Book review: Paperbacks from Hell, the Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction

I loved Grady Hendrix’s soon to be released book, Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction. From the opening, his discussion of John Christopher’s totally bizarre 1966 novel, The Little People, about an assortment of unsavoury individuals who spend a weekend in an Irish castle which is also inhabited by evil Nazi leprechauns (‘the Gestapochauns’) to the last few pages, the dying days of American mass market paperback horror, it is a wild, exhilarating ride.

But as well as being a lot of fun, Paperbacks From Hell is also an important work of pulp fiction and pop culture history.

The book comprises a series of thematic chapters, grouped from the most part around one or two foundation texts. Thus the chapter on satanic pulp and mass market paperbacks opens with a look at the cultural importance of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. The Omen (1976) is the starting point for a look at the large sub-genre of books about women being impregnated by all manner of hell spawn and murderous offspring. Peter Benchley’s paperback sensation, Jaws, is the precursor to a discussion about the wave of pulp and mass market paperback books featuring murderous creatures and animals turned homicidal: rats, dogs, cuts, pigs, insects, even rabbits. Robert Marasco’s book, Burnt Offerings (1973), introduces the chapter on haunted and possessed houses. There are also chapters on weird science and medical horror, the Gothic romance, ‘inhumanoids’, and tapping into Satanic panic of the 1980s, the last chapter focuses on deranged and murderous teens, a trend which coincides with the last gasp of mass-market horror paperback.

One of the reasons I appreciate how much work Hendrix has put into this book is that over the last few years I’ve undertaken a similar effort with Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, the forthcoming non-fiction book I have co-edited that looks at how youth sub-cultures have been portrayed in mass market pulp fiction in the US, Australia and UK.

For one thing, the source novels are hard to find, necessitating some serous spade work, searching the Internet and frequenting various musty second hand bookstores, as well as throwing yourself at the mercy of numerous paperback collectors, who approach your pleas for high resolution cover scans of rare novels with varying degrees of enthusiasm and technical competence.

What makes Paperbacks From Hell special is not only the fact Hendrix has curated (with the help of obscure horror book reader and collector, Will Erickson, who first drew my attention to the existence of Hendrix’s book), a terrific collection of cover images. He has actually read the books. Pretty much every one featured. This means he is able to admire these books not just for their outré covers, but for how they reveal a narrative about the 1970s and 1980s.

He uses the books to create a road map that navigates everything from American mainstream society’s reaction to the rise of HIV/AIDS, growing economic anxiety, nuclear war, pollution, and Vietnam, to America’s cultural guilt over its treatment the native Indian population. His deep knowledge of the subject matter also enables Hendrix to explore some little known detours along the journey. These include the Satan Sleuth books, a cross between Kolchak and James Bond, on a one man mission to track down and destroy the devil worshipers who murdered his fiancée; Holloway House editor Joe Nazel’s blaxsploitation take on The ExorcistThe Black Exorcist; and the literary career of Cleo Virginia Andrews, whose 1979 book, Flowers In the Attic, singlehandedly kick started the modern iteration of dark gothic romance fiction.

Hendrix uncovers some schlock masterpieces. For example, The Searing (1980),  set in a remote stretch of American countryside that is visited every couple of hundred years by invisible aliens that kill people with spontaneous orgasms that melt their brains. But for my money, the prize for the most bat shit crazy novel goes to William W Johnstone’s Toy Cemetery (1987), the story of a Vietnam vet who returns to his remote town with his young daughter, only to discover it has fall under the  thrall of its two main industries, a high security metal institution cum underground research facility that houses the ‘products of incest’ produced by the evil owner of the town’s second industry, a giant doll factory.

He also highlights a number of forgotten books that sound genuinely good, such as Herman Raucher’s Maynard’s House, about a Vietnam vet (there are lot of them in 1970s/1980s horror fiction) who takes on a witch in rural Maine, and Elizabeth Engstrom’s Black Ambrosia, about a female drifter vampire.

The hardest aspect of writing about pulp and mass paperback fiction is straddling the divide between just how outrageous poltted, badly written and politically incorrect many of these books are by today’s (and probably yesterday’s) standards, with the fact that they represent a rich, hidden seam of alternative historical consciousness. Striking the right balance is a hell of a lot more difficult than it looks. Approach the books too reverentially and you sound silly or like you are praising their worst aspects. Tackle them purely from the standpoint of the standards and identity politics of 2017, and the writing feels detached and usually misses the book’s hidden cultural connections and significance. It is an operation that requires the delicate application of a scalpel not a chain saw and Hendrix is a master surgeon.

I devoured this 254-page tome, almost in one sitting, like one of the starving giant killer crabs featured in a series of late 1970s horror pulps, discussed by Hendrix in his book. It’s a must read for all fans of horror fiction and pulp history.

Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction is available here from Quirk Books in September.

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3 Responses

  1. Pingback: Incident Report No. 4 – Unlawful Acts

  2. Andrew,
    You had visited my site, BlaxploitationPaperbacks.com and inquired about a scan of the front and back covers of the Jones Men by Vern Smith. I went to the library to check out the book in hopes of getting those images for you, but unfortunately they only have the hard cover book with no jacket.

    Your welcome to use the image from my website if you want to: here’s the link to the Jones Men page: http://blaxploitationpaperbacks.com/the-jones-men/

  3. Brandon,
    Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate it. Unfortunately, that scan image is not high resolution enough to use in our book. Oh, well, the search continues.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

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