By GRADY HENDRIX
Ed. note: In his new book PAPERBACKS FROM HELL (Quirk Books), author Grady Hendrix illuminates and thoroughly covers the history of the shocking and outrageous softcover horror novels that flourished in the 1970s and ’80s. He’s also touring with a live presentation that next hits Toronto, Canada on November 30 (see details here). With so many bizarre books haunting PAPERBACKS’ pages, we asked Hendrix to offer his choices for the titles most worth seeking out…
The point of reading hundreds of horror paperbacks and turning them into a book is to make a map: Beware of the rocks over here, look out for the whirlpool over there and always, always, always avoid the doldrums. There are so many bad books, so many ways for your attention to get shipwrecked and destroyed, that it’s my pleasure to direct you to 10 (actually 11) horror paperbacks that deliver the goods.
TOY CEMETERY (1987, William W. Johnstone): Double-barreled blasts of lunacy right in the face, Johnstone’s books are delightful howls of unhinged insanity. Everything you ever wanted in a “WTF was that?” horror novel are here in CEMETERY: evil heavy metal music, kids gone wild, dog armies, factories churning out Satanic kiddie porn, ghost werewolves, zombie girlfriends and karate.
THE AUCTIONEER (1975, Joan Samson): On the complete other end of the spectrum is Samson’s masterful, flinty novel of hardscrabble New England life dying at the hands of greedy city folk. Imagine Stephen King’s NEEDFUL THINGS written by Cormac McCarthy, and you’ve got the idea.
WHEN DARKNESS LOVES US (1985, Elizabeth Engstrom): As twisted and sharp as a corkscrew jammed in your ear, Engstrom’s novella begins when a pregnant young wife gets accidentally locked in the cellar of her farmhouse. Twenty years later, she emerges, and what follows involves incest, cross-species breeding and grotesque, humiliating revenge.
KILLER (1979, Peter Tonkin): JAWS may be one of the greatest animal-amok movies ever made, but the book is a snooze. For a real sea monster, try KILLER, the greatest story of a killer whale that hates human arms ever told. It moves so fast that turning the pages practically blisters your fingers; by chapter two, a bunch of biologists are stranded on a shrinking ice floe under attack by a killer whale, an army of confused walruses and one rogue polar bear.
NIGHTBLOOD (1990, T. Chris Martindale) and NIGHTLIFE (1991, Brian Hodge): NIGHTBLOOD is for people who thought ’SALEM’S LOT needed more Uzis, as a Vietnam vet tackles a small town’s vampire problem with his katana. NIGHTLIFE is basically CROCODILE DUNDEE meets MIAMI VICE with more were-piranhas, with a bright-green new cocaine substitute hitting Tampa, Florida and turning patrons of neon-soaked dance clubs into monsters. Think of these as two direct-to-video movies from the early ’90s, best consumed with a six-pack.
KEEPER OF THE CHILDREN (1978, William H. Hallahan): The scariest cults are the ones that brainwash teenagers, then use yoga to project their astral bodies into scarecrows, turning them into creepy assassins who silence the protesting parents. But one angry daddy studies yoga to strike back and sends his astral form into marionettes, teddy bears and Siamese cats, unleashing true next-level lunacy.
HELL HOUND (1977, Ken Greenhall): Greenhall’s second novel (a.k.a. BAXTER, and the basis of the 1989 movie of that title) is told from the point of view of a sociopathic bull terrier that yearns for the perfect owner. Unfortunately, we all fall short of a bull terrier’s expectations, and he’s forced to murder his owners and move on to greener pastures again and again. Greenhall is the heir to Shirley Jackson, writing in a precise, chilly voice that sounds as cruel and inhuman as you’d expect from a dog.
PIN (1981, Andrew Neiderman): Today, Neiderman is best known for being V.C. Andrews’ ghost writer, but his own novels are poisonous little bon-bons like PIN (made into a film in 1988), about a brother and a sister engaged in an incestuous three-way relationship with an anatomical dummy they believe is alive. Neiderman is low on style but high on plot and character, both of which crank into overdrive when the sister in this relationship decides it’s time to start dating people who are a) alive and b) not blood relatives.
SUCH NICE PEOPLE (1981, Sandra Scoppettone): One of my favorite discoveries, this is a New England Christmas story about a large upper-middle-class family getting together over the holidays. Diets are broken, affairs are had, gifts are exchanged—oh, and their golden-boy son believes he has been ordered to murder every single one of them at the command of his cruel god, SOLA.
DARK ANGEL (1982, Sean Forestal): As Catholic and trashy as a hot pink Virgin Mary lawn ornament, Forestal’s book has a succubus stealing the semen from a cardinal in the Vatican, and it’s up to a two-fisted American priest to chase the pregnant she-demon across Europe. She’s driving a yellow Porsche and leaking black breast milk, he’s armed with a sword that can decapitate her—but only if he strikes at the moment of orgasm. It’s heavy-breathing hothouse thriller so overheated it’ll make your face sweat.