Sunday, October 1, 2017

It came from the paperback rack

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction

Grady Hendrix

Publisher: Quirk Books

Pub. Date: September 19, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If there was a golden age for horror fiction, it was in the 70s and 80s. There were certainly great and memorable horror fiction being written and published before that but it was the 70s when the publishing companies took notice and started to hype it as its own particular, and eventually profitable, niche. Before the 70s, most horror was delegated into the gothic romance section and, surprisingly to some I will surmise, labelled as women’s fiction. As Grady Hendrix points out in his excellent and constantly entertaining Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction the onslaught of horror can thank the stunning success of three novels from the late sixties and early seventies; Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, The Other by Thomas Tryon, and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Of course, Stephen King would have a thing or two to say about all this but he was just the pinnacle in a coming horror cavalcade.

Before I start reviewing Paperbacks from Hell, I want to add my own personal recollection. I was introduced to horror via the movie Frankenstein at 6 years old thanks to a rather negligent babysitter who, unknown to my parents, allowed me to stay up way after my bed time and watch it with her. That was the beginning of my horror obsession. As a young teen the EC comics, also banned in my household, was really the only pure horror in print I could sneak out and find. My main source of scares and thrills was the paperback Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology series (35 cents a pop) which would publish and reissue some pretty good and classic horror among its usual array of mystery and suspense fiction. This was my introduction to a number of classic horror writers including Bradbury, Bloch, Beaumont and others, not to mention the short story that Hitchcock later adopted for a film titled “The Birds” by Daphne DuMaurier. It was about the time of the horror trifecta of novels mentioned above that I began to discover paperbacks with wonderfully lurid covers that promise me more terrifying thrills than I was previously led to believe existed. So I grew up during this wonderful splurge in horror novels. I am both proud and embarrassed that I read an alarmingly large amount of the novels mentioned and illustrated in Hendrix’s book when they came out. I am sorry to say I missed the Nazi leprechaun one though. Whether I am the better or worse for reading so many of these books will depend on who you ask but it certainly kick-started my imagination and I for one will say I am the better for it.

Paperbacks from Hell chronicles the rise and fall of this publishing phenomena with much wit and glee. The book itself is gorgeous with its very generous photos of covers and illustrations from many of these books. Personally, it is my idea of the perfect coffee table book simply based on appearance. However, it is what is communicated between the pages that is important and Hendrix covers both the history and excitement of the era. He writes about the good and the silly.. He knows about the literary importance of some of the novels as well as the excesses. It is all written with a childish enthusiasm and more than a little humor. For instance, when he writes about the onslaught of demon spawn stories he offers some sage advice…

“But how do I know if the man I’m dating is the devil?” I hear you ask. Here are some warning signs learned from Seeds of Evil. Does he refuse to use contractions when he speak? Does he deliver pickup lines like, “You live on the edge of darkness.”? When nude, is his body the most beautiful male form you have ever seen, but possessed of a penis that’s either monstrously enormous, double headed, has glowing yellow eyes, or all three? After intercourse does he laugh malevolently, urinate on your mattress, and then disappear? If you spot any of these behaviors, chances are you went on a date with Satan. Or an alien.

Once Hendrix gives you the background for the rise of the horror genre in the 70s and 80s, Hendrix separates his chapter into the main themes presented in the novels: Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, and four other intriguing subjects. This is where the fun really begins. He singles out the most representative of the writers and the books of that theme as well as his reaction. I was pleased with many of the authors I read during that time getting recognition, both famous and infamous, but there were plenty of writers I was not familiar with and whose books have been mainly lost in the shuffle . (Where has Brian McNaughton been all my life?) Whether being lost in the shuffle is rightly or wrongly so, Hendrix usually has an opinion on it but it does makes me want to get out there and hunt a few of these lost treasures down. One thing I really like is Hendrix doesn’t try to pretend these are all classic. Many he speaks of with befuddled amusement. He is particularly scathing when dealing with the Amityville Horror book series. Yet he does not ignore some of the real gems of this era. I am glad he mentioned three of my favorite and often recommended books by me; The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons, The Auctioneer by Joan Sampson, and Maynard’s Cabin by Herman Rauch. All three of these were one-time horror novels written by writers of other genres, But they are seminal works in the horror field and attest to the power of this golden age that these established authors were persuaded to tackle the disciplines of the horror novel and do so quite effectively.

And oh those photos! It represents the horror paperback in all its glory. Even if one does not read this book, which would be a damn shame, there are enough glorious covers complete with lurid subject matter and creepy stuff to fulfill anyone’s desire of the need for the same. The covers get as much attention as the novels themselves. Hendrix pays attention to the repeating themes and their attempt to attract certain readers. Skeletons, devils, Nazi leprechauns, scared females scantily dressed and running down a corridor. They are all there.

I can only think of one book that is even close to doing this topic justice and that is Danse Macabre by Stephen King. But King wrote it in 1981 and was too close to the material to do it justice. Hendrix uses the eyes of both a fan and a historian, pointing out the good with the bad and setting it firmly in the perspectives of other events going on during the time. The reign of the horror paperback begun to wane in the 90s and although horror boundaries are still being challenged, there has been no time since then when that the horror market was inundated with so much quantity and, arguably, quality. Many of the important horror writers that are active today first started their career during these golden years. There was Ramsey Campbell, David Schow and so many others. One can say it was essentially their apprenticeship.

This is a seminal work for a part of literature that has been unjustly ignored. The lows and highs are addressed here but it is hard to understate how much these lurid paperbacks contributed to the ongoing interest in horror today that we see in mainstream movies, TV and of course literature. You are not going to get this information in any more delightfully entertaining way so please lurk to your bookstore and order this. There are lots of demon children, killer rabbits, and splatterpunk villains in the pages ready to tempted you into a thrift store book hunting spree once you finish it.


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