Varney the Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood is one of the most famous penny dreadfuls, written in the mid 1840s, by either John Malcolm Rhymer or Thomas Prescot Prest. Given that it runs 876 pages in its original two-columned form, I don’t see why both men couldn’t be credited. After all, spinning out eight page weekly parts isn’t as easy as it might sound, and two authors, especially two who might not get together all that often, would account for some of the wild inconsistencies in the story. For those of you brave enough to venture into Victorian popular fiction, the text is available here at Project Gutenberg.
The early penny dreadfuls are really hard to find anymore, and you can count on triple the difficulty if you go after the well known titles, like Sweeney Todd, Spring-Heeled Jack, The Wild Boys of London, or Varney. These serials ran from 40 to over 200 issues, so even if you find one, building a run is pretty nigh impossible. The stories themselves aren’t hard to find. A number of the print on demand folks offer copies at outrageously exorbitant prices, but go to Project Gutenberg or do a Google search and you can download them for free (which is what the print on demand people are doing.)
However, the downloads are usually just the text, and a mainstay of all this kind of fiction is the artwork that accompanies the story. So below, for your viewing pleasure, is all the available artwork from Varney the Vampyre. Most of the illustrations are unfortunately mundane, but there are a few goodies in here; It’s the totality that has the impact. As is all too often the case, the illustrator(s) is unknown.
A quick word about penny dreadfuls for those of you who aren’t familiar with the format. The stories were issued weekly for a penny (duh!) but with the intention that once one had all the parts (and even the authors didn’t know how many issues there would be; they would keep spinning the tale as long as it sold, then end it quickly), the entire group would be bound up into a book. Thus, they don’t have “covers.” Each part cuts off exactly at the end of eight pages, even if it’s in the middle of the sentence. The next part picks up that sentence where it left off, AND has an illustration on the first page. Once bound together, you had an illustrated novel. Unfortunately, the audience these books were aimed at were not the kind who would buy all issues, keep them neat and pay for the binding. Most were bought and shared by whole neighborhoods of boys. Few survived the manhandling, and fewer still were ever bound together. ‘Penny dreadful’ has become a kind of catch all term for any English serial fiction, just as ‘dime novel’ and ‘pulp’ are misused in this country. It’s convenient, but from what I’ve read, the true penny dreadfuls were gone by the late 19th century. But call ‘em as you see ‘em. They’re still great.