"The books I love were published during the horror paperback boom that started in the late ‘60s after ROSEMARY'S BABY hit the big time … When’s the last time you read about Jewish monster brides, sex witches from the fourth dimension, flesh-eating moths, homicidal mimes, or golems stalking Long Island? Divorced from current trends in publishing, these out-of-print paperbacks feel like a breath of fresh air." – Grady Hendrix, Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80 Horror Fiction (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, ).
MODERN HORROR PAPERBACKS:THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE INSANE
Introduction by Boyd White
In his excellent overview of contemporary horror fiction in Neil Barron's Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet (1999), critic and scholar Stefan Dziemianowicz notes how the horror fiction boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s reflected the "the predominant moods and concerns of the [Vietnam] era," a period defined by "distrust of traditional political authority, the paranoia of the counterculture, the intransigence of the generation gap, the chaos of the protest movement, the moral ambiguities of the war in Asia, the upset of traditional race and gender roles through the civil rights and feminist movements, and the new morality fostered by the sexual revolution." Horror fiction of this period, as Dziemaianowicz emphasizes, resonated with audiences because it "assured readers that horror was a legitimate emotional response to personal betrayal, family dysfunction, loss of faith, emotional estrangement, and other personal and social issues that create in their narratives the sense of the individual overwhelmed by forces beyond his or her control." As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, horror fiction naturally reflected increased social and cultural anxieties about corporate greed, the growing class divide, urban decay, rapidly developing new technologies, and the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation. During these watershed decades, some of the most successful and influential subgenres of horror fiction steadily gained traction, particularly dark fantasy, small-town horror, urban horror, and dark suspense, each focused on exposing the terrors, both real and metaphoric, underneath our most deeply cherished ways of living.
The publication of Ira Levin's Rosemary Baby in 1967, a huge critical and commercial success, triggered the modern horror fiction boom, with William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971) and Thomas Tryon's The Other (1971) soon following, all three books first issued as hardcovers from major mainstream publishers. As massive bestsellers that claimed the top-spots on the New York Times Best-Seller List for weeks, these books established horror as a legitimate marketing category and genre with true literary merit. Likewise, the phenomenally successful mass market paperback editions of these novels, including their movie tie-ins, revealed a vast untapped market for paperback horror, as evidenced by the contrasting sales of hardcover and paperback editions of Stephen King’s Carrie (1974). While Doubleday's first hardcover printing of Carrie sold a modest 13,000 copies and remained in print for years, Signet/New American Library's paperback edition sold one million copies during its first year in print. As publishers strove to feed the public's increasing appetite for horror, ambitious works that had only limited success in hardcover, such as Herman Raucher's Maynard's House (1980) and Bari Woods' The Tribe (1981), found new life as paperbacks issued with often misleading ghastly covers and provocative blurbs, as did earlier classics, such as William Sloane's The Edge of Running Water (1939) and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), making them indistinguishable from the dozens of paperback originals that had begun flooding the market on an annual basis. The horror fiction boom also gave birth to a cottage industry of specialty presses, such as Dark Harvest and Scream/Press, devoted exclusively to publishing signed limited and trade hardcover editions of new writers. With as many as several hundred horror titles being published a year by the late 1980s, as Stefan Dziemanowicz astutely observes, the work of many excellent authors "was frequently in danger of being washed away by the tide of mediocre potboilers churned out by horror hacks and opportunists." As the market became oversaturated with product and the audience for horror fiction steadily dwindled, marketing departments and the reading public shifted their interests to dark crime, novels featuring serial killers and psychopaths, and by the mid-1990s, the horror fiction boom was over.
