By the early 19th century there was a thriving popular press producing cheap reading material for the new urban working classes. Sensational and melodramatic stories, illustrated with lurid woodcuts and attention-grabbing headlines, were sold in penny instalments and eagerly devoured by a new mass audience.
In later life Charles Dickens remembered his teenage enthusiasm for The Terrific Register, a weekly magazine which ran for about two years from 1823 to 1825. Under the pretext of exposing the misery caused by human depravity, it regaled its readers with graphic accounts of brutal executions, murder, torture, cannibalism, incest, ghosts and apparitions. For a penny, Dickens told his friend and biographer John Forster, he could frighten the wits out of his head, ‘which, considering that there was an illustration to every number in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body, was cheap’. Stories such as the ‘Apparition of the Duchess of Mazarine’ and ‘The lunatic widow’ fed his imagination and provided the background for a lifelong fascination with legends, fairy tales and the supernatural.