Each year it seems the dustbin of pop cultural history has more and more ephemera to offer; previously disposable effluvia that has, seemingly through pure happenstance, earned a level of cool and cache as to warrant the fervent attention of a very particular niche of collectors and enthusiasts. The rise of the internet and the omnipresence and sheer volume of
stuff has certainly aided in this over the past several decades, shining a light on even the darkest, most long-forgotten corners of music, fiction and film, recasting each as something worthy of further (re)consideration.
Indeed, this fetishizing of the esoteric, obsolete and otherwise outsider has given rise to whole segments of the modern music and publishing industries through the reissue market. From micro-presses of bedroom folk issued by some never-known musician now hailed as an unjustly overlooked genius to lavishly produced hardcover editions of throwaway pulp fiction, the 21st century has helped birth a market for the obscurest of the obscure, the most disposable of an already disposable culture; one man’s trash has very much become another man’s treasure.
In his marvelous new exploration of the mass market paperback horror mill of the ’70s and ’80s, Grady Hendrix digs deep into the long-forgotten, moldering racks of secondhand bookstores, mining for gold in the appropriately-titled
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Moving well beyond the popular surface of the Stephen Kings, Peter Straubs, and Anne Rices, Hendrix explores not only the genre’s meteoric, post-Vietnam era rise, but also its nebulous origins in gothic horror and weird fiction; it’s a veritable master class in late-20th century horror fiction in all its forms. Taking as his chronological starting point the literal triple threat that is Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Other, he explores the myriad thematic offshoots that run the gamut from the supernatural to the natural to the downright unnatural.
With the horrors of Vietnam being brought into households across the world on a nightly basis, courtesy of the then unprecedented media coverage of the increasingly unpopular war, it was only a matter of time before these real-life horrors were sublimated into the far more fantastical, harkening back to the prime of H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allen Poe, to name but a few. Yet these new purveyors of horror undercut their frightful fiction with all manner of modern-day monsters, threats both real and imagined and an overwhelming sense of unease that permeated the Cold War years. Moving beyond the unholy trinity that dealt with, in order, the spawn of Satan, demonic possession, and evil twins, all manner of evil was soon to be unleashed to be faced by protagonists (and more than a few antagonists) who were themselves veterans of the horrors of Vietnam.
Naturally, the rise in popularity of horror films helped the horror paperback market and vice versa, one often feeding the other. So by the end of the ’70s, the marketplace was near saturation and looking for new and different directions within horror. As Hendrix points out, this included everything from the tried and true vampires (both scary and sexy vampires were explored at length, particularly when Anne Rice came on the scene), vengeful animals (nearly every conceivable species, from rabbits to dogs to cockroaches, were granted their very own
Jaws moments), familial tension (and, generally more for the shock value of it, incest, e.g., V.C. Andrews’ weirdly popular Flowers in the Attic series and the equally unsettling Pin), and naturally, Satanism (nearly all of which were touted as being, “in the tradition of Rosemary’s Baby).
This latter fascination led to the so-called “Satanic Panic” in the early ’80s, when parents across the country were irrationally fearful of Satanism infiltrating their communities and corrupting their children, drawing them in via the twin terrors of heavy metal and horror. These, like the animal/nature books — like
Eat Them Alive, featuring a giant praying mantis on the cover and The Nest, both insect-themed, being particularly egregious — more often than not were played for a rather sick humor than any sort of child corruption.
Scattered throughout the discussions of genres and fads, Hendrix provides a series of illuminating biographies of writers and cover artists. The latter in particular proves quite fascinating given the often shocking nature of the artwork provided for the increasingly grisly titles. Hendrix shares some of his favorites along the way, those that instilled the requisite horror both then and now —
Unholy Smile is enough to give sensitive types nightmares for years — and the evolution of the form alongside the text within. Putting names to the often remarkable art helps provide a fully fleshed out look at an otherwise disposable medium.
More than anything,
Paperbacks From Hell serves as a sort of gateway drug to the idiosyncratic world of oft-forgotten horror. Readers will be hard-pressed not to come away without a voluminous list of titles to file away for later purchase at your local used bookstore. (This reviewer found himself the proud owner of nearly two dozen of the titles Hendrix mentions, though John Christopher’s Nazi gnomes rarity The Little People remains elusive…) And though he does tend to go off on a series of tangents when detailing genre offshoots that have loaded shelves to capacity — gothics, in particular — Hendrix manages to right the ship before things get too far from the original point.
Paperbacks from Hell is so engrossing, you’ll time and again find yourself to have become lost within the text, flipping back and forth between Hendrix’s personal incites and recommendations and your own ever-growing list of titles to track down. Horror fans and bibliophiles will find much to enjoy in Hendrix’s highly entertaining and insightful look at this creatively rich period in mass market fiction. Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction is a hell of a good time and one not to be missed.