Saturday, 11 November 2017

Grady Hendrix's "Paperbacks from Hell" is a wildly enjoyable slice of popular cultural history

 Grady Hendrix begins his recently-published Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction in the following way:
"Years ago at a science-fiction convention, I was flipping through the dollar boxes at a dealer's table when this Hector Garrido cover for The Little People brought my eyeballs to a screeching halt. I wasn't a book collector - I didn't even know who Hector Garrido was - but I knew what this was the Mona Lisa of paperback covers."
If you wish to know what the book's about, here's the back-cover blurb:
The oddest things about what sound like a very odd book are that it was written by a highly-respected science fiction author, and that it was published in 1966, when horror fiction was still a literary backwater (to such an extent that publishers would do almost anything but use the word "horror" on covers). The paperback horror boom of the next two decades began with three bestselling supernatural novels. The first was  Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, whose publication in 1967 was followed the next year by the Roman Polanski hugely successful film adaptation; The Other (1971), by a former Hollywood actor, Thomas Tryon; and The Exorcist (also 1971) by William Peter Blatty, which was followed by the pant-wettingly scary William Friedkin film in 1973. Those led, in 1974, to Stephen King's Carrie and James Herbert's The Rats, after which the word HORROR was everywhere (apart from Janet and John books and the novels of Anita Brookner). 
Grady Hendrix - a contemporary horror writer - read The Little People, found it surprisingly enjoyable, and wondered, "What else has been forgotten?" Paperbacks from Hell is the wonderfully entertaining, informative and lavishly illustrated answer to that question. You can purchase the beautifully-produced 250-page, large-format paperback edition for the ridiculously low price of £13.10 here. It's hard to imagine that any loved one, friend, neighbour, work colleague or casual acquaintance wouldn't be absolutely delighted and eternally grateful to find a copy nestling under their Christmas tree towards the end of next month. 

One of the things Hendrix does is to split the books into various sub-genres. Some of my old Nick Sharman titles can be found in Creepy Kids (in the sub-sub-genre, Parenting a Homicidal Child), When Animals Attack (the  Eye of the Tiger section), and in the main Weird Science draw, (plus another appearance in the "It's All in the Mind" sub-section). What a busy little killer-bee I was! Hendrix's taxonomical approach is a genuine aid to figuring out what was going on in the communal psyche at the time - something I've been doing a lot since finishing the book (which you really should buy - or did I mention that already?). Here's my (admittedly simplistic) take on what channeled a pulp backwater directly into the mainstream:

Creepy Kids? Hippies, Woodstock, student riots, sexual promiscuity, filthy language, stupid clothes, disrespect for authority, protest marches, riots, despising your own country, despising your own parents, and everyone else's, no matter that their sacrifices were the reason for your  freedom and prosperity etc. Young people were revolting - in all senses of the world. They had turned on their parents, for no good reason - nice 10-year olds had morphed into spectacularly horrible, uncontrollable, potty-mouthed 16-year olds (even more so than usual). Little bastards.

Hail, Satan? The loss of God - the Christian God, resulting in a loss of fellowship based on faith and the comfort and protection of a shared moral code; crazy cults, crazy beliefs - out with the Established Church and Jesus, and in with moral relativism, Mao, Marx, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Charles Manson, Moonies,  Scientiologists - you name it. 

Animal attacks?  We'd monkeyed with Gaia - pollution, oil spills, napalm, pesticides etc. - and now the monkeys (and dogs, cats, alligators, bats and every other damned creature on earth, including the ones we thought were extinct) were taking their revenge.

Weird science? Organ transplants, kidney harvesting, CIA mind-control experiments, chemicals in the water supply... it was all moving too fast, spiralling out of control. What exactly were these Frankensteins up to? No good, I'll be bound. 

Real estate nightmares? Hendrix is fascinating on the white flight phenomenon - whites moving out of crime-ridden cities to the relative safety of the suburbs and, even, the actual country - and how this led writers to exploit the general paranoia of the times by suggesting that there was no escape, no safety anywhere. What did city types actually know about Hicksville, given that they'd spent decades ignoring or belittling its troglodyte inhabitants? What if those hayseeds resented this sudden influx of snobby Yuppies and decided to use the Old Ways to revenge themselves? And what if the very ancestors and gods of the original inhabitants took the opportunity to teach these smug white usurpers a lesson for stealing their land and to pay them back for all those John Wayne films? You could hardly walk ten paces in any direction in the horrorsphere back then without inadvertently trampling over an Old Indian Burial Ground. 

Furriners? Yet another source of revenge attacks - as Hendrix points out,  it was dangerous for Americans to go abroad, because they'd invariably being back dangerous creatures in their suitcases, or demons in amulets, or curses on their heads for being culturally insensitive, or devils lurking in their bodies... after the experience of Vietnam, abroad was just plain dangerous.

For more of this sort of speculation, you'll just have to buy Grady Hendrix's book - he's better at it than I am.

I'll end with another slice of praise for Paperbacks from Hell: it celebrates the cover artists and illustrators who convinced us to buy these books, and whose work was often of a much higher standard than the novels themselves. It's high time these great craftsmen got the recognition they undoubtedly deserve. Here are just a few classic covers from that era - all of them taken from the book:

Sweet dreams!

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