With a significant amount of seriousness, satire, and his signature carnival barker delivery, Grady Hendrix has delivered one of those rare books that will be a permanent fixture on your shelves. Paperbacks From Hell is a whirlwind history of devilish children, panicked suburbanites, angry animals, insidious doctors, uncontrollable contagions, and, sometimes, teddy bears with axes. A lovingly created and fully illustrated tome dedicated to the rise and fall of the infamous paperback horror boom in the 1970s and ‘80s. I had the pleasure of speaking with Grady about this unique project.
Jonathan Lees: If you could give yourself a nice cover blurb for Paperbacks From Hell, what would it be?
Grady Hendrix: The one I would want would say, “This is the best book in the world!” – Stephen King. That’s what I really want but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The pitch for Paperbacks, the logline, is basically a history of the paperback horror boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those books were everywhere when I was growing up then they just disappeared. Like, what the hell happened to them? That was as interesting a story as what they were.
JL: When you were doing research for the book and you discovered Will Errickson’s amazing blog, Too Much Horror Fiction, you mentioned you “blacked out”. Considering how much material you’ve read and researched, have you ever truly regained consciousness?
GH: No. Well, I guess I regained consciousness to write this book. I didn’t have any plan when I started buying these books. I just saw how cheap they were and started fumbling around buying stuff mostly based on Will’s recommendations on his blog. There’s no way to know, when you’re confronted with these giant paperback swap shop shelves, what’s trash and what’s treasure. I haven’t heard of most of these authors or haven’t at the time. Bestsellers come and go and it’s kind of sobering when you realize you can sell a ton of books and can be completely forgotten except maybe as some half-remembered “Oh that guy”. So I really just started buying unconsciously because also… I’m a film guy first. With film people there’s this real tradition of going out into the wilderness and watching stuff and looking for really obscure gems to bring back and be like “Oh my god, have you seen this?”.
JL: Sure! That was an art. Growing up, digging for all those VHS tapes… I remember combing mom and pop shops for Icy Breasts and Joe D’Amato’s Buried Alive in the big box…
GH: Exactly. Import tapes and stuff like that. I know people are collectors but there isn’t this tradition in books like let’s go out and find weird stuff that’s old and out-of-print and talk about it. There’s a huge book community on YouTube and Tumblr but they’re concerned about new stuff. There’s not that kind of underground that I can find with books.
JL: It’s hard to find enough people that might have read The Fog by James Herbert or even something more obscure.
GH: Yeah, I think it is because reading takes a long time and because it’s a private experience… you can watch a movie with other people, you read a book on your own. I also think that books, unlike movies, have this sort of phony-baloney- highbrow patina over them. There’s this idea that reading books is really good and worthwhile and nutritious. Which is great when I was a kid. As long as I was reading my parents didn’t care what I was reading. Because they’re books it must be good for you. I read some really hair-raisingly inappropriate stuff growing up. My parents didn’t even notice.
JL: You could get away with it!
GH: Books do have this sort of stuffy, puritanical, self-improvement angle that movies don’t. Movies are trash.
JL: (laughs) Yes!
GH: Movies that aren’t trash are exceptions. Like people are still outraged that MoMA has movies in its collection.
JL: In an overview of all this immense material that you cover in Paperbacks From Hell you stated, “Most of these [books] respect no rules except one: Always be interesting.” Do you still think that’s the case after reading all of these?
GH: I think everyone wants to be interesting. The stuff was market-driven so people knew that their readers had short attention spans and they wanted some sex and some violence and some weird stuff they weren’t getting anywhere else. There’s some real D.O.A. stuff in there. Like William Johnstone, who wrote Toy Cemetery, and J.N. Williamson, who wrote god knows how many books. They both are bad writers but Johnstone is really interesting because he’s constantly throwing new stuff at readers. He has real obsessions. Like anal sex and devil cults.
JL: (laughs) You mention that in the ‘60s, horror was not a term used to sell paperbacks… it was a term to be avoided. Can you let us know why and how this disdain for horror branding resurfaced around the mid-nineties?
