The Ghastly Influence of Bad Literature on the Weak Mind

Firmly in the “nothing new here” category comes this commentary on a crusade to ban “Penny Dreadfuls” [aka. trashy fiction at the end of the 19th century.]

Our friends have been occupied with the case of a half-witted boy who consumed Penny Dreadfuls and afterwards went and killed his mother. They infer that he killed his mother because he had read Penny Dreadfuls (post hoc ergo propter hoc) and they conclude very naturally that Penny Dreadfuls should be suppressed. But before roundly pronouncing the doom of this–to me unattractive–branch of fiction, would it not be well to inquire a trifle more deeply into cause and effect? In the first place matricide is so utterly unnatural a crime that there must be something abominably peculiar in a form of literature that persuades to it. But a year or two back, on the occasion of a former crusade, I took the pains to study a considerable number of Penny Dreadfuls. My reading embraced all those–I believe I am right in saying all–which were reviewed, a few days back, in the Daily Chronicle; and some others. I give you my word I could find nothing peculiar about them. They were even rather ostentatiously on the side of virtue. As for the bloodshed in them, it would not compare with that in many of the five-shilling adventure stories at that time read so eagerly by boys of the middle and upper classes. The style was ridiculous, of course: but a bad style excites nobody but a reviewer, and does not even excite him to deeds of the kind we are now trying to account for. The reviewer in the Daily Chronicle thinks worse of these books than I do. But he certainly failed to quote anything from them that by the wildest fancy could be interpreted as sanctioning such a crime as matricide.


For indeed it is not possible to name any book out of which a perverted mind will not draw food for its disease. The whole fallacy lies in supposing literature the cause of the disease. Evil men are not evil because they read bad books: they read bad books because they are evil: and being evil, or diseased, they are quickly able to extract evil or disease even from very good books.

Adventures in Criticism by Sir A. T. Quiller-Couch (1896)

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