Growing up, long before dial-up modems were a thing and the internet was confined to the military’s ARPANET, the only way to access the information superhighway was by visiting the neighborhood drug store, grocery store and bookstore, where I could find hundreds of different topics at my physical fingertips… everything from newspapers to magazines to comics and even novels (I used to read a LOT more back then!). On weekends, I could spend an entire day just browsing through the stacks of Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, among others. Pick a topic and you’re bound to find a variety of authors expounding their expertise, from household names to independent authors. As I found myself continually navigating toward the science-fiction, fantasy and horror sections, I realized there was no shortage of books in the paperback format.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out which ones were good reads, which were pulp novels and which were trash. From Horrorstör to the horror-book industry, Grady Hendrix has transitioned from horror author to horror journalist. With the assistance of Will Errickson, Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction takes me back to the days when physical copies of Fangoria and Omni were originally available on magazine stands, surrounded by trash-fiction masterpieces that could be found literally everywhere. I remember browsing through many a copy of books that I classified as “So Bad It’s Good,” and when a back-cover logline piqued my interest, I would make the purchase.
Part oral history and part book review, Paperbacks takes a look at horror fiction throughout the years, via out-of-print books. It was a simpler time back then, when supernatural terror involved haunted houses, underwater vampires, voodoo cults, Black Magic, Satanism, Necromancy, witchcraft, vampirism and were-sharks. Throwback pulp novels of yesteryear featured psychic Nazi leprechauns, gourmet cannibal cults and mad-doctor experiments, which were all story elements reacting to the growing global cultural, political and pop-culture trends in their day. But not only did these fictional novels change with the different movements, but they also took cues from other bestselling books and religion, leading to the Satanic Panic, Armageddon, vengeful spirits and even gay skeletons from an ancient tribe. There’s so any tropes to cover and so little time, but Hendrix and Errickson do a great job covering them all.
“Clowns are part of the holy trinity of horror paperback iconography, along with skeletons and dolls.”
These authors had so many fetid creatures to cover, but the biggest terror of them all “toddles on two legs.” From the bowels of Publishers Weekly lists to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List, much of the included pulp fiction can be described as exploitation books of mass destruction, found in the irradiated wasteland known as the horror paperback industry. Throughout the discussions of splatterpunks and dark fantasy, the authors deliver sly modern-day pop-culture references interwoven with a wink and a nod among the noteworthy trends and novel trend-setters of their days.
“It’s not just dogs and cats and insects and fish and birds and killer whales who hate humanity. Vegetables hate us, too.”
Featuring 350 full-color reprints, Paperbacks From Hell takes a look at practically every horror subgenre imaginable, poking fun at the ridiculous cultural radiation along the wild ride. As noted by Errickson in the Afterward, “Some of the best horror titles cannot be classified.” And with that, I fully agree. Like many people, I had no idea about many of the featured books and I’m glad they received a little spotlight for their achievements — many of which lie beyond actual descriptions… they’re just out there. And I’m glad they are. I’ve seen big-screen adaptations of more than a few of these books and never considered them more than b-movies, if that. But I could always find a storyline element that would interest me. Even if it’s only a few colorful words, I found that true about these books, too.
As I breezed through the 200-plus pages of this horror opus, I time traveled back to those older bookstores, skimming through new (for me) paperbacks, encountering the fantastic for the first time and learning about horror fiction for kids. As much an oral history as a speaking piece for Quirk Books, this is the type of title that has brought me back to books. I loved every minute of reading Paperbacks From Hell and if you enjoy nostalgic looks at colorful — and fetid — characters, then you will too.
I’d love to see Hendrix and Errickson team up to write the ultimate story of sci-fi paperbacks, but that might be a little too weird… science.