Grady Hendrix is Tor.com’s resident expert on horror. He is responsible for the Great Stephen King Reread and a more recent series, Freaky Fridays. It is the latter hilarious exploration of 1970s/1980s paperback horror novels that led to this book. Paperbacks from Hell isn’t just a fix-up of blog posts, though. There is a wealth of additional information, including dozens of book covers. (Hendrix has also written two horror novels of his own, Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism.)
Paperbacks from Hell is a laugh out loud funny, joyful romp through the 1970s and 1980s boom in paperback horror. As such, it isn’t just entertaining, it is informative as a work of popular cultural anthropology. I may not be a horror buff, but I’m drawn to this book for some of the same reasons I’m drawn to Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N book—I like books and I like history.
Horror had been around forever, but it only came into its own with a boom that started with Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other (before those three books, the last horror novel to appear on Publishers Weekly’s annual best-seller list was in 1938). Those were “grim, sober novels.” The 1980s, on the other hand, produced horror fiction “warped by the gaudy delights of Stephen King and V.C. Andrews.” Horror survived the D&D satanic panic of the 1980s and the heavy metal satanic panic of the 1980s. We were super into panicking over Satan in the 1980s, back before he became Saddam’s bitch. Horror helped keep short stories alive. Which makes sense, because most of those horror paperbacks should have been short stories in the first place. As the boom continued (and the Thor Power Tools case killed the backlist), the market transitioned from being nurtured by flourishing small horror imprints to being flooded by the big publishers that had gobbled them up. Bestsellers like Stephen King got all of the attention, and they were among the very few to survive the crash. When the crash finally happened it happened fast, but without much more than a whimper as seemingly every idea (and reader was exhausted) and writers quietly rebranded their serial killer books as thrillers.
Horror paperbacks were successors to the old pulp magazines, as well as to the cheap paperback fantasy and science fiction novels of the 1960s. These are books that are unpretentious and written to entertain. “Thrown into a rough-and-tumble marketplace, the writers learned they had to earn every reader’s attention” and follow one rule: “always be interesting.” They were also the last gasp of mass marketed books for the working class (the prototypical leading man is tanned and blue-collar; the prototypical leading woman is white-collar and works outside the home).
Paperbacks from Hell really has four component parts, which leads to a somewhat disjointed reading experience. There are long, funny riffs on works or series or particular trope. These are largely adapted from Hendrix’s Tor.com blog posts, and if all you really want is more of these, you won’t find it here. There are also rapid-fire examples of various tropes. These, I think, will be interesting to collectors and people interesting in finding books featuring something in particular (Hendrix manages to mention an enormous number of books), but they overall do a mediocre job of serving their apparent intended purpose of stitching the rest of the book together. Much more interesting are the bits of publishing history interwoven into the book. There are also dozens and dozens of covers, including many blurbs on prominent cover artists. For once my advance reading copy included artwork, for which I am very thankful. Even better would have been to have it in paperback.
The narrative is disjointed, sure. The stitches still show, and there really isn’t a way the book could have been organized that would make complete sense. But it is a hell of a book, nonetheless. Hendrix is very, very funny:
But when plants mind-control us so that they can feed on our blood, it’s hard not to be offended. After all, most of us don’t eat plants if we can help it, and then it’s mostly vegetarians who do the eating. If the plants want to murder them, something could probably be arranged.
Books are vividly described:
Campbell’s stories feel like week-old newspapers, swollen with water, black with mold, forgotten on the steps of the abandoned tenement.
Hendrix is having a whole hell of a lot of fun. He freely mocks the excesses of the boom, but always good-naturedly and without looking down his nose at things. Nor is he ashamed to tout the best books of the lot. I had a lot of fun reading despite not having read any of the books discussed, or having much interest in reading most of them.
There is a set of creator and publisher biographies after the main text. I passed on it during my initial read but paged through it before writing this review. Read it and find out which romance and men’s adventure publisher was started by a mobile home and concrete pipe manufacturer! There is also an afterword with recommended reading by Will Errickson.
4 of 5 Stars.