Review of Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction – With Special Attention to Its Chapter on Haunted Houses

In 1936, Bing Crosby introduced Pennies from Heaven to the world. Such an invaluable gift this holy coinage was! Is there anyone else that could gift the world similar treasures? If so, what might these treasures be! How about Paperbacks from Hell, with a gifter by the name of Grady Hendrix (Is he a relative of Jimi?)  Okay, so he didn’t write any of these infernal paperbacks, buy hey, Crosby didn’t mint the coins, so there! What Hendrix did do was compile a collection of book titles, authors, and cover artists in a book dedicated to horror novels of the 70s and 80s, which features bios, pictures and a whole lot of fun analysis. The complete title of his work is Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction.

So just what “in the hell” is this book about? Read on and find out. (But first, admire “Pennies from Heaven” please!)

 

Hi there! I’ve been on a short hiatus. I was vacationing in The Philippines, and then I was sick, and blah blah blah. Well let me pick up where I left off. The last time I wrote was back in mid-March. Let’s see, I was writing about something….something about ghosts…and haunted houses…(Me write about those things? No way!)….hmmmm…Ah ha! The subject/s was Ghost House! And Ghost House Revenge, two books by Clare McNally. I must refer back to this review, because it was these two books that led me to Paperbacks from Hell.. I had remembered these two books from my childhood and I searched the Internet to see if they still existed in some format today. But I couldn’t remember the titles or the name of the author, so I had to comb through the various search results that came from my search words “Haunted house and horror books of the 70s and 80s.”  I eventually found what I was looking for, and so much more. Among the search items, I found Hendrix’s book, which had in its title the keywords “70s/80s/horror/” I discovered that these two decades were the heydays for  horror paperback novels, that never before had there been so many fictional works on such horrific subjects: Satan, Creepy Kids, When Animals Attack, Real Estate Nightmares, Weird Science, Gothic and Romantic, Inhumanoids, Splatterpunks, Serial Killers And Super Creeps! These are the chapters and category names for Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. The book sounded interesting so I downloaded it and read much of it on the plane to and from the Philippines.. A fitting book for such turbulent times (turbulence shook the plane as I read).

I am including this review in my anthology of haunted house novel reviews on account of one chapter only: Real Estate Nightmares. Yes, this is the section of the book devoted to haunted house paperback novels. Likewise I will be devoting a section of this review to this one chapter. But first, an summary of the book as a whole.

In my review of Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge, I speculate that perhaps it was the works of Stephen King that ignited this horror paperback boom of the 70s and 80s. While his contribution to phenomenon is most certainly great, he did not begin it. How stupid of me, because I knew that works such as Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) and The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty) predate King’s novels. These two, along with The Other (Thomas Tryton), revived the horror literature tradition that had been dormant for a while, Hendrix says.  Even in the days or yore, horror mostly came in short stories, novellas, and then later in graphic pulp books and magazines. There were very few novel length books devoted to horror until the three aforementioned books came on the scene. “Satan Sells”, publishers realized, and soon there were hundreds of satan-spawned paperbacks.

After Satan, along came killer animals and insects, demonic toys, possessed robots, medical nightmares.  So many books, and so we had The Good, The Bad and The Delightfully Cheesy.

I equate many of these books referenced by Hendrix to “B horror” films. So these are B-books?  Some are. Sure, why not?  Often they were goofy, but as Hendrix mentions “never boring.”  Many of these “gems” are out-of-print. I’m guessing that the advent of digital media have revived some of these books, but unfortunately not all.  Hendrix devotes significant attention to the book covers. Resting on the shelves of supermarkets, it was the cover that lured customers to reach for the item. The more vivid the better, much like the days of the video store, with box covers showing an awesome depiction of what just had to be a good, creepy movie – and…often the films failed to live up to the promising pictures on the box. As for the covers of paperbacks, Hendrix shows readers many interesting examples. Colorful, artful, graphic and of course – horrific.

TheStuff TheStuff

 

 

 

 

 

     (First Picture – What “The Stuff” appeared to do to is victims, according to  the box.  Second Picture – How “The Stuff” actually preyed on people, according to the movie)

 

 

In Paperbacks From Hell, Hendrix follows the careers of several cover artists, noting the publishing houses they worked for, mentioning that a certain artist went on to design album covers, etc. Interesting stuff.(Better than “The Stuff” of the film).

