Quirk Books, Inc., 2017, 254 pages
Written in dead letters... and covered in blood!
Demonic possession! Haunted condominiums! Murderous babies! Man-eating moths! No plot was too ludicrous, no cover art too appalling, no evil too despicable for the Paperbacks From Hell.
Where did they come from? Where did they go? Horror author Grady Hendrix risks his soul and sanity (not to mention yours) to relate the true, untold story of the Paperbacks From Hell.
Shocking story summaries! Incredible cover art! And true tales of writers, artists, and publishers who violated every literary law but one: never be boring. All this awaits, if you dare experience the Paperbacks From Hell.
Paperbacks from Hell is a loving gallery of the best of the best and the worst of the worst from the paperback boom that lasted from the early 70s (arguably, early 60s) to its last gasps in the early 90s. While the main attraction of this book is hundreds of incredible covers, it is not just a coffee table book meant to be looked at but not read. Grady Hendrix is a collector and scholar of the horror genre, and amazingly, seems to have actually read almost all this trash.
Features psychic BDSM Gestapochauns genetically engineered from fetuses taken from Jewish concentration camp victims. Yes, this is the John Christopher who wrote the Tripods trilogy.
I say "trash" affectionately. The horror genre was huge. It's still an extant market, but nothing like in its heyday when paperback publishers were churning out books about killer crabs, demonic children, spooky Catholics, and sixteen kinds of serial killers by the hundreds every month. Hendrix covers the history of the genre in detail, with a witty, irreverent but scholarly tone. He talks about the precursor to the boom, in the 50s and 60s, but it was Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist that really kicked it off, quickly spawning dozens of imitators and then an ever-expanding genre which occasionally produced actual literary works, or at least, books memorable enough to survive the test of time, but mostly produced thrills, gross-outs, and women being choked to death by giant demonic penises.
Deadly demon cocks are a more common theme than you might think.
Most important, try not to have sex with Satan. Fornicating with the incarnation of all evil usually produces children who are genetically predisposed to use their supernatural powers to cram their grandmothers into television sets, headfirst. "But how do I know if the man I’m dating is the devil?" I hear you ask. Here are some warnings signs learned from Seed of Evil: Does he refuse to use contractions when he speaks? Does he deliver pickup lines like, "You live on the edge of darkness?" When nude, is his body the most beautiful male form you have ever seen, but possessed of a penis that’s either monstrously enormous, double-headed, has glowing yellow eyes, or all three? After intercourse, does he laugh malevolently, urinate on your mattress, and then disappear? If you spot any of these behaviors, chances are you went on a date with Satan. Or an alien.
Adopted or chemically altered children should be destroyed immediately because they can not be reformed. No matter how hard you try, they probably will, at some point, go on a rampage and murder all your other children.
All is not lost. Look on the bright side: deadly children are the best-dressed children... A coat and tie says either "tiny funeral director" or "psychopath."
Can you say "problematic"? Leave your Content Warnings at the door. This is a genre that uses every possible permutation of crazy, racy, sexy, gory, gross, and offensive, and in the 70s and 80s in particular, women exist to be ravished and mutilated and non-white people are usually casting curses, raising undead spirits, or summoning demons, generally not represented much better than in H.P. Lovecraft's stories.
Dancing gay Indian ghosts want to kill all white men by sucking the sperm out of them. Yes, that's actually the plot, apparently.
Speaking of Lovecraft, Paperbacks from Hell is primarily about the 70s and 80s, not a history of the entire horror genre, so you won't find much Lovecraft here, aside from a few reprints. The other big name who's rather conspicuously absent is Stephen King, who was extraordinarily prolific during this period (well, when is he not extraordinarily prolific?). Perhaps because his output alone would overshadow most of the lesser known authors Hendrix catalogs, and because he survived the "bust" just fine, his books get only a few mentions and Hendrix doesn't give him a bio or discuss his impact on the field, as he does for Anne Rice, Clive Barker, and lesser-knowns like Michael McDowell or much lesser-knowns like Graham Masterton.
