Sometimes a book comes around that matches your sensibilities to such an extent that it might as well have been written just for you. Paperbacks from Hell is such a book.
Starting with the gothic novel explosion in the late 60s and ending with the serial killer best seller craze in the wake of Thomas Harris’ Manhunter, Paperbacks From Hell traces the epic story of the rise and fall of horror fiction in the popular imagination. Hendrix- with contributions by Will Errickson, whose indispensable website Too Much Horror Fiction (http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.co.uk/) inspired the project- divides the book into chapters according to genre. As a result, we get chapters on Satanic panic, killer, animals, vampires, etc., etc. Hendrix nails the historical circumstances that inspired and shaped these monstrosities (the Vietnam War, the 60s sexual revolution, the need to rip off Rosemary’s Baby to sell a shitload of books, etc.) and he avoids the usual pitfalls of such cultural histories. His writing is irreverent but not winking or insular. He isn’t condescending or fawning towards his subject matter and I got an excellent sense of whether a given book would be for me (needless to say, I kept copious notes while reading, for future purchases).
It’s quite a story: William Peter Blatty blows up the best seller lists. Graham Masterton writes The Manitou in about a week or so and pretty much becomes the platonic idea of what this book is about, while Michael McDonald gets some well- deserved respect. Stephen King conquers the zeitgeist. There are Nazi leprechauns, Blaxploitation exorcists, eurotrash vampires and more incest plots than strictly necessary. I mean fuck it, one of Guy N. Smith’s killer crab books features a giant crustacean holding a ceremonial dagger over some hapless girl on the cover. That’s some hardcore shit right there it almost makes up for the fact that Smith can’t really write. This is a fun book is what I’m trying to say here. By the time the Abyss imprint declines to publish Poppy Z. Brite’s cannibalistic epic Exquisite Corpse due to its’ violent content you are inclined to boo them loudly for being so bourjois.
Unsurprisingly, the real stars are the book covers. Beautiful die- cut affairs, opening to expose hellish tableaux (here, Masterton gets some amazing art). Ethereally gorgeous, painterly compositions by the legendary Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Rowenna Morrill’s occulty marvellous, groovy sensuality (she was the only artist whose work has graced Metallica’s Power Metal demo tape AND Saddam Hussein’s bachelor pad). Absurdly distasteful, silver- embossed Zebra Books titles featuring skeletons with eyeballs, the sort of artwork King Diamond might have rejected for being a bit OTT. I would wager there is a definite crossover between people who love these books, metalheads, connoisseurs of 70s grindhouse and 80s video nasties and people who smoke weed like it’s going out of style. Or maybe I’m projecting here.
Purists could easily quibble about what else could have been included (only a couple of lines about Ray Russell’s Incubus!!! How about that goat on the cover of Devilday? Where are Bob Eggleton’s covers for Lumley’s Necroscope series?!, etc., etc), but in any case the book is a blast and deserves to be celebrated as such. Bloodier than Rosemary’s Baby! More traumatising than The Exorcist! You know you need it.