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Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction LIVES FOREVER!

Updated on December 20, 2020

​The gates of hell open, and fire and brimstone look like black-and-white text. The scent of hell smells a bit like pulpy paper, too. Through those opened gates marches an armada of paperbacks, sincerely horrifying paperbacks. Old paperbacks - ones reflecting the style and genre pulse of a past era.

If you're reading this paragraph, you haven't quit reading this review. 25 years ago, lots of shocked buyers probably tossed out that paperback they purchased after one or two paragraphs. The stuff wasn't for them. Others read to the end and then ran out to buy more.

Readers of the "more" demarcation will dig Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix. The tome stands as a must-have for anyone who devoured classic pulp fiction terror tales that frequently focused on people being devoured. (There were a lot of animals on the loose books back then) Reading Hendrix's book allowed nostalgia to overwhelm, as I read highlight after highlight of many long-forgotten books that once filled book store shelves.

And if I had the money to pay for what some of the classic paperbacks mentioned in the book are going for, I'd fill my home's bookshelves with the titles.

A Horrifying History Lesson

​Pop culture always changes due to trends. One trend publishing houses capitalized on during the 1970s and 1980s was audiences' strong desire to read violent horror fiction. During that 20-odd year period, many controversial and crazy horror books made their way to mass-market circulation. A few of those books are outright classics that don't deserve to languish in obscurity. And then an untold number of them are nothing more than forgettable hack jobs. Either way, you're only spending about two dollars for the book. Or rather, that's what you'd spend back in the day. A few of those "disposable" novels now cost well over $200 if you can find any copies.

Hendrix does a fantastic job of providing an overview of various subgenres within the (then) horror fiction market. Evil children, ghosts, mysterious creatures of science, animals run wild, serial killers, the devil, mad scientists and doctors, vampires and werewolves, and pretty much anything else a writer could think of or rip off became a pulp fiction antagonist gracing a painted cover.

In addition to highlighting some of the best novels — and worst ones — Hendrix opens the coffin lid to reveal just the teams that published and edited these bizarre books. The lost history of the many publishing houses no longer remains lost. Often, the voyeurism into the business side of that forgotten realm of publishing becomes more intriguing than actual books the various companies published.

Personal Perspectives on Paperbacks from Hell

Those grotesque -- and sometimes minimalist -- covers would stare out from the racks and beckon to you. Buyers needed them, and the paperbacks filled an entertainment void. VCRs didn't become prominent until around 1984. Cable TV wasn't as expansive as today. Certain geographic areas had no cable TV at all. For horror fans to get an additional fix of their favorite genre, the fiction rack became the place to go. And those paperbacks brought forth an experience much different than watching a black-and-white horror movie play out on TV. The horror novels brought you into the character's heads and fleshed out a strange world of bizarre monsters and even more bizarre human beings. Classic works such as Jack Ketchum's brutal Off Season, Shaun Hutson's insane Slugs, Dean Koontz's terrifying Phantoms, and John Skipp and Craig Specter's outrageous The Light at the End stand out as legendary works of the era. Great short story collections such as Charles L. Grant's Shadows series captured classic, restrained horror. (And so did Grant's excellent novels) Then, there were mature-themed short story collections along the lines of Hot Blood and Shock Rock - great works that provided equally great horror in short doses.

Even as an avid reader and consumer, I did miss a few over-the-top entries from the era. And there were before-my-time shockers, such as the "giant praying mantis herd goes on a revenge rampage to consume gangsters" seminal work Eat Them Alive, and the unnerving word of warning to babysitters Let's Go Play at the Adams. Hendrix highlights all works great and small and highbrow and lowbrow so you won't run out of recommendations when skimming the used book listings on Amazon.

The most horrifying thing mentioned in Hendrix's work would be a clear explanation as to why this considerable paperback movement died out. Basically, the market ended up glutted, and the books stopped selling, Worse, consistently terrible quality -- a result of an attempt to flood the market -- burned readers. Editorial decisions to mandate hack writers copy bestselling authors and their style didn't help matters. Personally, those are two of the reasons why I stopped buying circa 1988. There's nothing worse than being lured in by an awesome cover only to read a boring book.

A proverbial novel's happy ending does emerge, though. Many hundreds of modern horror e-book authors grew up on the classic paperbacks mentioned in Paperbacks from Hell. Scores of new e-pulp horror fiction flood Amazon's inventory. They come straight from hell and 1970s and 1980s nostalgia.

Pierce Nace where have you gone?


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