Book review: Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror FictionPaperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equal parts snarky and respectful, this look back on the paperback horror novels of the 1970s and 80s is a gruesomely delightful trip down memory lane.

Hendrix’s language in describing the outlandish stories moves beyond colorful and into tasteless at times, but I could never decide if it was in keeping with the spirit of the books described or if he was trying (and perhaps failing) to adopt the presence of a guy at a bar sharing some whacked-out stories with you. It doesn’t come up a lot and I suspect it won’t be an issue for most people attracted to this book, but be warned all the same.

How you read this book will greatly affect your enjoyment of it. This is not something to read on a Kindle or Kobo ereader. If you are not in possession of a paper copy, you owe it to yourself to read this on a larger tablet, all the better to take in the dozens of gaudy, gory and inevitably skeleton-filled book covers. I recognized a few here and there, but even as a fan of horror in the 80s, a lot of these were new to me.

Did I mention the skeleton covers? Skeletons were very popular.

When you’re not drinking in the bloody book covers, Hendrix provides a somewhat truncated overview of the period, dividing the chapters into different themes such as Hail Satan, Creepy Kids, Weird Science and so on. For everyone who scrunched up their toes at that scene in Stephen King’s IT (hint: it involves sex and kids), Hendrix lays out stuff that is far worse here, stuff that layers on one outrageous, offensive, gory, horrible, disgusting thing on another, then slices them all in half with a machete and serves them up for dinner, with the boiled blood of babies as the gravy. I’m probably underselling some of these novels on how gruesome they are–and this is before Hendrix even gets to the actual splatterpunk sub-genre.

In a way, Paperbacks from Hell is sad, as it chronicles the rise of popular horror fiction that began after Rosemary’s Baby became a hit in the late 60s, and follows along as it sputters out in the early 90s. This is when horror proper gave way to thrillers (aka a million variations on “killer on the loose” stories). While Grady doesn’t talk about contemporary horror, a visit to any decent-sized bookstore (those that remain) will reveal that not much has changed. Horror is again a niche, and in some ways worse (or better, depending on your perspective), with endless series based on zombie apocalypses, other apocalypses, or zombie apocalypses mixed in with other apocalypses. If you like zombies, though, you pretty much have a lifetime smorgasbord already waiting for you.

In the end, though, it’s the lurid full color book covers that make Paperbacks From Hell worth looking through. There is enough here to keep a Ridiculous Book Cover blog going for years.

Recommended for fans of horror or fans of paperback art who don’t mind the occasionally gruesome work. And lots of skeletons.

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