Paperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the ’70s and ’80s by Grady Hendrix is the history of the paperback horror novel. Hendrix is the author of the novels Horrorstör, the only book you’ll ever need about a haunted Scandinavian furniture superstore, and My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
In the mid-1970s I would go to the corner store, a Lawson, and raided the book rack. There was always a carousel of books near the front counter. Horror books took up most of the shelf space with everything from the Omen to countless barely remembered horror stories of all types. I remember a class mate, Pam, giving me her copy of Gary Brandner’s The Howling. That book was a game changer for me. The Scholastic Books, an in school book sale, even had Stephen King’s Carrie for sale. This caused a temporary ban of Scholastic Books in my school as some parents got very upset about the books available to 7th graders. There was something special about buying books that were not meant for school children.
Paperbacks from Hell is a return to that time with a detailed discussion and listing of books from that period. Hendrix provides a great refresher for those who loved the horror boom of the period. What subject defined horror changed over time. Satan and Satanists made an easy subject and a lasting one through books and even music in 1980s metal. David Seltzer’s novelization of the movie The Omen started a string of books and the popularization of an obscure Bible passage. Knowing that 666 was the number of the beast suddenly became a Bible trivia everyone knew regardless of religious belief.
Damian also triggered the growth as a child being evil or a killer. Evil children were a shocking subject going back to the 1954 book Bad Seed. Books like The Crib and Spawn had a supernatural touch while Let’s Play Games at the Adams’ and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane told of normal kids gone bad or take control of their own situation. There is also the far fetched fear mongering book Rona Joffee Mazes and Monsters which turned the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons into something that will damage and warp a teenager’s brain.
Animals also were big sellers from Peter Benchley’s Jaws to killer dogs, cats, rats, and even rabbits. Animals were killing people in untold numbers. Pick a seeming defenseless animal and there is probably a story of it being a mad killer (yes, butterflies too). If one thought animal killers wasn’t quite over the top there were also killer plants. Jaws lead the escalation of wildlife killers.
If it wasn’t an animal or child, it was probably a haunted property. Amityville Horror was the foundation for the haunted house. Amityville spawned six books in the series, each marketed as nonfiction. The premise of haunted houses being built over vortexes, graveyards, or other mystical places expanded into haunted train lines and hospitals. Anything could be haunted or possessed. Just ask Arnie Cunningham.
Hendrix starts his book with an introduction featuring The Little People who live in a basement of a bed and breakfast, Gestapochauns (Nazi leprechauns) and ends with a genre called Splatter Punk. Not much new has been developed since the late 80s death of paperback horror. Stephen King and others still write but the present generation would rather have movies and video games rather than a cheap paperback. I revisited the era re-reading Brandner’s Howling series a while ago, but I did it on a Kindle. It just didn’t seem the same. While today people look for special effects in movies today, we had cover art back then. Hendrix captures a multitude of the covers that got many people reading. Cover art at the time was important in making one book stand out from the rest. Foil covers, embossed covers, step back art, and die-cut covers became the norm and helped reveal some of the book’s mystery or added a layer of shock. This was a time when horror brought entertainment to many readers. For those of us who had a library that was too far to walk to (or too dangerous to go to alone), the corner store became the early Netflix for many. Well written. Well illustrated. Well referenced. A welcomed walk down memory lane.