Thursday 8 February 2018

Paperbacks From Hell

Page Burners

Paperbacks From Hell
by Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books
ISBN: 978-1-59474-981-0

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Paperbacks From Hell from a very good friend of mine this Christmas. It was a book I’d heard about and wanted to explore because the subject matter, as implied in the subtitle on the front of the book - ‘The twisted history of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction’ - was a phenomenon I well remember here in the UK and it was something which was timed just right for me to actively explore at the time.

To explain... on 7th September 1981, almost two years after it’s original US broadcast, the first installment of a two part US TV miniseries based on a book by horror writer Stephen King and called ‘Salem’s Lot, was broadcast in the UK. Now I would have been 13 years old when I saw this and was traumatised, like many young ‘uns at the time, by the cool ‘vampire kid' floating outside the bedroom window and the scene where the black shadow pops up from the bottom of the screen with an over the top musical stinger. So... yeah... all us kids loved it and it started me off acquiring Stephen King novels from my local W. H. Smith And Son Ltd.

And, of course, naturally, once you start buying this well written horror stuff, other writers in the same shelving sections come to your attention. How do you judge which ones you want to read next? By that very same thing you should never judge a book by, of course... it’s cover.

So it wasn’t long before I was also devouring the slightly less ‘up market’ but still very well written novels by James Herbert, the most popular of the UK horror writers at the time. So... King’s ‘Salem’s Lot... The Shining... The Stand and then sliding into Herbert’s The Rats... The Fog... The Jonah etc. However, at that age, horror isn’t the only thing your hormonally challenged mind is into and... there was a fair amount of sex included in the majority of the Herbert books. Those well read passages which soon became the first thing you kept an open eye and open fly out for when the latest purchase was brought home.

And then, of course, it’s a slippery slope and you find yourself reading the full banquet (or whatever you could afford on the small amount of pocket money which was somehow your true birth right) of horror novels which combined out and out gory mayhem coupled with extremely experimental and well thumbed sexploitation. Some of those novelists were still very much masters of the craft of writing... I might mention Dean R. Koontz or John Farris here... and others more than made up for in creative, over the top, gory sexiness what they may (or may not) have lacked in terms of their ability to turn a good sentence and write decent prose... so we had people like the beyond prolific Guy N. Smith with his crab books or John Halkin with his killer jellyfish or Shaun Hutson with his bloodthirsty slugs (see my review of the movie of that one here).

What I didn’t realise when I was given this grand tome, is that this particular love letter to the trashy, horror fiction paperback genre of the 70s and 80s was also written by the very same person who wrote a novel which I really liked when I read it last year... Horrorstör (reviewed here)... by Grady Hendrix. So you have him to blame for bringing to our shelves this extremely nicely designed and enormously entertaining volume.

The book starts off with his introduction where he talks about finding a used copy of a book of that era called The Little People by John Christopher. This is a book which features, amongst its many grotesque elements, a bunch of Nazi leprechauns called Gestapochauns who are heavily into S&M (as it was called before it was sanitised, somewhat, to BDSM) and who are created from the unborn foetuses of Jewish concentration camp victims. After hearing this absolutely bonkers concept, I did try to get hold of a decent copy of this book online at proper old school second hand prices (which seems to have gone up from the 30p standard these things used to be picked up for in musty, old book shops of the 1980s, for some reason) but, alas, the prices for this one on ebay etc are fairly high... presumably as a result of people reading Paperbacks From Hell, no doubt.

After the intro, Mr. Hendrix splits his exploration of this delightfully hellish landscape of well thumbed paperbacks by splitting his tome up into eight chapters. These are Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, Weird Science, Gothic And Romance, Inhumanoids and a mouthful of a final chapter called Splatter Punks, Serial Killers & Super Creeps. He further explores each of his categories with different sections to highlight different types of sub genre and these mini sections, with titles such as Salad Of The Damned, Starry Starry Nightmare and The Vampire Strikes Back, should probably tell you pretty much the tone of the reading experience here than anything else I might add.

But... if it doesn’t... let me spell it out for you.

Hendrix’s take on the genre is fun and irreverent and reflects perfectly the writing style which made his earlier novel Horrorstör so great. It’s also pretty informative as he takes us from the point, starting with gothic romances, where the popular horror novel of the period was properly born to the point of its regrettable demise a couple of decades later. Now I obviously haven’t kept up with times because I didn’t realise the horror novel wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it was during this time. I honestly thought you could still buy really trashy literature like this from the shelves of your local book store but... I guess not so much.

I did, though, learn a fair amount from this book... such as where some of the trends which the author has chosen to bundle up into specific categories first started or were influenced by. The popularity of such things as the demonic possession horror tales or the blaxploitation terrors obviously coining it in after their cinematic counterparts found an audience for them. Various influences and trends are lovingly explored and it’s illustrated throughout with full colour reproductions of various covers.

There are also randomly placed sections for the works and mini biography of various specific cover artists. Usually it's only a page long but it’s a nice thing to add and it even, on occasions, includes unused versions of the cover in question or an original, pre-painting preparatory sketch for these.

Another nice thing was the inclusion of some books (sometimes by name drop only) which I didn’t think anyone else had even heard of or, indeed, had read these days... such as Satan - His Psychotherapy And Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. (by Jeremy Leven), which was one of the best books I remember reading from that era... or Rona Jaffe’s book Mazes And Monsters which, to be fair, Hendrix seems to hold in far less regard than I.

Above all, though, the writing style is extraordinarily entertaining throughout and I loved little gems of passages about, for instance, how to best raise your possessed, homicidal or downright stabby evil kids. Or the warning about the dangers of keeping demonically possessed toys up in your attic. And a brilliant bit about the typical ‘horror man’ (who is immensely ‘chiselled’) and the typical ‘horror woman’. I especially loved this little bit about the ‘horror woman’...

“The most expressive parts of her body are her nipples. They noticeably harden when she is aroused, surprised, confused or meeting new people. They are practically prehensile tentacles, capable of lengthening, thickening, unfurling, budding, flaring and swelling.”

Yeah... I have to say, I’ve read a few books like that but it’s kinda funny, to be sure.

If I had one caveat with the book... and this is in no way a criticism... it’s that the writer is pretty much coming at this stuff from a mostly American angle when it comes to the cover art. Now a lot of the British cover art was often more sexually exploitative or photographic...or often a thrilling combination of the two... with the UK covers of books like John Halkin’s Slime and Dean R. Koontz Whispers and Night Chills, with their naked ladies in peril or at sleep, something which was often more memorable than the printed words between said covers. It might well be in the interests of Mr. Hendrix to maybe look at doing a sequel to his current tome where he can explore the UK landscape of the time... a Paperbacks From Hell In The UK, if you will.

Like I said, though... not a criticism, more an observation and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this writer's journey into a time I had almost forgotten. Much recommended to both the oldies like myself who will find themselves on a trip down memory lane and also to the younger audience who were maybe never exposed to this stuff before. The book is beautifully designed, well researched/written and is an absolute treasure trove of trash for anyone’s book shelf. Check it out when you can.

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