Of Penny Dreadfuls and Moral Panics

The Guardian has an article about the so-called penny dreadfuls, cheap serialized novels of the Victorian era, inspired by the success of the eponymous TV series (which I haven’t yet seen, hence no comment).

I usually don’t remember where and how I first came across a particular term, but “penny dreadful” is an exception here, because I know exactly how and where I first heard or rather read the term “penny dreadful”. It was sometime in the late 1980s in the Rotterdam branch of De Slegte, a Dutch-Belgian bookstore chain, which offered a mad mix of used and new books, usually remainders. I hung out at De Slegte a lot, because no one bothered you in the labyrinthine interior (except for boys who occasionally tried to hit on me – utterly without success, because I never understood what they wanted of me). My favourites were the comic book section (my Dutch was good enough for comics, but not for novels), the art/design section (who cares what language it’s in) and the movie/TV/media section, where most of the books were in English. It was in this section or rather on the opposite side of the shelf to where I had retreated to escape a lanky youth who seemed uncommonly interested in the backissues of Starlog magazine that I really wanted to look at. And that’s where I came across a large coffee table type book on penny dreadfuls with lots of full colour reproductions of covers (it was probably this book, since the release date fits). And though I had never heard the term “penny dreadful” before, I immediately knew what it was. For I was only too familiar with the German term “Groschenheft” used for a similar form of popular literature, that was often derided as trash. Calling that sort of thing “penny dreadful” was absolutely perfect. Over the next few days I looked through the book several times (as I said I hung out at De Slegte a lot), admired the penny dreadful covers and the tantalizing thrills promised by the titles. I never bought it though, one of my great regrets along with that Encyclopedia of Superheroes I once found at De Slegte and didn’t buy either.

What I found fascinating about the Guardian article is that penny dreadfuls quickly found themselves at the centre of a moral panic (the Daily Mail was of course involved) just like their German cousins the “Groschenheft”. Even the examples given for how penny dreadfuls supposedly corrupted youth are eerily similar to examples given by anti-“Groschenheft” campaigners in Germany. For all of a sudden, every crime or better yet suicide (since suicide victims cannot refute any stupid theories about why they did it) committed by a young person was believed to have been caused by penny dreadfuls. Evidence: the young criminal or suicide was found to have owned and read penny dreadfuls.

The so-called “Schundkämpfer” (anti-trash crusaders) in Germany used very similar examples of crimes and suicides supposedly inspired by reading “Groschenhefte”. One example that always stuck with me was that of a teenaged cabin boy who vanished from a ship en route from Hamburg to New York in the early years of the 20th century. The boy had apparently gone overboard, but it was never even determined whether it was an accident or suicide or even murder. However, several “Groschenhefte” were found in the boy’s cabin, so the culprit was clear, at least as far as the media was concerned. The “Groschenhefte” has inspired the boy to jump overboard. Of course, there was absolutely no evidence, but then a good moral panic doesn’t need evidence.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any detailed info about the cabin boy case on the net, but here is a similar but later example, that of 17-year-old Manfred who lived near Hannover and committed suicide in 1963 by drinking pesticide. Manfred left a suicide note by talking onto an 8-track tape until he died and for some reason, the weekly newspaper Die Zeit decided to print excerpts of Manfred’s suicide tape. It’s a touching document, in which Manfred speaks freely about his problems with his parents, particularly his father, and the neighbours he regarded as surrogate parents. Honestly, after reading this article I just wanted to reach out through time and give Manfred a hug. However, Manfred also read “Groschenhefte” and liked watching westerns and crime movies at the cinema, so guess where Die Zeit sees the causes for his suicide? Yup, blame the “Groschenhefte” and western movies. Because it can’t possibly be the family’s fault. Never mind that if you do the math and calculate when Manfred was born and when he was conceived, you’ll arrive at a much more convincing theory why Manfred didn’t get along with his parents and why he eventually killed himself. But we can’t possibly talk about that, can we? So let’s blame the media Manfred was consuming.

