Satanic possessions, bleeding banisters, monster sharks, children in the attic — all this as familiar to readers as their morning coffee, but where did these horrors come from and how did they make themselves at home?
Grady Hendrix tells us all about it in his lavishly-illustrated "Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction," resurrecting an era when gothic tales in windswept castles mutated into a new, high-powered genre called horror. "Written to be sold in drugstores and supermarkets," these books "offered uncut entertainment," Hendrix writes, and their writers "weren't worried about causing offense."
Hendrix takes us from the quiet ghost stories of the 1960s — which seemed "trapped in the past" — through the aptly-named Splatterpunk craze in the late '80s, with Clive Barker's "Books of Blood" in the vanguard. From the beaches of Peter Benchley's fictional Amity to the haunting in Amityville, horror was in the air, and it meant big business.
How did it begin? Everything changed with the publication of two massive bestsellers, both made into blockbuster movies: Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby" in 1967 and William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" in 1971. They were the first of their kind to hit the lists since Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" in 1938.
Astonishingly, "The Exorcist" was nearly dead on arrival until a last-minute slot opened up on "The Dick Cavett Show," allowing Blatty to describe his chronicle of child possession on prime-time. Middle America rushed to read it. Suddenly, Satan and his minions were everywhere. Hendrix goes so far as to say that "Satan was the secret ingredient that made sales surge," spawning the likes of "To the Devil a Daughter," "Satan's Holiday," "Satan's Gal" and "Satan Sublets."
The horror boom had begun. Before long, these paperbacks boasted sales figures in millions of copies. As the '70s progressed, high interest rates combined with inflation to inspire a new generation of haunted house. Families found themselves in homes that didn't seem to want them there. Building on fears first conjured by Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," authors set about making their own nightmare houses, most memorably in Robert Marasco's "Burnt Offerings," Stephen King's "The Shining" and Richard Matheson's frenzied "Hell House." These scary dwellings were perfectly suited to a decade plagued by lead paint, radon and asbestos scares, not to mention news of Love Canal and Three Mile Island. Hendrix comforts us by pointing out that "if the cause was Satan, you were lucky. At least the Lord of Darkness isn't carcinogenic."
By the early '80s, this brand of domestic horror hit its nadir with a "nonfiction" work by Jay Anson called "The Amityville Horror," which Hendrix finds "commercial minded, grandiose, ridiculous," a "carnival barker's idea of a haunted house."
Much of what Hendrix examines is pure pulp (editor Ann Patty at Pocket Books once said of V.C. Andrews's writing, "It may be awful, but it is a style"). Still, Hendrix takes care to highlight rare classics of the genre, such as Mendal W. Johnson's "novel of lingering horror" "Let's Go Play at the Adams'," in which suburban children abduct and torture a babysitter, offering what Hendrix calls "a completely nihilistic vision of the world," one that "doesn't deny the possibility of goodness, or beauty, or grace. It merely points out that those are the things we kill first." Heady stuff for drugstore paperback racks.
Hendrix amuses with deft summaries of these bizarre novels, gleefully detailing their contortions into ever more salacious and outrageous shapes. His wry commentaries never fail, as when he warns us about Sean Forestal's "novel of terror and obsession," "Dark Angel": "When Joe discovers that the succubus can be destroyed only if she's decapitated at the moment of orgasm, you know this book is about to go so far over the top it achieves orbit."
As the plots became more shocking, cover artists rushed to catch up, going "bigger, gaudier, and racier." Greeting-card technology was hurried into service to provide "foil, raised monsters, and die-cut windows showing swank stepback art." An innocent face peers out from an oval. Open the book and a whole creepy scene is revealed. You can't put it down. These vibrant covers are an art form all their own, luring unsuspecting readers into dark places.
Other monsters crept onto the shelves. Benchley's 1974 smash "Jaws" pulled in its wake swarms of other creatures, including mad cows, killer crabs and sinister slugs, followed by maniacal physicians and deadly computers. They would all be vanquished in the end by Thomas Harris's groundbreaking "Silence of the Lambs" (1988) and the brand of techno-thriller it ushered in. The serial killer and "super creep" soon eclipsed nightmare rabbits and satanic cults.
"Paperbacks From Hell" is as funny as it is engaging, assuring us that whatever else may be said of these paperbacks, most long since disappeared into landfills and yard sale boxes, "they will not bore you."
Ernest Hilbert is a poet and rare book dealer.
By Grady Hendrix
Quirk. 256 pp. Paperback, $24.99