There was a time, more or less when I was in high-school, when horror was big. And I mean BIG. I have this clear memory of the girls in my high-school class swapping big fat books: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz and V.C. Andrews most of all. There was this sort of underground book club going, and there were always new titles coming, mostly from a paperback publisher called Sperling & Kupfer.
Boys did not read, or if they did they went for science fiction or comic books, and fantasy was small and read by both boys and girls, but at least in my biased memory, it was the female of the species that really loved horror novels.
The 1970s and 1980s were the Renaissance of the big, fat horror novel, and that flood of titles in the Italian bookstores and in the bedrooms of nice girls all over the country was a reflection of what was going on in the English-speaking market: a boom of titles.
This phenomenon, triggered by the success of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Other, is the subject of Grady Hendrix’ Paperbacks from Hell, a tongue-in-cheek, sometimes frustratingly fleeting survey of the horror paperback market in the ’70s and ’80s, published by Quirk Books.
What at first might appear as a fast-and-loose book featuring beautiful cover artwork from classic and not-so-classic horror titles from those two decades, is actually a reading list from hell. Hendrix reveals enough plots to make the reader curious, and here and there teases our fascination with the strange, the grotesque, the downright bonkers.
I started reading with a certain degree of amusement, enjoying the artwork, laughing at the in-jokes, and suddenly caught myself compiling an ideal shopping list.
I know I can get Graham Masterton ebooks, what about Michael McDonald? And then there’s Valancourt, of course… damn, their books are expensive!
Also, as we pass the halfway point, Hendrix’ survey takes a deeper dive in the phenomenon. We get insight on the dynamics of paperback publishing, we see how market forces shaped editorial decisions. We get a more thorough look at the work of some (now mostly forgotten) classic authors.
What started as a leisure walk through a fun-house of weird books turns into an interesting, instructive reflection on the birth, expansion and death of a phenomenon.
It does offer some insight on things we are seeing happen today in other markets.
Paperbacks from Hell is highly recommended, and just yesterday Valancourt Books announced they will reprint a second set of five of the books mentioned in Hendrix’ book, bringing the total to ten unmissable (but damn, expensive!) books I will need to get my hands on sooner or later.