Stories like this aren’t rare, in fact they’re the standard building blocks of moral panics. What makes Manfred’s story unusual is that Die Zeit actually printed lengthy excerpts from Manfred’s suicide tape, which completely refute the theory that reading too many “Romanhefte” and watching too many bad westerns and crime movies drove Manfred to suicide.

But then actual data only gets in the way of a good moral panic and so conclusions are often made up, as the example of Fredric Wertham and the war on comics in the 1950s shows.

I have compared the explosion of indie publishing in the past few years to the rise of the dime novel or penny dreadful in the 19th and later the rise of pulp fiction in the early 20th century before (see here, here and here). In all cases, technological innovation led to the increased production and publication of fiction led to more readers, often people who didn’t read much before, which in turn leads to a moral panic about what those readers are reading. And indeed indie publishing is even doing the penny dreadful one better, since it isn’t just creating new dime and pulp novels, but it is also bringing the old ones back into print as this project to digitally reprint Victorian penny dreadfuls shows.

So if indie publishing is the new penny dreadful or the new pulp fiction, then where is the moral panic? As it is, we already had an indie e-book related moral panic last fall, when Kobo and W.H. Smith pulled all indie titles from their online stores (W.H. Smith never put them back either), because some moralistic busybodies, including of course the inevitable Daily Mail (Why don’t they just rename themselves “Moral panics R Us” and be done with it?), freaked out at some of the more out there erotica titles on offer (see my blog posts here and here).

What always strikes me about moral panics of any kind is not just how absolutely over-the-top and transparently false the allegations usually are (Honestly, why do people keep falling for this shit?), but also how similar the language used is. The media the campaigner doesn’t like is always referred to as “filth” or “trash” or “depraved”. If you’re German, use the term “Schund”. If you’re German and writing post-1945, make sure to mention something about “fascist aesthetics” or “fascist tendencies”, whereby a character with blonde hair and blue eyes is enough to make a work suspicious of “fascist tendencies” (bonus points if the character in question is actually dark-haired). I’ve heard Germans accusing even Captain America of fascist tendencies, because Steve Rogers happens to be blonde and blue-eyed. Just insert your favourite “Steve Rogers crying” gif right here.

Finally, I want to leave you with this infuriating post on digital culture blog run by the public TV station ZDF, wherein the author laments about self-published e-books sold for one Euro and how this trash is taking over the bestseller lists. The headline: “E-Schund: Kampf um den 1-Euro Leser”

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4 Responses to Of Penny Dreadfuls and Moral Panics

  1. TrinaEberhart says:

    I heard the term ‘penny dreadful’ for the first time in around 2000, and thought it a very uncompromisingly harsh expression. But it’s true, that cheap fiction is out there and lots of it too. There’s too much decent literature out there to waste time with the old dreadfuls, so it’s each to their own …

    Great article :)

    • Cora says:

      It’s indeed a harsh term, so over-the-top harsh that I find it amusing. “Bodice-ripper” is a similar term, both very harsh and extremely dismissive, but also strangely fitting.

  2. AdrianC says:

    Terrific post. Pulps have always had to live and die at the mercy and whim of the morally libelous. It reminds me of everything I’ve read about Fredic Wertham and how his Seduction of the Innocent nearly destroyed the American pulp/comic industry.

    • Cora says:

      Glad you liked the post, Adrian.

      What strikes me most about these moral panics is how similar they are. Whether the target is penny dreadfuls, pulps, comics, Dungeons and Dragons, videogames, horror movies, death metal, gangster rap, fringe erotica, etc… it’s always the same mechanism. Identify enemy, find crimes or suicides involving young people, cherry pick facts to prove that the target medium ruins young minds and inspires young people to commit crimes and/or suicide, initiate media campaign, persuade politicians to initiate censorship measures and/or bans.

      You’d figure people would have caught on by now, since everybody will have seen a couple of such moral panics play out by now. But no, it works again every single time.

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