Grady Hendrix is an established voice in the world of horror fiction. His last novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, managed to perfectly evoke it’s 80’s high school setting while avoiding all of the John Hughes clichés. His debut, Horrorstor gave readers a whole new set of reasons to dread going to IKEA. With his next offering, Hendrix is taking us back into the past, to the seedy, gory and glorious world of the horror paperback boom.
Paperbacks From Hell is Hendrix’s first non-fiction outing, born of his hilarious “Freaky Fridays” column for Tor.com, where he plumbs the depths of 70’s and 80’s paperback horror. A 25-year spree of tawdry, lurid, awesome also-rans clinging to the coat-tails of films like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, the landscape of horror publishing through this period is a wilderness of giant insect overlords, horny bigfoots (bigfeet?), demonic Mafiosi and murderous orphans.
It should surprise no-one familiar with Hendrix’s work that his knowledge of the genre runs deep, but even so the breadth of expertise on display here is staggering. While Hendrix certainly has his favourite authors and points of focus, he manages to provide a comprehensive overview of horror fiction’s most fertile and prolific era. Given the deluge of titles in those years, it’s a most impressive feat.
In Paperbacks From Hell, Hendrix holds our hands through the absurd and often baffling series of trends and fixations that obsessed America through the height of the horror boom. From heavy-handed metaphors for the spread of AIDS or the threat of nuclear war to an apparent obsession with invasion by giant insects and, of course, NAZI leprechauns. Since you ask, yes, they do hide in an Irish castle and call themselves the Gestapochauns.
Most impressive are the illustrations. The covers of horror paperbacks of this era are works of genuine underground art, ranging from the gritty and realistic to the surreal and downright psychedelic. Hendrix delights not just in presenting them in all their gore-soaked beauty, but also in ensuring that the artists get all the credit that they are due, something that was never afforded to them at the time.
Grady’s love for the genre is apparent on every page. Even though his narration becomes hilariously sarcastic when describing many of the more absurd aspects of the boom, he is never less than affectionate to the genre that gave him his career. Horror disciples will recognise in his tone a kindred spirit who embraces horror for its camp absurdity as well as its ability to deliver shocks.
It’s clear that the book is trading in large part on its nostalgia value. Those who grew up in era where books like these lined shelves in every airport and drugstore will find that whatever their particular poison was, Hendrix has them covered. From animal attack to alien invasions, and weird science to satanic urban decay, Paperbacks From Hell probes every corner of the bookshelf in search of the cheesy, the surprising and the peculiar.
All this is not to say that younger readers will not find something to love here as well. Hendrix’s obvious enthusiasm is infectious, and a nostalgia contact high is unavoidable, even for horror fiction virgins. It would not be surprising to find that many of them find themselves rushing to pick up some of these half-forgotten gems, and a whole new generation can learn what happens when giant fanged slugs invade London (it isn’t pretty).