Paperback horror fiction rises from the dead
Unholy alliances between children and clowns, evil scientists performing diabolical experiments, zombies, monsters, skeletons, haunted houses, possession and gore: For fans of pulp horror fiction, the ’70s and ’80s were a golden era. A new book aims to rediscover cult classics of the genre all too often relegated to collecting dust on thrift store shelves.
“Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction” (Quirk Books) traces the story of mass-market horror’s rise and demise, with such a razor focus on cult authors that Stephen King barely gets a mention.
The book pairs artwork with colorful synopses of obscure novels as well as recurring themes and trends: with subheadings like “Starry Starry Nightmare” and “One From Golem A, One from Golem B,” the tone is irreverent and playful. Written by Grady Hendrix, whose other titles include “Horrorstör” and “My Best Friend’s Exorcism,” the book is a true appreciation of the genre, accompanied by one of the ultimate joys of the boom: the campy covers.
Graphic, assertive and frequently gross, the cover art of ’70s and ’80s horror fiction went straight for the throat. So did the synopses. Take the cover of “Slime,” which reads, succinctly: “Turn on the tap…and die of terror!”
“Paperbacks From Hell” is lavishly illustrated; there are dozens of forgotten covers within to gleefully creep readers out. These illustrations, Hendrix notes, were designed by artists before the advent of Photoshop and share an unmistakable, analog aesthetic. Many will feel nostalgic for the retro fonts (see “Feast,” above), which may even be having a renaissance — just look at the title sequence to television show “Stranger Things.”
But, as Hendrix writes, “it’s not just the covers that hook your eyeballs. It’s the writing, which respects no rules except one: always be interesting.”
The plot of “The Abyss,” for example, follows the reopening of a coal mine in an economically depressed town, which sounds promising enough, but that mine conceals forces of darkness that soon unleash plagues — faucets gushing blood, tenacious thorns — upon the unsuspecting residents. Hendrix writes, “Like a Springsteen song mashed up with ‘Dante’s Inferno’.…The only way manufacturing will return is through a deal with the devil.”
As in “The Abyss” and its economic anxiety, “changes in contraception and fertility technology had phrases like test tube baby … on the lips of every American,” resulting in a spate of books about the evil unborn — a micro genre within the larger trend of “creepy kids.” Hendrix’s prose is entertaining (to borrow his description of another writer, the text is often “hosed into the reader’s eyes like a geyser of crazy”), but social observations like this lend the book depth.
Horror fiction came of age in 1967 with the popularity of Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and continued for a quarter century with contributions from so many authors: now-forgotten writers like Harold Lee Friedman and the perennial bestseller King. “Their reign of terror ended in the early ’90s,” Hendrix writes, “after the success of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ convinced marketing departments to scrape the word horror off spines and glue on the word thriller instead.”
Even horror novices may be interested to discover how the anxieties of the age infiltrated the themes of horror fiction. While realist literary fiction provides one version of history, the horror novel offers its own oblique — and gripping — spin. “We can’t be certain that anyone is reading these books anymore,” writes Hendrix. And while it’s true that pulp paperbacks are becoming a thing of the past, with writers like Victor LaValle, Paul Tremblay, Brian Evenson, Ben Percy, M.R. Carey and King’s sons Joe Hill and Owen King, the genre is having a renaissance. Hendrix sees reason to hope. “Because after all the monsters have flown away, hope is what’s left at the bottom of the box.”
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