I was born as the paperback horror industry died.
Thus, of course, I missed out on the heyday of my favorite genre and was left with the survivors of the great purge, the big names who survived: Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Dean Koontz, V.C. Andrews. Everyone else was fodder for the bargain bin and the black hole of time. Until author Grady Hendrix came along to document them in his nonfiction book Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction so those of the populace who lived and loved these books could remember and the rest of us could learn more about them.
The book is organized in a subgenre fashion; this is a smart decision as organizing it chronologically would work but would probably cause readers some dizziness as they constantly jumped across subject matters. Instead each chapter is devoted to fads and trends within the paperbacks across the entire period: Satanism, creepy kids, attacking animals, housing nightmares, scientific horrors, Gothic and romances, inhuman creatures, and a host of violence as splatterpunk, serial killers, and other creeps come out to play. This kind of organization allows casual readers to choose a chapter at random that interests them and learn more, but it doesn’t hurt the overall flow if you choose to read the chapters in order.
Through Hendrix’s timeline we can see the rise and fall of horror paperbacks beginning with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby before being cannibalized by the success of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Everything in between these two books is an attempt to garner success, shock, respond to some aspect of the culture at large, and cash-in on the boom of horror in the 1970s and 1980s. Hendrix respects readers enough to know that they’re aware of King and other notable contemporaries so he pays his due homage, but most of the page space is given to those lesser known treasures that deserve a chance at the spotlight again like The Voice of the Clown. Some books are simply described and categorized within their subgenre, but others receive a line or even a paragraph with a description of their plot, what makes them memorable or completely crazy, or even some behind the scenes information about their author or publication. This is an excellent chance for readers to add numerous titles to their To Be Read list and have someone else do most of the ground work for you; Hendrix lets you know what’s really worth the read and what hasn’t aged well.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the writing is Hendrix’s voice as he weaves in descriptions of killer children, sex crazed psychics, and satanic cults and makes it sound humorous as well as interesting. Many of these titles wouldn’t be given the time of day at a publishing house now, but Hendrix will pitch the hell out of them to you and could change your mind on some of this content. He mixes in information, historical facts, and biography with the notes about the books themselves in a way that is both comprehensive and fun and vaguely reminiscent of New Historicism. One of the highlights is in the “creepy kids” chapter wherein his tone switches to that of a self-help pamphlet, patronizing toward the reader as if they were suffering from the plight of a creepy child themselves. He understands that much of the material he is talking about now is laughable, but he writes in such a way that we’re laughing with the books and not quite at them.
Another strength is in the attention given not just to the books themselves, but to the authors, the publishers, and the cover designers. Most of these books sold purely on cover, title, and premise rather than on the author’s name recognition (with few exceptions) so it’s nice to get a little more information on those elusive figures who wrote the haunted heroines of yesteryear. Through Hendrix’s book we can follow the boom through the publishers as independents rise and then are bought in the 1980s by bigger corporations and then become imprints and then eventually close. There is special attention given to artists and the covers they design as so many of them are memorable and so emblematic of the time period.
Because of this consideration toward art, similar effort has been made into the physical presentation of the book itself. Quirk, the publisher of Paperbacks from Hell and other “quirky” horror-related titles among their list, has made this a book that is physically somewhere in between a high class paperback and a coffee table book. The cover is distinctive, favoring a recognizable font of the genre, and features several of the various other covers within the book. The inside is glossy and heavy cardstock, making every image gorgeous, and it would be easy to flip through the pages without a need to read the book itself. The only downside is because of that heavy quality it’s rather tiresome to hold comfortably for prolonged periods which only delays the reading process.
I would love to see more nonfiction work from Hendrix along the lines of these forgotten publication histories, even if he were to look exclusively into a subgenre and write an entire book on vampires in fiction. His voice, clean prose, and the quality of the general research give me confidence that he can dive into most subjects and come out with a working knowledge. His love of these paperbacks is clear even in his own work, anyone who’s read My Best Friend’s Exorcism can tell. Perhaps these nonfiction projects will inspire more of his fictional forays, but only time will tell in that regard.
Until those future projects emerge, I recommend Paperbacks from Hell to fans of the horror genre who are looking for titles outside of the usual names and faces, to those who may have seen these titles in the supermarket back in the day and wondered what lurked behind their die cut covers, or to fans of some fantastic niche cover art. We can hope that some of these titles may be unearthed from bargain bins and find new life with readers once again thanks to Grady Hendrix’s work, and, with time, maybe we’ll see another boom of crazy and interesting paperbacks from hell.