Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction is a history lesson crossed with the world’s coolest (and unlikeliest) museum exhibit. As the title indicates, author/curator Grady Hendrix is our guide, taking us from the post-Rosemary’s Baby boom of paperback horror all the way through the 1990s bust. In between, there’s a whole lotta crazy to cover, and Hendrix is more than game to take us through every twist, turn and trend.
I’ll be honest, when I first got wind of this book, I expected little more than a portfolio of lurid paperback covers accompanied by a plot synopsis for each book, maybe a spotlight or two on some of the more prolific authors, and perhaps a closer look at some of the publishers who were churning the stuff out. And you know, I would have been fine with that. But Hendrix has given us so much more. An accomplished author in his own right (My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Horrorstör), Hendrix digs deep and writes with passion. You need look no further than his introduction, in which he writes about the book that served as his “gateway drug” into the world of paperback horror. It’s better heard from him, but let me just toss out the term “Gestapochauns” as an appetizer. Yeah, you’re thinking there’s no way that could mean what you think it means, but it does.
Rather than go year-by-year, Hendrix has organized the book by the themes and subgenres that defined the period. So, we move from “Hail, Satan” to “When Animals Attack” to “Real Estate Nightmares” to “Inhumanoids” to….well, you get the idea. Each of these chapters are written with a historian’s observational skill coupled with a fan’s passion and a professional’s touch. Hendrix hits the requisite high points like David Seltzer’s The Omen, James Herbert’s The Rats, and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door (and it’s infamous skeleton cheerleader cover!), but he revels equally in obscure gems like Eat Them Alive by Pierce Nace and Slay Bells by Joe Gibson and Blood Snarl by Ivor Watkins.
Hendrix recognizes that the covers were often the best thing about these books, so he’s written several “Coroner’s Report” asides spotlighting particularly prolific artists and their contributions.
I often look at my own, growing library and keep a mental list of my “essentials,” the books I absolutely could not do without. Paperbacks from Hell is now on that list. As a reference book, as a celebration, and as an appreciation, it’s one of the best books about the horror genre that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I’ll honestly be stunned if I ever meet a horror fan that disagrees. This gets my highest possible recommendation.