Besides talking about the authors, Hendrix also presents bios for many of the artists who did so many of these covers. Some were big names (like Rowena Morrill), and some completely unknown outside of publishing. There is some interesting discussion about the business side of the business, like the fact that publishers deliberately avoided giving credit to artists because they didn't want them to become big names who could demand more money, and the rise of Photoshop in the 90s, which dramatically increased artists' productivity, but led to publishers deciding that art should be paid by the hour — since digital tools let artists work more quickly, they started getting paid less per cover.
Artist Jim Thiesen sculpted and photographed the head of the titular monster for the cover he painted for The Gilgul. According to Hendrix:
The Gilgul doesn't quite live up to the promise of its cover, however. It honors the beautiful traditions of the Jewish people with a story of a young possessed bride who sprays blood from her nipples. When her future groom witnesses her finger-banging a nurse in the local nuthouse, he flees for Miami to swill Jack Daniels and pick up every hooker he can find. The memory of the Holocaust is evoked by a touching scene in which an army of Jewish concentration camp victims comes back from the dead in a Bay Shore living room and ascends into the heavens while singing.
Hendrix had a lot of fun writing this, with sections like "Satan Gets Woke" (horror had a blaxploitation era as well), "What to Expect When You're Expecting (a Hell Baby)," and "Salad of the Damned" (when the chapter "When Animals Attack" expands into homicidal vegetation).
"Edmund Plante"... hmmm...
Actually not about murderous plants.
Gardens sure are evil.
Really, I could just post cover after cover — or you could head on over to Too Much Horror Fiction. This is William Erickson's blog. Erickson was a collaborator for Paperbacks from Hell. I'm going to post some more of my favorites below, but let me highly recommend this book not just for the galleries of covers, but for anyone who likes horror and is interested in a micro-history of the genre. Hendrix traces the trends, from the Omen and Exorcist era to the blockbusters like Jaws and Flowers in the Attic, to the "splatterpunk" of the 90s, and finally, the bust, when suddenly publishers were suffering a 60% return rate and horror novels starting being rebranded as "thrillers," with fewer demons and mutant cockroaches, and more Hannibal Lecters.
Pedants might argue about whether a dysfunctional family drama with incestuous siblings is properly a 'horror novel,' but its gothic creepiness and those covers were a mood.
Even the appendix in the back is pretty interesting, as Hendrix lists all of the publishers of the era and their histories. Fawcett, Dell, Doubleday, Bantam, Ballantine, Tor, New English Library, and many others, some are still around, others have been absorbed as imprints of larger publishers, and many ceased publishing but had their moment in the sun printing bestselling schlock like The Rats.
You can also find books about killer cats, dogs, rabbits, bulls, snakes, crabs, frogs, gila monsters, moths, and slugs. Oh, and one or two about sharks.
I have only read a fraction of the books featured in Paperbacks from Hell, but I vividly remember every one. Highly recommended. Enjoy a few more of my favorites.
Aborted fetuses are animated by a lightning strike and become brain-eating babies who telekinetically explode women's wombs. I ain't makin' this shit up, yo.
This cover is mentioned, but not actually included in the book.
Lovecraft did get a Rowena Morrill treatment in a couple of reprints.
I haven't read it, but it's apparently really fucking dark even for horror.
The original cover has a certain stark, minimalist appeal.
The Amityville series, all supposedly based on "true events," includes demonic pigs riding on the wings of a 747 and George Lutz, the real-life protagonist, uses his "martial arts training" to beat up the Amityville Horror.
Michael McDowell is seriously underrated.
And you thought Watership Down was the only grimdark rabbit tale.
Glowy skeletons and glowy, creepy children, a popular combination. According to Hendrix: "Wallace explores the issue of whether a cursed California hospital ward previously occupied by the criminally insane ought to house an experimental pediatric treatment program. (Conclusion: Probably not.)"
I actually read this one. Like most books about RPGs written during the D&D Panic of the 80s, it was written by someone who had clearly never actually played an RPG. Spoiler: You will also be disappointed if you are expecting actual hobgoblins.
This book was not featured in Paperbacks from Hell... whyyyyyy? It's soooooooo bad! I read it when it was first published. Think "Carrie" but the protagonist is a teenage boy whose powers include telekinetic sexual assault.
wtf is even going on, here? Did the teddy bear decapitate himself?
My complete list of book reviews.