 

PaperBacks.jpg2

 

Hendrix writes humorously about his subject. He is often satirical. In the chapter Creepy Kids, on describing a reoccurring theme, he writes “As long as they belong to someone else, homicidal children can be a joy.” That’s funny! But sometimes his writing style is overbearing. But like his book, and like the books he is writing about, it’s/they’re not boring. At the same time, he possesses keen insight. He ties trends within the horror market to topical events that were occurring in the culture at large. The surge of attacking animal books he attributes to environmental disasters of the early 70s. For the rise in popularity of vampire books, he notes the AIDS scare of the early 80s and the fear of being infected. All in all, a reflective guy that Hendrix is. And what an interesting book!

Haunted Houses – or as Hendrix calls them – “Real Estate Nightmares”

 

Ahhh! This is MY area! Yeah, Boy!!  Here we are! “This” section.

Truthfully I was somewhat disappointed. To be clear, my disappointment is not the fault of Hendrix. He did his job covering this subgenre of horror. It’s just that I was hoping to be introduced to a slew of obscure works. Sadly I  already knew about the novels to which he devotes the most attention. He briefly covers  The Sentinel,  and I have read and reviewed that book. Burnt Offerings and The Amityville Horror both of which I have read/reviewed. I did, however, find his insights on Burnt Offerings rather intriguing and his rants about The Amityville Horror humorous.

While Hendrix correctly acknowledges The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House as its predecessors, he singles our Burnt Offerings as being a first when it comes to the economics of home purchases and the whole buyer beware motif.  I…had never thought about this. “Hell” and “Hill” House were  gargantuan gothic mansions that had visiting  characters investigating the spooky happenings within. The characters of Burnt Offerings leased and lived in the deadly place. They invested their money in it. Therefore, they were trapped.

In true form, Hendrix ties the haunted house paperback phenomenon to the economic issues of the 1970s. High interest rates, inflation, the dawning of the suburbs, the cash-strapped and their search for the best home that they could afford. According to him, these are the reasons “the haunted-house novel reached critical mass.”   As a student of haunted houses of fictional literature, I am constantly hungry for information like this. Thank you Hendrix, you feed me well.

Hendrix doesn’t think much of The Amityville Horror book series. I only read the one, and for me it was alright, not the greatest, but enjoyable. But I see his point. “Amityville” became the definitive haunted house book of the 70s, while Burnt Offerings, a much better read, is largely forgotten.  He goes on to criticize the series as “crass, commercial-minded, grandiose, ridiculous, this carnival-barker’s idea of a haunted house is a shame-train of stupid.”  The carnival barker I guess would be George Lutz, the real life protagonist of what is supposed to be a true story. Suffice it to say, Hendrix doesn’t believe that this is a true story (and neither do !!)

A couple of times, Hendrix mentions The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons and refers to it as a classic. I am well aware of this book but I have yet to read it. I am relishing in this virginity and I’m looking forward to my “wedding night” when I take this book to bed with me. But like a good virgin, I am saving it for the right time. Then there are those book he footnotes here and there, books with creepy covers, that I do not know. Some are The Intruders (Pat Montandon), The Architecture of Fear (Various Authors) and Walls of Fear (various authors again). But for these he has only little tidbits of information.

 

The rest of the chapter is devoted to horrific towns as a whole, cities as a whole, and strange cultish communities. While this is some interesting stuff, it goes beyond the haunted house, so I am not mentioning these books in this review.

Following the trail of “Haunted Paperbacks” to – What Comes Next?

 

If you are a fan of old horror novels, this book is for you. If you have ever owned or read an old obscure horror paperback, definitely check out this work by Grady Hendrix. You won’t be disappointed.

I’m glad my search for Ghost House/Ghost House Revenge led me to this book. Too bad he doesn’t mention these books in his Real Estate Nightmares chapter. Oh well. But I continue on – Ghost Houses begot Paperbacks from Hell and Paperbacks from Hell begets….a Dark Forces book. What the heck is a Dark Forces book?  I couldn’t remember what the series was called, and this Paperbacks from Hell book had the answer (hint: the series was called Dark Forces). This is yet another nostalgic reading memory from my pre-teen years. Horror books directed at young teens. I read several. Were there any Dark Forces books about haunted houses? Yes!  Well at least one. This will be my next review. Stay tuned for more details!

 

 

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