Grady Hendrix, author of the affectionately kitsch "My Best Friend's Exorcism" and the satirical "Horrorstör", has followed those up with a new nonfiction book that you didn't know you needed until now. But you do need it.
When I was a kid, well before I'd ever seen a horror movie, probably even before I had tried to make it through one of Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell's truly horrifying "Scary Tales To Tell in the Dark", I remember seeing horror paperbacks in the thrift shops and used bookstores of my youth. Like the covers of VHS horror movies (somebody oughta write a book about them, or perhaps they already have, in which case I'll order it today), these images, usually painted, were gaudy, morbid, silly and incredibly eye-catching. I tried to close my eyes and hum as I walked past them, but it was to no avail, as they had already stained me. In some cases, I would have nightmares about them.
The boom times for paperback horror novels were the 1980s and 1990s, and right next to bus station bookstore perennials Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Stephen King, who might serve as these writer's more successful patron saint. Here, among these books were dozens of evil canine also-rans, a pack of not-quite-Cujos, not to mention psychic tots that more than resemble Danny Torrance, and post-Pennywise scary clowns. But these were also books that were a bit too pulpy and trashy for the King -- think Satanic orgies, demonic babies eating their way out of cursed mothers, and incestuous gothic tales to make V. C. Andrews blush.
Twenty-some odd years on, a lot of the covers that used to terrify me now strike me as impossibly nostalgic, even sometimes lovely. Of course, others are just plain ridiculous.
Hendrix's love for the material is apparent. And though even if the book were simply reprinting these vintage paperback covers, it would be more than worth its cover price. But it is also an anthropologist's guide to a forgotten, alien world. He's actually read these things, offering concise, funny summaries of the author's lives and works, and those of the illustrators and painters responsible for the images. And when Hendrix explores some of the more obscure subgenres of 80s paperback horror, like the brief surge of horror novels about soft-headed youths being led astray by D&D-like role-playing games, or horror novels that appropriated Native-American legends in the service of supernatural Other-ness, the result is nothing less than fascinating.
If you're here, you probably like horror, and if you like horror than you owe it to yourself to take a trip back to the genre's publishing hey-day. And what other book could be as ludicrously overstuffed with inhuman whatsits, blood-soaked marionettes, and creepy kids. Buy it, and you just might find yourself scouring the stacks of the local Salvation Army for these artifacts of a vanished era.