If you’ve read Paperbacks from Hell, you know that Grady Hendrix is an expert on horror fiction, most specifically mass-market paperbacks produced during the boom of the ’70s and ’80s, with their often eye-popping—some might say “garish”—cover art. What, you might ask, inspired such a fascination for weird, macabre books? In Hendrix’s case, it was a lot of things, but it certainly had something to do with a strange book he discovered while living abroad in England in the late ’70s. A book not intended for kids.
Grady Hendrix is a writer and public speaker based in Manhattan. Along with the aforementioned Paperbacks From Hell (2017), he is the author of the novels Horrorstör (2014) and My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016). He is currently working on a new novel.
(Interview conducted by John Brhel)
CEMETERY DANCE: What was your “first fright”?
GRADY HENDRIX: I never really was a huge horror fan, but when I was 7 we lived in England for a while, and in the house we rented, way up on the top shelf of the library bookcase, was a black book with gold print on the spine called something like Witchcraft and Folklore. It was full of woodcuts of witches being burned, and heretics getting their hands tied to the clappers of bells. It fascinated me, and I scrambled up those shelves and hauled it down at every opportunity. Suddenly, England made so much more sense.
That book was like my best friend for about a year. Not sure of the exact title or the author, and it had a library binding, so I don’t even know what its actual cover looked like. Maybe it doesn’t exist?
So potentially this was something you dreamed?
It was real, yet mysterious.
Was it there when you rented the house? Or was it your parents’ or something?
It belonged to the people we rented the house from; and since it was shoved up on top of this 10-foot bookcase, I imagine they didn’t read it often.
Were they weird people? Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night to some ritual or find any pentagrams around the place?
No, it was otherwise a pretty ordinary house. They were both doctors, I believe.
When was this?
Around 1977 or 1978.
So was it just images, or was there text?
It was text and images—heavy on the illustrations, almost like those TIME/LIFE Mysteries of the Unknown books, but it definitely wasn’t one of those. Much thicker.
So did it read like a historical book or did it have stories? How was the information presented?
I cannot remember, to be honest. I was about 6 or 7 and I spent a long time with it, but mostly what remains with me is an air of oppressive gloom, endless grotesquerie, and hideous bloodshed.
So at ages 6 and 7, gloom and bloodshed were exciting then? No Captain Kangaroo for you?
Sure, I watched Captain Kangaroo, The Electric Company, even Mister Rogers—but I knew this book was giving me a totally different view of the world, one that was darker and weirder and more dangerous. I think the attraction for me was that this was the stuff that wasn’t being shown to me at school or by adults. I used to sneak downstairs and watch the animated Edward Gorey opening credits of Mystery on PBS, and eventually my parents realized what I was doing and allowed me to watch the opening with them. That was a lot less fun. Secret knowledge and partial evidence are a lot more exciting.
Did your parents know you were reading the book?
I don’t know. They’re not idiots, so they probably had some idea; but they had the good sense to leave me alone with my gruesome little book buddy.
Was the book mainly about witches or did it go into other occult stuff?
It covered everything. I remember there was a chapter on witches, a chapter on ghosts, a chapter on famous murders from history which always ended with public executions, a fair amount of information about the torture and persecution of Catholics in England. There was a chapter on monsters like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Something for everyone, really.
What do you think was your favorite subject? Did you get really into ghosts or Bigfoot as a result?
I liked ghosts a lot. Target Books, the British publisher, put out Ghost Stories from Around the World, which I had copy of, but I was pretty omnivorous. When you’d visit the great houses of England, they usually had gift shops selling little paperbacks about their history, and there were several about the Catholic persecutions that were always full of plans to build priest holes, and diagrams of torture devices. Nessie was another fascination of mine, and I preferred her to Bigfoot, since giant fucking sea monsters are way more scary than unwashed ape people strolling around the woods.
England sounds like a great place to get into creepy stuff. How long did you live there?
Only about 14 months, but they were when I was between 5 and 7, so they were pretty formative. Most of my first memories are from that period. The house we rented (we swapped our house for this one for the year and change) was a massive Victorian pile with a nice hippie living in the basement and a reclusive photographer living in the attic. British television was in its golden era of creepy children’s programming, so Doctor Who was in its deep gothic phase, Blake’s 7 was airing for the first time, and Sapphire and Steel was always on, which was a grim, relentlessly downbeat sci-fi show that ends with the heroes being trapped in an extra-dimensional tea room for all eternity by the baddies. It was all very bleak and surreal, and it rained all the time. I loved it.
So I know with Paperbacks from Hell that you’re a big fan of horror fiction. Do you think this witchcraft book was formative in your appreciation for the folklore/history behind all of the occult stuff depicted in those novels?
Probably. I mean, it was my first exposure to all of that and I loved it and wanted more. I don’t find horror scary, really. Sure there are some books that creep me out, and movies that gross me out or make me nervous, but I mostly love horror for its aesthetic.
Okay, I was going to ask about that next. So you didn’t find this book scary? It was more of a pleasing thing, to be exposed to this forbidden knowledge?
Sure. I liked things that were scary because they fascinated people. My sisters were all older and they were terrified of books like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, but they read them compulsively. I suppose I was just imitating them.
Do you still read any books like this today, more “nonfiction” books about the occult? Or do you generally stick to fiction? If so, do you have any recommendations?
I read pretty much anything I can get my hands on, so I definitely have recommendations. Most of the horror non-fiction I read is out-of-print, but you could do a lot worse than read Douglas E. Winter’s old books like Faces of Fear, which has one of the only two V.C. Andrews interviews I’ve ever found in print. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is still really important. Michael Cueno’s American Exorcism is a really fantastic history of exorcism and deliverance ministry that had a big impact on My Best Friend’s Exorcism. The 33 1/3 book about Black Sabbath’s album Master of Reality is a great novel about teenaged heartbreak and mental institutions disguised as a non-fiction analysis of that album. I’ve just been reading James W. Loewen Sundown Towns, which is a harrowing account of a time in America when black people who wanted to travel from one city to another to visit relatives or go on vacation had to have a Green Book, a secret kind of guide that steered them away from “sundown towns,” where they were likely to be murdered or beaten after dark. And Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies keeps growing as he keeps adding and expanding it, and it’s still the best history of horror movies out there. Although I give a lot of props to Shock Value, too.