Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review: 'Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction'


So you just took a nice leisurely ride in the front seat of a shopping cart and successfully fooled your mom into buying you a box of teeth-rotting Fruit Brute. Things have been going pretty well during this supermarket outing. But then, just as you’re about to leave, you catch sight of a young girl’s face absolutely bulging with terror as she peers through a tiny die-cut window. What could be destroying this child’s nerves? As your mom rummages in her handbag for a ten-cents-off Palmolive coupon, you pull the cover open and are assaulted by the terrifying image of that girl in the arms of some sort of skeleton-faced demon.

These days, the scariest thing you’re likely to see at the checkout counter is the latest issue of The Enquirer. In the seventies and eighties, genuinely frightening artwork was splattered across the covers of cheap paperbacks by the likes of Peter Saxon, V.C. Andrews, and other “literary” conglomerates. In the wake of the success of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Others, the (super)market was flooded with tales that promised to be more terrifying, more traumatizing, more soul shattering than these three acknowledged classics. While works such as Satan’s Love Child and Crabs: The Human Sacrifice weren’t necessarily scarier than what Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty unleashed, they managed to up the level of outrageousness. Ehren M. Ehly’s The Obelisk stars a “were-Egyptian” who hangs severed dicks off a Central Park landmark and eats orangutans. The hero of James Herbert’s Rats takes care of the swarming rodents by punching them to death between rounds of playing “football with a severed head.” The title characters of John Christopher’s The Little People are Nazi leprechauns with a yen for S&M.

The sheer absurdity of these tales is not lost on Grady Hendrix, who has composed a loving tribute in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. The great value of this book is that Hendrix has done all the hard work for us. His summaries of these monstrosities are hilarious…and probably a lot more fun than actually reading things like Dogkill, The Face That Must Die, and tales that sound as though they were written by ultra-conservatives during spring break from the fourth grade.

Paperbacks from Hell also doesn’t skimp on the other essential element of these books: their wild cover art. The book overflows with full-cover images of giants worms slithering around Big Ben, monster bunnies, skeletons galore, and yes, whip-wielding Nazi leprechauns. In the case of some of these covers, such as Jim Thiesen’s truly scary monster-bride sculpture for the cover of The Gilgul, they achieve a real artfulness. So does Hendrix’s prose, which will have you rolling in the checkout aisle.
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