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Paperbacks from Hell
by Grady Hendrix
Quirk Publishing, $24.99. 256pp
Published: September 2017

This book has become quite the success story in the horror paperback community and it's taken me a long while to pick up a copy. Now I've read it, I can see why. It's a perfect gateway drug.

Hendrix is a novelist, screenwriter and film critic who co-founded the New York Asian Film Festival, so writing about books is just another string in his bow. He created this book, because it was created as much as written, perhaps more so, with Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog.

What it attempts to do is to chronicle "the twisted history of '70s and '80s horror fiction". It doesn't really succeed at that because there's just too much material to cram into a 7" x 10" 250-page volume, especially when the job at hand is as much in finding the right paperback covers as crafting the right blurb. It gives it a damn good shot and what it includes is so much more than anyone else has included that there's no comparison, but it was always going to fall short because of the laws of mathematics.

What it succeeds at doing is to hurl we the readers into the deep end of a truly glorious swimming pool and offer us guidance as we attempt to swim into the shallows and find our way back out again, dripping with the glory that is eighties horror fiction. That young fans are creating lists of books to buy because they were mentioned in this book is an underline to that success. It's notable that it's spawned a reprint line too, from Valancourt Books. The most successful things can't be judged on what they achieve but on what they spur and this is spurring much.

And I enjoyed it immensely. The first impression that springs to mind is that it's a heavy book, not particularly long but large and printed on quality stock so that there's a real weight to it when we hold it in our hands. It feels like it's substantial before we even open it. The second impression that springs to mind is that it's gorgeous. It trawls in wild and wonderful paperback covers and displays them all in full colour. While it's not a Taschen art hardback, these two impressions combined set the scene perfectly.

And then there's the text. Hendrix breaks his narrative up into a few easily delineated categories, like satanic novels, creepy kids, weird science, etc., each of which moves a general story along. There's good information here and the sweep is good. However, each of these categories isn't really a chapter as much as it is a set of loosely linked essays that explore the various topics that fall under that category. Some of these are far more substantial than others.

It's telling that I, as someone who documented this exact subject to some degree at the time, still learned a good deal reading this book. It's also telling that I can see plenty that got left out, some of which is a little more surprising or acceptable than others. For instance, with Hendrix and Errickson both, I believe, being American, there's a major bias towards American books and cover art here, to the degree that a British companion volume would be entirely viable.

For instance, take Guy N. Smith as an example. He was a mainstay in British newsagents alongside James Herbert and Stephen King, he was published by big houses and he knocked out a crazy amount of books: seven in 1982 alone and over fifty in the seventies and eighties. He's given a decent amount of space here: a full page in the Seafood Gumbo section of the When Animals Attack chapter, because of his crabs novels, featuring four book covers. However, all are from American editions, even though the British covers for New English Library are generally wilder and more appropriate. And, most annoyingly, his name doesn't even appear in the text. That's disappointing.

What else is disappointing is that Hamlyn, publishers of the nasty novel and a major force in British horror of the time, isn't mentioned anywhere in the book, though again some of what they published does show up here in American editions. There's coverage of huge names like James Herbert and Graham Masterton, of course, but surprisingly little, if any, of others like Shaun Hutson, Laurence James or Brian Lumley. It's odd to cite the fantastic Vault of Evil board on British Horror in the acknowledgements and then ignore much of what they cover so well. Some details are just plain wrong too, like lumping Fear magazine in with the splatterpunks.

The essays I liked best were the ones with real depth: demonstrating inside knowledge of what went on at certain publishers, exposing pseudonyms and chatting with cover artists. Some of these are joyous reads, educational and entertaining at the same time, the sort of thing I've been aching to read for years. Others, however, feel like they were knocked out in an afternoon to fill a page without much effort being made.

And that's sad because this is a really important book, arguably the first major volume on the subject to make a broad impact on the community. Given that there's little else in print on this subject, if you ignore the zines of the era that are hard to find nowadays, this is essential stuff.

I highly recommend it, but emphatically as a beginning not an end. There's so much else from this era that is glossed over or ignored entirely that it's not outside the bounds of possibility that this will spur other work. Such work will always be compared to Paperbacks from Hell but some of it might prove even more valuable. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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