GH: There are books that I find from time to time in the ’50s and ‘60s that have the word horror on the cover as part of the blurb but almost exclusively it’s either a Robert Bloch book or Richard Matheson. It just wasn’t in usage and, of course, when you have these big hits come along like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Other suddenly horror becomes a marketing category. And then in the late ‘80s after The Silence of the Lambs and especially early ‘90s there was already this huge glut. I was talking to someone who was in a Barnes & Noble in the late ‘80s and they said there were so many horror and genre paperbacks out there the staff had just given up on shelving them. They were just piling them up in a grocery cart at the end of one of the aisles.
You had this early ‘90s effect where there was too much product in the market, too little quality control, too many manuscripts being rushed to print and the books were getting super gory and, as a side effect, they were so misogynistic. You could have made a case that in 1992, with few exceptions, horror was simply a category of women getting raped and murdered. Basically, people just rejected it. Horror books started to bomb hard. Since The Silence of the Lambs was such a huge hit everyone was rebranding horror novels as thrillers. Someone told me they had a manuscript where they simply removed the word vampire from it, exchanged it with serial killer and resold it. That made it marketable. What it gave people the impression of is that horror novels, or horror, was cheap. It was gross and offensive. That really stuck with horror for a long time. It still does to some extent.
JL: Oh, it totally does. You see that mirror, once again, in film. People just relate the ‘80s slashers to the entire horror genre. I think it’s changing now when books like Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and movies like The Babadook or It Follows are catching the popular eye.
GH: Mark Danielwski, who did House of Leaves, Chuck Palahniuk, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, and Laird Barron, they’re all sort of sneaking horror back into literary fiction and bringing literary fiction back into horror. I really think that those guys are doing this subversive and very quiet horror.
JL: I love that no matter how much you explore the sub-genres and the themes created within this period you give a great amount of space in the book to what is arguably the most important marketing tool for all these paperback horrors and that’s the cover art. I judge books by their cover. My grandmother started me on all this. I remember her paperback copy of The Legacy. Why she had that I have no idea. Also, Flowers in the Attic and V.C. Andrews die-cut covers I was obsessed with. How important were the covers and what did you learn from all these artists who went unnoticed and ignored for all the brilliant work they did?
GH: The covers were super important for two reasons. One was that as horror took off as a genre… yes, you had Stephen King and V.C. Andrews and Anne Rice… you had names people knew but you mostly had a lot of authors that no one knew. For every author that was able to build a brand around their name like Peter Straub or John Saul you had dozens of authors that no one cared about. So publishers realized their best tool was the covers and on the top of that you had places like Zebra who were publishing horror they couldn’t afford good manuscripts or good authors and they knew the cover was their best shot. They were really working hand in hand with the art director who would give them sketches and direction and all that. The art directors were really kings of the publishing houses. There were a couple of these big dogs, especially Milton Charles, at, I believe, Pocket, at the time really believed that photography was not the way to go. You had to have a painted cover because you wanted it to look realistic but you didn’t want them to be models. He thought that showing models as characters in the book would turn off readers because they wouldn’t be able to imagine themselves as the hero of the book. Charles was really bummed out because there weren’t enough realist painters out there so he went off and taught classes and basically trained a whole new generation of realist illustrators. What happened with these guys was they came along and did these beautifully painted covers but in the ‘90s a lot of them fled for romance fiction because that was sort of the last bastion of fun, painted covers but also as digital came in there was this movement to eliminate the brush stroke. To have it all digitally smooth and plastic looking. To almost look like a photograph. Also, covers started getting abstract again so all these painters went over to romance and children’s books which are still heavily illustrated. Digital helped kill it but the trend back towards abstract and away from the brushstroke.
JL: What’s crazy to me is how careless some of the industry is right now with their covers. I mean, you have someone, even a giant like Stephen King, who is going to make money no matter whatever reprint you put out there but some of his reprint covers… They are garbage. So terrible.
