Paperbacks From Hell

As we get into spooky season (and make no mistake, we are well into it; spooky season starts for me sometime in August and ends sometime in November), I’ve done a deep dive into the origin and history of the modern horror novel. I’ve somehow become a horror writer myself, which is still surprising. Although maybe not so much, considering my love of ’90s horror series Fear Street, as is depicted by my still-running blog Shadyside Snark. Fun fact: Shadyside Snark was once on the top 10 blogs in Edmonton, circa 2010, so I think that’s pretty fancy. Also surprising is the longevity of Fear Street itself, which got a reboot last year with Netflix’s uber creepy trilogy. You can read my recaps of the movies here: Fear Street 1994, Fear Street 1978, and Fear Street 1666.

But we’ll get to all that later. I randomly came across this absolute gem of a book Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. It’s written by Grady Hendrix, a horror writer himself and obviously a great lover of the genre. He began collecting vintage horror paperbacks in the remote recesses of used bookstores, to the great delight of anyone who can’t get enough of these covers. Not that I know anything at all about random collections of obscure horror …

Hendrix separates these vintage horror books into categories, from Satan’s spawn to evil animals to splatterpunk (ugh, not my vibe). His collection is vast, these covers are beautiful or grotesque or cheesy, or sometimes, somehow, all three. And he is also very, very funny. I especially love when he would offer life advice throughout:

“Even if, despite [all] precautions, you have given birth to the spawn of Satan, all is not lost. Look on the bright side: deadly children are the best-dressed children.”

Truth. I enjoyed reading about a general history of horror, which began in early days as gothic romances, which are essential adult dark fairy tales (think Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and Rebecca). But the ’70s style of cheesy horrors began with a set of intensely creepy novels that captured the world’s imagination by storm in the 1960s: Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, The Other, by Thomas Tryon, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. These books were commercial successes and went on to become very successful films. If you love horror, you’ve probably seen Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, still terrifying in this day and age.

Once it was established that people wanted to buy novels like this, there was no holds bar on what was published over the next 25-ish years. It includes the good, the bad, and the bat-shit crazy. Some were intriguing and well-written, most were not, and it provides excellent entertainment looking back on these books. The cover art alone is breathtaking, with some of the best artists of the day creating gorgeous paintings designed to make the book jump off the shelf. Contrary to the old adage, we do absolutely judge a book by its cover, and cover art is almost the most important element to book sales! When the cover artist is paid more than the author, you know there’s a reason why.

Of course, I was most interested in whether Hendrix covered my one-and-only Fear Street when it comes to horror, and he did not disappoint. However, horror for a younger audience arose from the ashes of the death of the adult horror boom. With the spectacular success of Silence of the Lambs, adult horror made the shift from overtly cheesy to the more subtle label “thriller,” and the early ’90s spelled the end of many horror publishing houses. Right at the time, though, the horror industry saw a massive revival with a younger generation, with Point Horror novels and Christopher Pike’s horror-philosopher craziness. And of course, my darling R. L. Stine, who broke into the horror scene with the first Fear Street novel in 1989, The New Girl.

I love reading about the sequence of horror books, and I wonder where things will go next. There’s no doubt our appetite for horror isn’t going anywhere!

If you’re into vintage horror, check out the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, by Will Erickson, who in fact co-wrote Paperbacks From Hell. And stay tuned for more of my horror writings, some of which will be published in time for Halloween!

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