The latest book from author Grady Hendrix, Paperbacks From Hell, is a tour through all of those lurid covers you’d see staring back at you from spinner racks at the grocery store in the ’80s. Killer clowns, skeletons with knives, weird little gnomes with fangs; I may or may not be making these up from whole cloth, but if they ring a bell, then you know what I’m talking about. They’re the mass-market horror paperbacks that sold in the hundreds of thousands in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Where’d they come from? Where’d they go? It’s all answered in Hendrix’s book, out September 19 from Quirk Books.
It’s kind of perfect that Grady Hendrix came to write Paperbacks From Hell, really. Hendrix started out as a journalist and moved into fiction, so his analysis of these trashy-yet-entertaining paperbacks is both clever and well-researched. If you’ve enjoyed his previous novels like Horrorstör or My Best Friend’s Exorcism, you’ve already gotten a taste of the things Hendrix enjoys, and it only gets weirder from there.
Based on his amusing plot summaries and enthusiastic recommendations of what he likes, I suspect more than a few of these are going to spike in price on the secondhand market – and for good reason. Any fan of horror fiction and/or strange reads found in used bookstores will easily accumulate a list of titles they need to read within minutes of finishing Paperback From Hell‘s first chapter.
Hendrix is also a hell of a fun person to talk to, so I was super enthused to spend some time chatting about Paperbacks From Hell and all the inspiration behind it. He’ll be at PhilaMOCA this Friday, August 4, performing his one man show, “Summerland Lost,” and doing a book tour in support of Paperbacks From Hell later this fall.
Reading Paperbacks From Hell brought back quite a few memories of reading things at a very inappropriate age. What attracted you to these weird, kind of obscure books?
Grady Hendrix: There’s sort of two things. One is that, growing up, we had one of those book exchange paperback swap things. I really liked reading, but couldn’t afford much, and so that was kind of the most bang for your buck, book-wise, so it’s kind of by default – they had tons and tons and tons of mass-market paperbacks – and because it was the ’80s, they had a huge horror section, a big action section, and that stuff was like catnip to me.
And then, I’ve always read, and sort of kept up with that stuff, but it was kind of when I found that copy of The Little People back in 2009 at a convention – the Nazi leprechaun one. Film has such a tradition these days of people going out and looking for the obscure stuff, because there’s so many great films out there that have fallen out of print, and the bizarre stuff that no one knows about. There’s this real game, where you slog through the swamps of lost, forgotten decades, and you come back with some prize, dripping in your jaws.
I didn’t see that happening too much with books. There’s Will Erickson at Too Much Horror Fiction, and the Vaults of Evil boards in the UK, but there’s so few. Those shops still exist, so I just started diving in, and I read a lot of crap and a fair amount of just wild stuff. A lot of crap with a kernel of corn in it that was good. And then, I read some stuff that just blew my mind – books that were amazing, and writers that were genuinely terrific, that had just sort of been forgotten.
The more I dug, the deeper I got, you know? It just fed on itself and turned into some sort of hellcraft.
Did the book come out of your Book Reviews of the Damned and other online writing you’d done?
Oh, yeah. It was 100% my editor at Quirk, Jason Rekulak. He emailed me, and he really liked my Tor columns. He was like, “Do you want to do a book of these? Is there a way to turn this into a book?” Because he and a bunch of other people in the office knew my stuff and passed those around, because they really liked them. To me, it was kind of like someone being like, “Do you want to go on a five-week coke and sex orgy? Is that possible?” It’s like, you don’t have to ask.
It turned out to be a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. There had to be an organizing principle to the whole thing, so Will Erickson – who’s sort of my co-author / researcher on the book – he just knows so much stuff. We spent a lot of time on the phone, going back and forth, trying to figure out some structure.
What we figured out is that things seem to move from big book to big book. A big book would release a wave of imitators, and books like that. You can see that in the ’70s, where you’ve got nothing, then you’ve got Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist, and The Other. Right after that, you’ve got the animal attack books that became big – The Rats, by James Herbert, and Jaws. Then, right after that, The Omen novelizations were huge, and unleashed this flood of killer kid books, and almost simultaneously, you’ve got The Amityville Horror kicking off this wave of haunted house books.
Finding that structure was the hardest part. And then, reading the books. I’d already read a few hundred for this thing, but I think – in the 10 or 11 months it took to put the book together – I read 236 books. There were days where I just read. I got to the point where I could make it through four books okay, two books on a bad day, and if I was really stretching, I could do six. That was just ridiculous: I’d make it through the sixth, and at the end of it, I’d just be a drooling potato.
That thing where you read so much so fast, your head feels all sloshy?
Exactly. And, the thing that helped – that let me keep up that pace – was that I would read the same book. So, if I was reading books about evil pregnancies, that was all I was reading right then. You would see the patterns: Oh, right this is the chapter where the person with inside information about the hospital shows up, and it’s going to be followed by a chapter where they meet up to exchange information, and they’re going to be found dead, and everyone’s going to think it’s a suicide. Of course, some people would divert from that, and so I’d pay more attention, but it’s really helpful to be able to follow that pattern.
I noticed that you mention the more notable cinematic adaptations of some of these books, but it’s more of addendum, rather than the focus. Was that intended to keep the focus on the written word?
Oh, 100%. One of the things that frustrates me so much is that a lot of people start talking about horror fiction and they’ll start mixing it up with horror movies. I’m a big horror movie guy, but they’re two radically different things. Like, there’s some crossover: The Exorcist became a huge bestseller, but it became this cultural phenomenon when the movie came out, and Rosemary’s Baby‘s the same way.
One of the reasons both of those books are still in print is because they were followed by these cultural touchstone movies that had a huge impact – but it’s really easy to get mixed up between the two [forms]. I mean – slashers in books are radically different from slashers in movies. Slasher movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween and all that stuff don’t really have a parallel in books until the end of the splatterpunk movement in ’88, when The Silence of the Lambs came out and serial killers got hot.
But those books were really, really not stalk-and-slash. They’re really nasty, dirty, brutal books, whereas slasher movies are really fun. They’re really gory, but they’re fun.
I mean, a movie takes you an hour and a half, and now that I’m off the human growth hormone and reading jag that I was on for all those months, a book takes you a day or two. It’s a huge difference, and you can’t consume as much, and as much as I love movies, it’s kind of sad when the movie overshadows the books, in a weird way.