By: MADDI MCGILLVRAY
In Paperbacks from Hell, author and screenwriter Grady Hendrix chronicles the history of the lurid horror paperbacks that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. From killer orgasms and skeleton doctors to Nazi leprechauns and flesh-eating snails, these bizarre paperbacks flooded the shelves of local supermarkets, drugstores and bookstores in the hopes of becoming the next horror classic. Presented by The Mikatonic Institute of Horror Studies, Hendrix brings Paperbacks From Hell Live to Toronto next week on Thursday, November 30th at The Royal Cinema. In anticipation for the event, we caught up with Hendrix to discuss Paperbacks from Hell and what inspired him to shine a spotlight on these long-forgotten gems.
“There’s something for everyone, except evil babies. Those jerks can just stay home.”
What inspired you to write Paperbacks from Hell? Why now?
I was a movie guy first, and there’s a tradition with film fans of digging down into the deep cuts and finding the treasures among the trash. I mean, who knew that one of the greatest movies ever made was Norman Mailer’s gruesomely misguided Dead Men Don’t Dance? So when I started writing books it seemed natural to head for the dustiest shelves and start looking for the forgotten weird stuff. I would go into these used paperback shops and see row after row of lurid horror paperbacks, but I didn’t know anything about them. Taking a book off a shelf was a game of eyeball roulette and I spent hours reading really boring books, trying to find the ones that rocked. I yearned for some kind of a map to show me where the treasure was and it took me a long time to realize that if I wanted a map I’d have to draw it myself.
What do you think it was about the 70’s and 80’s that resulted in these bizarre and pulpy novels?
Two things. First, there was a huge appetite for books about the occult after Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other came out in the late sixties and early seventies. Anton LaVey had just founded his widely publicized Church of Satan, Ouija boards hit toy store shelves, the Manson murders took place and astrology columns infested every newspaper. Everyone wanted to read about the occult, and evil, and conspiracies and the supernatural. Second, publishing wasn’t as consolidated as it is now, so lots of small publishers and renegade imprints roamed the market looking for any trend they could capitalize on, giving tons of work to authors, artists and editors. As the Eighties progressed, the big publishers gobbled up the little publishers and publishing got safer and more market researched and, unfortunately, more boring.
For someone who has maybe never read any of these softcovers before, what would be a good place to start?
Go to Valancourt. They’re a small press that’s been putting out beautiful editions of a lot of the books I write about in Papetorbacks from Hell. They’ve reissued Eric C. Higgs’s The Happy Man, which is basically a Bret Easton Ellis novel set among the hot tubs of California – only with more machine guns and cannibalism. They’ve resurrected a lot of Ken Greenhall’s remarkable books like Elizabeth and Hell Hound. And they just put out a new, collected edition of Michael McDowell’s Blackwater saga, which is the 100 Years of Solitude of paperback originals.
Can you recall your first experience reading one of these paperbacks?
I was too scared to read them as a kid. I’d walk past the rack at our local bookstore and see all these Nazi leprechauns and dancing skeletons and flesh-eating snails and they creeped me out. I liked my books bloodless and neat and tidy and these books looked crazy and out of control. It’s a family trait. My sisters wouldn’t even keep The Amityville Horror in the house with them — they left it in the car while they were reading it. I was an adult before I was brave enough to read horror paperbacks.
One thing that I’m really drawn to about these novels are of course their amazing covers. They’re beautiful, strange and grotesque. Are you able to elaborate on the design process of these?
I’m so glad you said that because these covers are a lost art. They started with the art directors who used to be kings at the big publishers. They were the Don Drapers of publishing. These days sales and marketing are king, but back in the 70s and 80s the art director could say “red” and suddenly all the covers were red. The artists were hired to realize the ideas these art directors had and they invested each one of these massive oil (or acrylic, or tempera) paintings with an enormous amount of technique and emotion. Then they were photographed, corrected, had the titles and other design elements added, photographed again, reduced, and then the books hit shelves and usually went rapidly out of print or got shredded by the hundreds of millions. It’s not their fault they killed themselves for a disposable medium.
What was the most extreme or bizarre book that you had to read for this project?
John Christopher’s The Little People takes the prize. Nazi leprechauns used as sex workers in Gestapo officer’s clubs who wind up seeking refuge in an Irish castle, which gets turned into a B&B. Hijinks ensue. I can’t wait for the Pixar adaptation.
What can we expect from Paperbacks from Hell LIVE?
Awful accents, truly terrible songs and a TON of artwork. I think there are 182 slides in this show and it’s only 65 minutes long. It moves like lightning. There will be discussions of killer orgasms, monster cats, skeleton doctors and VC Andrews. There’s something for everyone, except evil babies. Those jerks can just stay home.
Paperbacks From Hell Live comes to Toronto next week on November 30th at The Royal Cinema. Tickets can be purchased at www.universe.com/events/paperbacks-from-hell-live