A history of horror
Violent clowns, knife-wielding kindergarteners, mistresses of Satan, flesh-eating slugs, Nazi leprechauns, and portals to hell — all of these terrifying elements appear in horror novels of the 1970s and ‘80s. The blockbuster success of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other marked the beginning of a publishing boom that reflected the warped appetites of the culture that eagerly devoured these stories. Grady Hendrix’s new book Paperbacks From Hell details the fascinating history of these books, and this Halloween weekend, we take a look at their gruesome covers and twisted plotlines. On the cover is an illustration by William Teason from an earlier and more literary example of the genre, the 1963 Popular Library paperback of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
hey’re piled in the dark corners of creepy basements all over America, sticky with spilled drinks and decades of dust. You happen upon them at the used bookstore, shuddering a little as a maggot-eaten face or a grinning killer clown leer out at you from the shelves. Maybe you once giggled uneasily with a friend in the halls of your junior high over the unspeakable acts their diecut covers concealed. Regardless of where you found them, chances are you’ve read one, two, or 10 Paperbacks From Hell, as Grady Hendrix’s highly entertaining new history of the 1970s and ’80s horror-fiction boom calls them. However ridiculous and trashy they might seem today, these books marked the height of a once-robust publishing industry, revealing certain truths about late 20th-century America’s deepest fears.
Hendrix, who has himself authored two amusing spins on the genre (Horrorstör, 2014, and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, 2016), takes a deep dive into the world of scary stories with a breezy, pulp-comic style that nonetheless takes these books very seriously. Gothic fiction has strong roots in the American book business, he points out, beginning his horror history by calling the bestselling gothic romances of the 1960s and early ’70s (like those of Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart) “the missing link between the gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the paperback horror of the ’70s and ’80s.” The genre was electrified between 1967 and 1973 thanks to three blockbuster books: Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, the first horror novels to show up on Publishers Weekly’s annual bestseller list since Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 1938. All three spawned movies and dozens of imitators that turned the tide of mass-market publishing blood-red.
Among a proliferation of bizarre books about menacing kids, sinister animals, and robot murderers, the haunted-house novel is the most
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