Shiny new ‘Penny’ ain’t dreadful

“Before the rise and popularity of television and movies, pulp fiction magazines were notorious for publishing lurid pop-fiction,” explained Alena Gribskov ’09, while finding a dry sanctuary on a rainy Tuesday night in the Bass Library Cafe. “Science fiction, westerns and detective genres were all defined or shaped by the pulps, and many of the influential writers of the early 20th century got their start with these magazines.”

With today’s debut of her new fiction magazine — “The Penny Dreadful” — Gribskov hopes to channel some of that pulpy flavor and serve it to Yale undergrads among the stacks of other dining hall student rags.

Of course, the first question that faces Gribskov and her staff is whether Yale really needs another magazine. The University Office of Public Affairs’ Website counts a total of sixteen current student publications, in a dated list that neglects to mention the Yale Literary Magazine or the music periodical Volume. But Gribskov remains confident that “The Penny Dreadful” ­— which brands itself as “the ultimate dining hall magazine” — will find its niche among the deluge of cafeteria serials.

“In a way, the Yale campus is ripe for a pulp fiction magazine — few of us have the time to watch a lot of television and movies,” she said. “And in a way, ‘The Penny Dreadful’ is like TV on paper. We put a high value on stories that are exciting for their own sake, for both the reader and the author. If these end up being stories that are entirely vacuous — but entertaining and engaging — then that is entirely in line with [our] goals.”

The inaugural issue features a wide variety of stories of various lengths and genres. Some are undergrad-oriented pieces, like Jules Rice’s ’08 “The Next Morning,” a snide and succinct comment on Yale romance; other stories have a more universal appeal, like Todd Ferguson’s ’11 satirical “Fellow Martians,” a bemused alien’s assessment of humanity that ends with a poignant twist. Others yet fall in the space between, such as Gribskov and Roshan Sethi’s ’09 “They Came From Grove Street,” the first installment in a dramatic epic about a zombie invasion of New Haven.

These pieces are complemented by illustrations and photographs submitted by undergraduates.

“The art [is] true to the character of the magazine,” said art director Emily Finn ’09. “Bold, punchy and appealing on an entertaining, accessible level.”

Everything is uniquely compiled into a slim black-and-white chapbook, meaning its pages are regular sheets folded in half. “In keeping with the spirit of the cheaply produced pulps and penny dreadfuls, we have gone with the cheapest mode of production,” Gribskov said with a smile.

The decision was one as practical as it was aesthetic, prompted by the tight budget of Davenport College Sudler funding. Due to restrictions on the grant, “The Penny Dreadful” is capped at a run of 300 copies per issue, but the staff has taken the limitation in stride: a message adorning the front cover asks that the reader kindly return his or her copy to the residential college’s periodical rack to maximize its circulation.

The staff of “The Penny Dreadful” also hopes to distinguish its publication by keeping its content unpretentious and its goals modest.

“I don’t believe we’re trying to teach anyone any lessons with our writing, but instead providing an enjoyable escape for students in the dining halls,” managing editor River Clegg ’11 said. “I think that if you can sit down and be entertained at 9:00 am over a bowl of cereal with our magazine, we’ve done our job.”

The “Dreadful” staff isn’t taking a slack approach, however. There are plans to publish two more editions by the semester’s end, and podcast readings of the pieces will soon be uploaded to an official Web site, with plans to expand the feature if student interest allows. As Sudler funding expires with the close of a semester, there are no current plans to continue the magazine beyond the spring term — but Gribskov remains hopeful that its influence will be long-standing.

“I hope ‘The Penny Dreadful’ inspires people to look at on-campus fiction publications in a new way,” she said. “But if it sparks other people’s creativity and excitement, it will definitely be a success.”

And she’s rather confident that it will be. “After all, where else will you find pirates, Martians, and zombies invading Yale all in the same magazine?”

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