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Inside the creepy, sleazy, campy world of '70s horror books

Contributed by
Sep 18, 2017

What does a horror writer fear? For Grady Hendrix, being unprepared is a haunting specter. "I was a journalist for a long time, and I got burned bad once when I underprepared on an article," he told SYFY WIRE. "So then and there I shook my tiny fists to the heavens and vowed never to write about anything I hadn't watched or read in its entirety."

So, after enthralling the audiences with his comic horror-fiction works, such as Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea-like megastore, and My Best Friend's Exorcism, which mixes satanic panic with high-school drama, he went for a meta-narrative approach: His latest venture, Paperbacks From Hell, is a thorough compendium of mass-market horror at its boom in the 1970s and '80s that originated from a column about "weird paperbacks" (his definition) that he wrote for Tor.com.

It's a rich subject to highlight: Mass-market horror fiction went way beyond mainstream titles such as The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Vampire Chronicles. The genre was a Pandora's box full of wonders, and so Paperbacks From Hell was born.

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Since he was wary of under-researching his project, he read 256 extra books on top of what he had already read, and interviewed writers, artists, art directors, and editors, and read old articles, trade publications, and out-of-print books about publishing. Needless to say, he was very prepared.

A film guy at first — he founded the New York Asian Film Festival — Hendrix adapted the film fandom's enthusiastic and proselytizing attitude to the horror paperbacks. "True book obsessives (outside of a few fandoms) have more of a collector's mentality, and less of a proselytizer's mentality," he told us. "I always thought there must be some amazing stuff out there that had been forgotten, but I was daunted by the idea of plunging into this vast wilderness without some kind of a map. Eventually, I realized I'd have to make the map myself."

 

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Paperbacks From Hell consists of a thematic, and not chronological, map of the paperback horror genre, and, in its eight chapters, Hendrix taxonomizes horror fiction as thoroughly as possible. In fact, he masterfully illustrates what happened after the publication of the holy trinity of the horror genre, Rosemary's Baby (1967), The Other, and The Exorcist (both published in 1971). The 1970s and '80s were two extremely prolific decades for horror paperbacks, with a wide variety of categories that included — but was in no way limited to — Satanic cults, creepy kids, animals gone rogue, real estate nightmares, white guilt over Native-American burial grounds, and a sizable amount of incest.

True to Hendrix's intention, reading Paperbacks From Hell means getting a lot of information in relatively short blocks of text, which would almost read as a literature textbook were it not for his extremely entertaining turns of phrase, such as "the corpse began to boogie," referring to horror becoming a trend in the publishing industry. Then there's the simile "Like a Springsteen song mashed up with Dante's Inferno" while outlining the plot of The Abyss (1984), a work of apocalyptic fiction set in a coal-mining town in Tennessee.

Yet the scary, absurd, and over-the-top plots are not the sole focus here. He also devoted a lot of research to cover art, which was the first thing meant to attract the buyers' attention before they could even skim the horror novel of their choice: All the "gothic" novels, for example, had to feature a woman, usually with high cheekbones, running away from a haunted house, which was dark except for a single light in a window, usually shining from a dark tower (a phallic image referencing the brooding but sexy master of the house the heroine finds herself in).

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Needless to say, he does not spare cover artists from his sarcasm. Of Rowena Morrill, who illustrated a great amount of fantasy, sci-fi and horror fiction, he wrote: "… And she remains the only artist in the field whose work has graced not only the cover of Metallica's greatest bootleg album (No Life 'til Power) but also the walls of one of Saddam Hussein's love nests."

Quirky plot and artworks aside, what makes Paperbacks From Hell a strong read is the way Hendrix connects each horror subgenre to then-current political, cultural, and environmental issues: The "killer baby" novel, for instance, originated from the fact that reproductive rights advanced dramatically between the mid 1960s and '70s. Revolutionary concepts such as "test tube baby" and "sperm bank" spawned books where, say, creepy fertility doctors with an incestuous bent loved to play God in order to create a master race.

The "haunted-house" novel? Blame the high inflation and the high unemployment rates for all the cash-strapped families fleeing their homes for real-estate deals that are too good to be true. Even the rising popularity of RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, we learn, created some panic (it was considered a gateway to satanism), which proved, in turn, fertile ground for horror fiction, with titles such as Mazes and Monsters and Hobgoblin.

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As for the "sexy vampire" novels spearheaded by Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire, it was the looming shadow of AIDS that made those blood-sucking creatures perversely endearing: Unlike what was going on in the real world, Anne Rice's vampires were not killed by blood; on the contrary, the fluid made them sexy.

"They were cultured, beautiful, and they did everything we were told not to do," Hendrix elaborates. "The flip side of the dangerous juvenile delinquent of the '50s was sexy James Dean with his leather jacket and his death wish, and the flip side of the AIDS crisis was Rice's slim-hipped, long-haired vampires with their leather jeans and their death fetish."

Yet, as in the majority of horror books, "everything dies," and, by the time The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988, the horror market formally met its maker but survived in another iteration, namely the more pared-down thriller. Serial killers had replaced the likes of Satan, skeleton cheerleaders, and human-eating crabs.

Twenty years later, Hendrix thinks that a horror-fiction revival is about to happen. "Horror is starting to slowly shake the associations it still carries from the '90s like the Mark of Cain," he said. "It's gory, it's misogynistic, it's cheap, it's unimaginative. Now you have some authors with crossover hits, which has gone a long way to pulling in mainstream readers, and you have some critically acclaimed authors with deep fanbases, and some mainstream authors writing horror," he said, dropping names such as Victor LaValle, Paul Tremblay, and Gillian Flynn. "All it needs is a couple of books that become big bestsellers on the New York Times list again, the way The Exorcist, The Other, and Rosemary's Baby did and the whole cycle will start all over again."

Paperbacks From Hell is out on September 19. In paperback, of course.