It’s with some serendipity that Paperbacks from Hell came out right around the time that I started digging the musty old book crates of Toronto’s used book stores for those once popular die-cut horror paperbacks that dominated the ’80s market. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I had an idea. During the ’80s, there was a swell of mass market thrillers that featured the kind of flashy, lurid covers designed to attract and repel in equal measure. I remember one such as a seven-year-old, the summer my aunt and her family came to visit. My cousin left behind a novel that featured a die-cut cover of a lovely young woman with blond, billowing locks staring serenely and directly at the reader. Her eyes (which were die-cut) were hollows that glowed red. Pulling back the cover revealed the ghastly picture beneath: a viciously hideous Medusa head that prompted peals of laughter every time my brother, sister and I pulled it out from under the side table where my mother stored her magazines. Because it was too ugly to keep, my mom threw it away eventually.
While I would never allow myself to be caught reading something like that in public today, I must admit a guilty fascination toward this little slip of ’80s literary fantasia. It goes deeper than the often fetching artwork, which alone merits the purchase of any grubby find in the back of a hole-in-the-wall bookshop. It also has a lot to do with the fantastically out-there narratives that could only be the product of a most un-PC, morally misaligned and sensitively-bereft decade like the ’80s. That’s probably an over-exaggeration. But you need only check out some of the titles in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell to see what I mean.
I’ve been to Eliot’s Bookshop (just recently – and lamentably – closed), Seeker’s Books, Sellers and Newel, BMV, Doug Miller Books and more here in Toronto, scouring the shelves for the kind of titles found in Hendrix’s book. Well-researched and packed with humour, Hendrix’s essays on the popularity of ’70s and ’80s horror novels provided plenty of reference points to aid my search. I now own copies of The Mesmerist, The Nightwalker, The Rapture, The Auctioneer and Maynard’s House, thanks to the recommendations and the alluring stories-behind-the-stories that set me on an even more determined search to track down my share of glorious ’80s trash (some of those titles, to be fair, predate the ’80s by a few years).
Paperbacks from Hell first outlines Hendrix’s own obsession with these type of works, and then goes on to chapter the literary fetish into the most popular subgenres of horror back in the day, including possessed children, freaky dolls, demon lovers, haunted houses, animals from hell (cats, dogs, rats…), and nymphomaniacs from hell. The categories go on, but these are the staples of what was one of horror’s most dubious albeit successful eras of the genre. Hendrix’s book is also flush with full-colour photographs to give you an idea of how extensive the public-baiting marketing departments in publishing houses were at the time. Many of these novels feature a sweeping, cinematic rendering of the story for the book jacket that are, in fact, handsome pieces of art. Some cover artworks churn and turn the stomach with repugnant images that reveal a desperate cash-grab at a sorely bloated market. Because these book jackets are a huge part of the appeal, Hendrix has done the great service of interviewing the decade’s most popular paperback cover illustrators of horror to glean some sense of what publishing houses were looking for when promoting the genre.
Striking a perfect balance between a reference guide and a personal account of the author’s many adventitious salvages, Paperbacks from Hell finds an audience that extends far beyond just those who remember horror novels of this particular variety back in the day. It’s also a document of a rather trendy kind of literary relic, essayed in such websites like Too Much Horror Fiction for the newer generation. If you’re having fun simply reading through these pages detailing a golden age of horror fiction, try putting the book to good use and start roving your city for the used hole-in-the-wall bookshops. Your latest discovery may be a scream.