GH: It’s funny. A lot of King’s paperbacks… I’m kind of surprised at how bad the covers are. I know some people that have done some good ones so there are still art directors who get it and push for this stuff but one thing that’s really happened too is that marketing and sales departments have kind of taken over. They call the shots the art directors used to call. And one of the reasons that happened was because of digital techniques. In the past sometimes the marketing or sales people would show up at a meeting and they would bring some images like what they wanted and it would be something from a magazine or a photograph they liked or a painting or something but with digital they were roughing up their own covers. Then the art director just becomes a pair of hands for the salespeople. Now people just talk about endless meetings with all these different departments where everyone has input.
JL: I think that seems to be an industry standard in media in general. It’s kind of sad but some people escape it thankfully. So in relation, let me know the three covers that really knocked you out.
GH: One of my favorite covers is Killer by Peter Tonkin. It’s a Ken Barr cover and it’s great. There’s a killer whale and people are throwing dynamite at it. Just this fabulously old-school painted cover. Lisa Falkenstern’s cover. The one she did for Tricycle. She’s so iconic, the work she did. And then I’d say almost anything by Richard Newton. he did a cover for Guardian Angels and he did a cover for William Johnstone’s Sandman. It’s like a skeleton sitting on the moon, holding a teddy bear, and it’s wearing slippers. I love that the skeleton’s feet are cold. And you’d have to mention a Jill Bauman doll painting for Garden of Evil or When Darkness Loves Us or The Kill by Alan Ryan. Her dolls are everywhere and she does such an amazing job with them. Actually, someone I don’t give any time to in the book who really deserves more attention is William Teason. He did a lot of covers for anyone who who would ask him to basically but he did a great one for a book called Wild Violets and Blood Sisters. He’s heavy on the skeleton covers but people really talk about Teason in the same breath as Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth as one of the great American illustrators. Towards the end, horror was where the work was so he did all these covers for Zebra. It’s criminal that he’s not held in the same regard as someone like Wyeth or Rockwell.
JL: There are some great questions that arise in your book and some life lessons… like “How do I know if the man I’m dating is the devil?” and “How can I possibly stop my child from murdering strangers?”
GH: It’s important.
JL: (laughs) Yes. What did you learn most while working on Paperbacks that you can apply to your own writing and we should mention that you recently wrote My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstor…
GH: I would say three lessons from this are… One: Everyone’s going to be forgotten. It doesn’t matter how many units you sell. Twenty years after he dies people are going to be like, “Stephen King… didn’t he write The Shining?”
JL: (making noises that mimic either a heart attack or seizure)
GH: The other lesson I learned is just how to keep things moving. These books are really designed to drag you through the narrative and they use so many tricks for that. I’ve always liked Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing. One of them is “leave out the part that people skip”. Because I read so many of these books I was like “Ok that description’s nice but I’m skimming”. It really gave me an idea on what is skippable in a book and what you need to hack it down to like the bones and the muscle. And the third thing I learned, honestly, no one wants to read about an animal getting killed. Every time it happened in one of these books, and they killed animals left, right, and center, I’d have such an outsized reaction to it. You realize when writing a book that the most sympathetic character on the page is an animal because they just shut up and they don’t do anything that makes people think they’re an asshole.
JL: The amount of material you read for this… do you just have an insane memory and this is recalling from decades of reading these paperbacks?
GH: I keep a log of everything I read because otherwise I just forget. When I looked at the log for this book, in the period just for this book, I read about two hundred and thirty six books.
JL: Oh my god.
GH: I would say for about three months at the beginning of this project because I was talking to Will [Ericsson] about the structure of the book, my full-time job was reading. On an average day I could get through about four books. On a bad day I could do one or two. And on a day when I really couldn’t do anything else I could get through six. It was really helpful that I’d read the same books, like reading all the killer child books at once, you start to learn what the signposts are. Or the medical thrillers you’re like “Ok this is the part where the doctor is going to explain the theory of in-vitro fertilization for twenty pages. Skim. Skim. Skim. Skim.” You could read fast because you knew where the benchmarks were.
JL: Of all the sub-genres, which ended up being your favorite?
