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Book Review: Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books)

Are you a child of the 1970s and/or 1980s? Did you grow up sneak-watching slasher flicks like The Slumber Party Massacre and Silent Night, Deadly Night while your parents slept? Were you the kind of kid who felt there was only one holiday worth celebrating, and that was Halloween? Was Elvira your number one crush? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please, I implore you, drop everything and immediately pick up a copy of Grady Hendrix’s new book, Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction (Quirk Books, September 2017). You won’t be disappointed. It’s a thoughtfully curated tour through the horror publishing boom era, one that is sure to please every fan of the genre. Whether you enjoy splatter punk or emo vampires, killer crabs or devil worshiping toddlers, you’ll find something to love within these pages. Most importantly, the book’s tone and style is a perfect blend of thoughtful criticism and riotously funny observational humor, making for a truly addictive read.

Grady Hendrix acts as our tour guide through the twisty and trashy tale of the horror publishing boom that came at just the right time for many of us who were entering adolescence during those years. We were the prime audience for stories of cannibalistic cadavers and satanic panic, and we lapped up everything publishers could churn out. If our parents were disgusted by it, then we wanted it even more. Horror writers in those days were absurdly prolific—the more they wrote, the bigger the paychecks—working at warp speed to write and submit as many novels as possible. The books covered any number of wildly insane horror tropes and genres, while also inventing some new ones along the way. It was a time when ideas and execution melded beautifully to create some truly terrifying tales of murder and mayhem. These novels are close cousins with the b-movies and horror films of the same era—and like their cinematic counterparts, the books sought to provoke, titillate, and most importantly, entertain.

Hendrix is both critically astute in his analyses of these books and also hilariously frank about how absurd some of them can be. I could practically see him rolling his eyes at certain points, but he’s never laughing at the stories or authors. No, he’s laughing because it’s all so damn delightful and life affirming. Fans love these sorts of books for several reasons, but largely because there is usually little or no artifice about them. Yet despite their proclivity for lean, mean storytelling, many of these authors also delivered incisive social commentaries on a range of topics, including race, gender, reproduction, and of course S&M Nazi dwarfs.

Paperbacks from Hell is also an impressively designed book, packed tight with scads of flesh-eating vermin, deranged psychopaths, and dancing skeletons galore. The hundreds of book covers given prominent display throughout are never less than frighteningly magnificent. Once you’ve seen one demon-baby you think you’ve seen them all, but alas, each fresh take on the vicious killer-infant cover design manages to intrigue and shock. It’s no surprise the book looks this good. Quirk consistently turns out some of the most elegantly designed books on the market, the sort you want to display prominently on your coffee table. In this case, there’s the added bonus of weirding out your square or devoutly religious visitors when they’re faced with this staring back at them. That’ll teach ’em to stop coming over to your house.

The only downside to Paperbacks from Hell is actually an entirely desirable problem: you’ll want to run out and purchase a slew of the vintage paperbacks covered in its pages. Based on Hendrix’s synopsis of Thomas Tessier’s 1979 novel The Nighwalker, this reviewer has already snagged a cheaply priced, well-worn copy of the metaphorical werewolf tale about an emotionally troubled Vietnam vet’s descent into murder and madness. You can bet I’ve also got my eye on several other old paperbacks currently being sold for a song on eBay. Resistance is futile. My reading list has only grown since reading this heartfelt love letter to the golden age of horror paperbacks. And truly, as both a book lover and horror aficionado, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Kudos to Quirk Books for publishing such an essential document of an era long since forgotten by most, but still deeply cherished by those of that appreciate a scary-good late-night reading experience.

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