Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dime Novels in the Wild West

Before Saturday morning cartoons. . .before matinees. . .before pulp magazines. . .there were dime novels! These cheaply produced paperbacks thrilled little boys and grown men with stories of adventure and derring-do from their advent in the 1860s to their demise in favor of pulp magazines in the 1920s.

During their height in the 1880s-1900, there were countless series released by dozens of publishers and written by a small army of hacks. There were Westerns, mysteries, espionage, historicals, and more. The vast majority were marketed towards juvenile boys and often featured young heroes.

I've read about a dozen dime novels and have several in my book collection. Most are atrociously written with formulaic plots yet show an energy and innocence lacking in much of today's popular writing. The most interesting ones for me are the Westerns, especially the many titles starring a heroic Jesse James. Some of these were published even while Frank and Jesse were still out robbing banks and helped add to their mythic character.

In many ways, the legend of the Wild West was born in dime novels. While researching my book on Wyatt Earp, I came across an interesting anecdote. Wyatt was chasing some stagecoach robbers outside of Tombstone, Arizona, and found their recently vacated camp. Among the items he found there was half of a dime novel. It was common back then to tear off the pages you had already read in order to lighten your load. As Earp followed the trail of the outlaws, he found another camp, with the missing pages. So real-life Western outlaws were reading dime novels!

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. It would be funny they read novels about themselves doing things they never did. About my question yesterday, it is Fantasy Authors. I'm Father Dragon but it has been a while that I have not posted anything either. But it was there that I read about you and your book. It was a certain post that really inspired me where you were telling just how much effort was behind A Fine Likeness. I thought it was rather encouraging.

  2. It's fascinating to me that this was a fact of life, much like our trashier TV and magazines today, only more imaginative.

    Robert Ford will always be the most famous reader of these things. Although I'm sure Jesse James didn't come to appreciate that...

  3. Terrific anecdote about Wyatt Earp. :)

  4. The era of the dime novel was an interesting time, bringing reading for entertainment to those who previously couldn't afford them. I think the history of book publishing is so fascinating.

  5. Hi Sean .. love this .. as I'd been looking at our Penny Dreadfuls .. of similar ilk ... the derring-do deeds of highwaymen ...

    They found a page wallpapered onto a wall as room decoration, when they were refurbishing something in Yorkshire!

    Cheers Hilary


Got something to say? Feel free! No anonymous comments allowed, though. Too many spammers and haters on the Internet.