GH: One of the weird things that’s happened doing the book is how many of the sub-genres that have disappeared. There are no more Native American curse books or pregnancy fear books but for a chunk of time in the ’80s there were dozens published every year. You get this feeling that there will always be books about doctors stealing women’s babies and then… they just go away. You can’t count on anything.
Ultimately what wound up being my favorite was the “Animals Attack” books. Animals Attack or Killer Kids, I think. In a lot of Killer Kids books the author will pul their punches a bit because it’s like… kids in danger. The ones that don’t pull their punches are great. Animal Attack books though, very early, started scraping the bottom of what animals could attack and you start getting two different books about killer jellyfish, a couple books about killer rabbits. They were just getting the most absurd animals and authors really pushed it. There’s some great rabies scare novels from the UK. There’s one where it’s like killer caterpillars are attacking England and they discover that these three foot long iguanas can eat the caterpillars so they unleash them in England and the epilogue is these characters sitting around in their house that’s overrun by three foot long iguanas being like “Hm maybe that wasn’t such a good idea”. I think killer animals bring out the best in a lot of authors.
JL: You cover so many people that have changed the industry and written some amazing work that may have been hidden behind lurid covers. If you wanted to shine a light on one person you discovered on this journey that really should be just returned to again and again, who is our unsung hero?
GH: I would have to say Ken Greenhall. He only wrote seven books and one of those, which I think is his best book, isn’t even horror but he was a dude who always had a day job as an encyclopedia editor, his books came out from the worst publishers, they were given the worst covers… even his own agent fired him at some point in his life and was like, “You’re too old. Bye.” He only ever had one book come out in hardcover which was his last one, the historical novel called Lenoir but his writing is beautiful. He really is an heir to Shirley Jackson. His prose has this really precise, chilly, stark quality to it that she had.
He’s really good at stripping a line down until his sentences go in these unexpected directions and every single one of his books is told from the point-of-view of his main character which means he’s written really convincing books from the point-of-view of a fourteen year old girl, a killer dog, from the point-of-view of a really rich guy who doesn’t want to be bothered by anyone and sells cognac, from the point-of-view of a 16th Century freed African slave. Every one of those voices he writes in is just so compelling and so authentic and he’s completely forgotten. Valencourt has started bringing some of his books back in print like Hellhound, Elizabeth, and Child Brave and those are his three best horror novels.
JL: What we’re seeing right now could be called a resurgence in horror fiction, You’re contributing to it. There is a lot of brilliant material out there. What one thing could you tell us that we can learn from this period especially the ebb and flow of the Leisure shutdown and the horror crash in the 90s…
GH: Everything happens in cycles. I think horror is coming back… because horror books don’t make money… the people doing it really want to write horror now not because they’re chasing a fad and eventually people will see money being made in horror [publishing] and they’ll chase the fad and we’ll all go bust again. I guess that’s the lesson from this which is to me the people who wrote out of love, like the people who wrote stuff that is genuinely something they cared about that happened to be horror, like Elizabeth Ingstrom or Bari Wood or Ken Greenhall or even William Johnstone in his own crazy way. They were all pursuing their own personal vision and it happened to be horror and they’re the people who have lasted… well, they’ve been forgotten but they’re the people who are getting rediscovered. The people who just wrote because they wanted to cash in… J.N. Williamson, John Coyne and John Saul, I mean I like those guys but they wanted to sell books and horror is what was selling so they decided to write horror. They don’t hold up quite as well because it’s not personal. This stuff is always going to boom and bust but it booms when it’s not making any money and the people doing it are doing it for sick, sad, personal reasons.
JL: (Laughs) I’m hoping that everyone who reads this runs to their local mom-and-pop shop and combs the shelves, pulls out something ridiculous and discovers something wonderful.
GH: They’re out there. Just waiting.
Grady Hendrix is also the author of Horrorstor and My Best Friend’s Exorcism available from Quirk Books. He is currently re-reading all of Stephen King’s novels and collections and reporting on them at Tor.com. You can also catch him doing live performances of Paperbacks From Hell nationwide. For more info, visit http://www.gradyhendrix.com