Grady Hendrix's deliriously delightful Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction (2017) celebrates the sublime ridiculousness of the packaging and marketing of horror paperbacks during this period. Hendrix's remarks about the industry conditions that produced so many paperback originals also underscores the over-the-top marketing approach for such books: "These books, written to be sold in drugstores and supermarkets, weren't worried about causing offense and possess a jocular, straightforward, 'let's get it on' attitude towards sex … Thrown into the rough and tumble marketplace, the writers learned they had to earn every reader's attention. And so they delivered books that move, hit hard, take risks, go for broke. It's not just the covers that hook your eyeballs. It's the writing, which respects no rules …" Not surprisingly, these books pushed our socio-political anxieties and fears to their outer limits. Brian McNaughton's Satan's Love Child (1977) stuns even the most jaded readers as Marcia Creighton, small-town journalist and mother of three, contends not only with her alcoholic husband but also a Satanic hippy orgy cult and a reanimated corpse. Alan Ryan's Dead White (1983) confronts audiences with a circus train of killer clowns terrorizing a snowbound Catskills community at Christmas. William W. Johnstone's Toy Cemetery (1987) tosses in the whole kitchen sink and then some as Vietnam vet Jay Clute battles Bruno Dixon, an obese pedophile who manufactures Satanic child pornography in a doll factory. Such books sported covers and publisher's blurbs as outrageous as their plots, an endless parade of scantily clad or nude women being tortured or killed, or engaging in unspeakable sex acts with the undead; innocent children about to be torn apart by rabid dogs, vicious cats, and killer rabbits with slavering jaws; broken dolls with glass-eyed stares and rictus grins clutching unsuspecting newborns in their cradles; and biological aberrations of varying size and shape slithering out of every imaginable orifice, smothering their victims with slime and viscera. In Joseph Nazel's The Black Exorcist (1974), "Voodoo rituals and human sacrifices spawned by a cult of Black devil worshippers grips a town in a nightmare of terror." Bob Randall's The Next (1981) teaches us how "Love can turn a boy into a man. But evil can do it faster." Richard Haugh's The Farm (1984) is "Where Gut-Crunching Bone-Grinding Terror Is The Only Crop." Russ Martin's The Possession of Jessica Young (1982) serves up "An Extraordinary Sensual Novel of Vast and Organized Evil." In our current highly politicized cultural climate, no publisher would dare touch any of these books, and it's hard to imagine them casually resting amidst the line-up of paperbacks in the ever-shrinking books section of the local Wal-Mart or an airport newsstand. The publication today of Jack Couffer's notorious Nights With Sasquatch (1977), which depicts on the cover Bigfoot carrying a terrified nude woman underneath the publisher's tease of "An Explosive Ordeal Of Rape And Revenge Beyond Any Woman's Experience," would lead to a social media feeding frenzy, public boycotts, and a few carefully orchestrated industry resignations.
Similar to the era of the shilling shocker in Victorian England that resulted in the publication of such classics as Vernon Lee's A Phantom Lover (1886), the tide of utterly disposable paperback originals published during the late 1960s to the mid-1990s fostered an environment that allowed a number of contemporary horror's most important and unique voices to get their fiction into print, masters of the genre whose significant contributions were unjustly overlooked at the time because they were subject to the same marketing techniques as their less reputable, more tawdry cousins. Charles L. Grant's The Nestling (1982), one of his most ambitious novels, draws upon Native American mythology as a small rural community in Wyoming's Wind River Valley is terrorized by a winged predator amidst the inhabitants' struggles with racial and cultural tensions. Dennis Etchison's Darkside (1986), routinely cited by horror scholars as one of the most significant depictions of post-Vietnam America, explores the relentless hold of a death cult on the teenagers of Beverly Hills. Lisa Tuttle's A Nest of Nightmares (1986) employs familiar horror tropes to examine gender identity and the psychological trauma endured by women negotiating familial and marital problems. A. R. Morlan's The Amulet (1991) and Dark Journey (1991) plunge us into the unsettling world of Ewerton, Wisconsin, a small town beset by supernatural forces that seem insignificant in comparison to the town's history of economic despair, alcoholism, incest, and domestic abuse. Michael McDowell's magnificent six-part Blackwater (1983) is as rich and complex as any Southern literature penned by McDowell's more literary contemporaries like Harry Crews and Bobbie Ann Mason, but his books' brooding, macabre cover designs and the publisher's blurbs emphasizing the apparently sensationalistic content of "Nature Gone Berzerk," "A Horrifying Revelation," "A Diabolical Birth," and "The Cold Bloody River" certainly did not result in Blackwater being properly evaluated as the complex, powerful modern Gothic it is. In the early 1990s, Dell's Abyss line, generally considered the last gasp of the paperback horror explosion, published significant works by new important female authors, such as Melanie Tem's Prodigal (1991) and Kathe Koja's The Cipher (1992). Other classics of contemporary horror from this period first published as paperback originals include Ramsey Campbell's The Face That Must Die (1979), Brian Talbot's The Delicate Dependency (1982), and Robert McCammon's Swan Song (1987).
Grady Hendrix appropriately laments the loss of creativity that coincided with the crash of the horror fiction market as mainstream publishers cut their horror lines and houses devoted solely to paperback originals, like Zebra Books, folded entirely--"A weird, wild, wonderful world that feels totally alien today … In these books from the s '70s and '80s, doctors swap smokes with patients while going over their ultrasounds, housewives are diagnosed as having 'too much imagination,' African-Americans are sometimes called 'negroes,' and parents swoon in terror at the suggestion they have a 'test tube baby.'" Like pulp magazines in the 1920s and 1930s, the no-holds-barred publishing approach to mass market paperback horror produced not only crap and classics, but also what we can now fully appreciate as "classic crap"--politically incorrect, distasteful, disgusting books that provide us with valuable glimpses into a profound part of our cultural past. That world is gone forever, much of it rightly so, but the paperbacks remain in all their lurid, insane glory. Real estate developers who build subdivisions with Satan. Killer teddy bears that wield bloody axes. Gay Indian warriors resurrected by twins with ESP. Stoned bulls that go on killing sprees with their enormous horns and penises. Corporate shareholders who perform dark rituals amidst the Gothic recesses of Manhattan skyscrapers. From trashcan terror to neglected masters, they're all here.Read More