If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to express what an amazing time the ’70s and ’80s were for fans of horror fiction. With the advent of blockbuster horror novels like The Exorcist and Stephen King’s early work, bookstores were glutted every month with new horror novels, all determined to top each other to get the reader’s attention. This means those of us who grew up browsing used bookstores in the late ’80s and early ’90s experienced a wonderland of outrageous cover art and even wilder writing each time we visited the horror section of our chosen second-hand paperback emporium.
For those who weren’t lucky enough to experience this era, Paperbacks From Hell gives you an impressive thumbnail sketch of what it was like. This handsomely designed trade paperback was penned by film critic, novelist and horror expert Grady Hendrix and it is 50% genre history, 50% coffee table book and 100% gloriously twisted nostalgia trip.
Paperbacks From Hell traces the history the paperback horror revolution, starting with its roots in blockbusters like Rosemary’s Baby and The Other and covering its many mutations before its collapse in the early ’90s. Along the way, Hendrix treats you to analyses of key titles like Interview With The Vampire and The Rats and fun explorations of subgenres like killer kids, attacking animals and splatterpunk. Best of all, everything is illustrated with tons of florid, grab-you-by-the-throat cover art.
The raw material is plenty interesting but what makes it really sing is Hendrix’s writing style. He’s as much showman as he is scholar and his prose is light on its feet, rich in imagery and packed with quotable punchlines (sample: “Splatterpunk books had no good guys and no bad guys, only a swarm of indistinguishable jerks dressed in black leather and camo.”)
Under the surface thrills, there is both a love and a critical understanding of horror fiction. For example, he takes the time to craft thoughtful appreciations of unsung writers like Ken Greenhall, Elizabeth Engstrom and Michael McDowell that are likely to send you searching for their work on Amazon and eBay. He’ll also point out where paperback horror ended up on the wrong side of history, like titles that shamelessly exploited the ginned-up hysteria over Dungeons & Dragons while also perpetuating the myths about it. He can also wield his analytical thoughts like a scalpel, most notably in a sharp critique of the splatterpunk subgenre and its sometimes cheap nihilism.
In short, Paperbacks From Hell is a macabre, oft-witty treat for horror fans. Whether you are new to the charms of cheap horror paperbacks or a veteran who lived through its genre-glutting renaissance, there is a buffet of cheap thrills to savor here.