Feature: Looking Back on Grady Hendrix's PAPERBACK FROM HELL
I have always fancied myself a lover of horror in all their glorious forms. Movies, video games, television, no media format was left unturned in my pursuit of the next great macabre image to get seared into my brain for the rest of my natural life. However, there has always been one medium where horror has always delivered exceptional material on a steady basis, but I have just not found myself able to consume in a regular manner. I speak of the horror that has always laid in wait on the printed page. Reading in general has always been a problem for me. When I am home, I tend to lean towards watching movies or playing the latest video game I have purchased before curling up with a good book. Combine that with the fact that I deal with the extreme annoyance of motion sickness, which makes reading on my hour-long commute to work and back impossible, my overall ability to dedicate time to read a good horror book is in short supply. I have tried audiobooks and have made my way through both Ernest Cline novels, Ready Player One and Armada, as well as the initial Red Rising trilogy from Pierce Brown. Yet still my ability to read horror stories or novels on a regularly has eluded me. My wife Patricia, on the other hand, is what we call an avid reader, a rabid digester of the printed word, a speed demon of the literary world. She can finish books in days that would take me months to accomplish. I’ve made it my mission to be more active in my reading, all to expand my vocabulary to become a better writer and, honestly, to absorb some of these awesome horror classics that everyone around me have talked about for years. The time was now to let the words of horror leak off the page and into my eyeballs.
A few months ago, my wife attended Book Con, an NYCC/SDCC style convention that is focused solely on books, books and more books. As she was paring through her massive haul of free novels and modestly priced treasures, she pulled out something she picked out just for me. The cover of this beautiful tome immediately spoke to me. Multiple different covers of old cheesy dime store paperback horror novels littered the bottom half of the cover, ranging from stories that involved snakes, large bugs, demon babies and all sorts of wacky imagery, all gloriously represented by gorgeous hand drawn covers. The book I speak of is 2017’s Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. Paperbacks from Hell (of PFH, as what it will be referred to going forward) is more of a historical text than a legitimate original horror story. Author Grady Hendrix spent years accumulating information, pictures and insane details about the horror paperback fiction craze that dominated the local pharmacies and bookstores across the 70’s and 80’s. Based on that description alone, this has either prompted you to go out and purchase this book immediately or close this review on your browser and move on. It’s all falls to author Grady Hendrix to make you see past what seems like a very niche topic and pull in all manner of readers, young and old, horror and non-horror lovers alike, all in effort to have us gain appreciation for this era of reckless horror novellas. In the end, does Grady Hendrix bring this slice of sleazy horror life from the horror heyday of the 70’s and 80’s justice with a deft writing and crafted chapters on this superbly compiled compendium of horror novels of yore, all while appealing to a broad audience?
Let me get this out of the way. This collection of horror history on the printed page is most definitely NOT a wasted opportunity. As a horror lover, I found every single page of this book to be completely enthralling and an interesting presentation of material that is widely considered “z-grade” or “low brow” in terms of the topics that they covered. Grady Hendrix has done a masterful job of compiling what seems like hundreds (maybe even thousands) of novels that have released over these two decades of literary horror decadence. While the book does adhere to the structure of a historical textbook, delving into the history of the horror paperback book and tracing it from its origins through its heyday, it does it in a unique and engaging way that makes it more interesting than the common factual recording. Hendrix decided to break up his book into multiple chapters spanning across different sub-genres of horror that popped up during this wild west of go-for-broke horror stories. Chapters deal specifically with killer children, gothic horror such as vampires, everything to do with Mr. Satan himself, evil in surburbia (ranging from deadly nannies to the house itself), killer aquatic life and other various forms of human destruction, ranging from the more commonly expected instruments of murder, such as the run-of-the-mill psychopath and ghostly apparitions, to the more absurd and insanity-laced forms of fear someone could conjure, like Nazi leprechauns. Yes, you heard me right, leprechauns who just happen to be Nazis. Somehow, despite the lurid book topics that tend to be aimed directly at a very specific type of audience, Hendrix was able to make them all sound quite interesting, intriguing and, most of all, accessible, primarily with his use of description and clear affinity for the topic.
I can’t stress how solid of a decision it was to layout the book in this fashion. If it was separated into chapters dealing with specific years or decades, with each section delving into the books that were released during that time, it might have still functioned and worked but it possibly could have been more of a mixed bag of variety in each chapter with no real cohesion tying it all together. The separation of the genres into chapters allows the massive horror fan to soak itself into each wild sub-genre that existed while experiencing every insane idea that was being bandied about during the entire paperback novel boom. This also allows the casual reader to perhaps lock in on certain chapters or topics that might interest them or be a great start off point for them to dig deeper into the demented world of the batshit and the macabre. The way Hendrix lays out each section of a chapter, with a giddy overall summarization of one of the numerous sub-genres of the horror writing world and leans into examples that best characterize them, makes each topic easy to understand and cuts a clear picture of what you can expect. Hendrix makes each concept sound quite amazing and something you would want to possible invest in with a title or two. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t make every genre sound like Shakespeare and he clearly knows when one topic is clearly a little absurd (even for him), but his love for them all is palpable. I have always been a diehard horror fan but I can freely admit that I was definitely not aware of the thousands of various different unique and unfiltered horror novels that littered the landscape during the 70’s/80’s, a time when horror movies were really coming into their own as a genre of filmmaking that could no longer be ignored, and it was great to learn and read about how the rise and dominance of horror was not just relegated to the silver screen.
I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the most important aspect of what makes this historical look at horror fiction from these two decades so intriguing. If there is one amazing fact to pull from this book it would be that literally every single one of these novels had AMAZING cover art. The beautiful details and glorious madness that each of these covers contain is truly some of the most brilliant artwork I have ever seen in my life. Every single book, no matter how absurd, trivial or small, came accompanied with visually appealing hand drawn artwork that sometimes makes the entire book worth the price of admission alone, even if the actual writing is not up to par. Grady Hendrix knows this, as does the publisher of PFH, and they made the wise choice to release this book in beautiful vibrant color with high quality pages displaying these visually striking pieces of true art across every single page. Each one is exceptional and I would be proud to include them as a large scale poster on any wall in my house. Grady even states to the fact that these detailed and elegant covers were completely necessary because on the overcrowded shelf of the local pharmacy paperback rack, a good cover is needed to stick out among the bunch, and I can’t imagine picking up anything that happens to be standing next to some of the visually striking covers that are strewn across this text. Despite the behind the scenes drama that apparently existed in terms of payment/working conditions, etc., the artwork itself is a sight to behold and I appreciate every artist who put their love and affection into these pieces. Lovely.
As a self-proclaimed horror novel novice, I wasn’t sure how I would react to a book that features the history of the “trashy” horror novel epidemic that swept the world many years ago. Would I get eventually become uninterested by an author just recounting hundreds of novels about killer crabs and evil babies spawned by Satan, or would it be presented in a manner that would totally draw me in and pull me through every single chapter of creative freedom that was on display throughout these various books? Simply put, Grady Hendrix is now responsible for making me want to consider putting aside some time between my copious movie watching and video game sessions and sitting back in a chair and just…read. PFH takes what can be initially seen as a very niche topic and makes it accessible for anyone with even a passing interest in the horror genre. It’s tightly focused, soothingly written and is backed up by an author with a clear understanding of the facts, the history and why these past horror relics should not be forgotten. I don’t consider myself a reader in the slightest, but because of PFH, I now believe that, perhaps, I can now join in on all the fun I have been missing in the world of horror fiction.