and stage adaptations, some of which departed quite significantly from the original plot.

Wagner the Wehr-Wolf

Author: George W.M. Reynolds)

If you did not have enough with Varney the Vampire, perhaps you will feel inclined to sink your teeth into this little story of lycanthropy.

From the book description in Amazon:

“Wagner the Werewolf represents the compiled exploits of one Fernand Wagner, a bitter old man visited on a stormy night by the legendary Dr. Faust. As in Faust’s own tale, Wagner is made a tempting offer – renewed youth, intelligence, and unlimited wealth. All he has to do is agree to accompany him for a time … and to become a werewolf. When Wagner agrees, his youth is restored at a horrible price. On the last day of each month, he becomes a mindless beast, part animal and part man. After realizing the error of his decision, he begins a quest to find a cure.”

Despite being completely forgotten today, George W. Reynolds was one of the most famous Victorian authors and the mind behind the first part of The Mysteries of London.

Are there any more Victorian penny dreadfuls out there?

Of course, there are! There were thousands of publications of the like during Victorian times and today most of them are available for free online.

You may have to do some research, though. There is a short list of some penny dreadfuls in the British Library Collection. Then, to access the text itself, you will have to search the Internet. One of the best places to start is these two websites: