Goosebumps, Gore, and Garish Cover Art: A Review of Paperbacks from Hell
The reader has undoubtedly heard, ad infinitum, that one should not judge a book by its cover. The reader also undoubtedly knows their eyes (and the rest of their senses) don’t obey this rule. Cover art is important, not just in selling the book to the reader, but in affecting how one ultimately feels about a book, especially as its contents fade into memory, while certain visual elements on the cover (things like color, especially) become strong nostalgic cues that sometimes elicit more vivid emotions than the stories themselves. I’ve not only judged books by their covers, but I’ve sometimes forgotten the contents of books while becoming more enamored of the paintings and drawings on the covers that claimed an especially feverish hold on my imagination. This was especially true when I was a boy discovering the likes of Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton.
I remember in the fourth grade I was obsessed with the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, which served as a kind of compliment to the eerie and well-made Are you afraid of the Dark? series that used to run on Nickelodeon. There was a bit of a renaissance on the Nickelodeon network back in those days, with the surreal and transgressive Ren & Stimpy and its commitment to detailed painterly close-up images of boogers in nostrils and rubber-nipples on knee-garters. This is to say nothing of Pete and Pete, the preteen equivalent of the grownup go-to quirky TV show of the era Twin Peaks
My favorite in the Goosebumps series was Let’s Get Invisible. It’s a story whose contents I’ve forgotten but whose cover featuring a boy dissolving in front of a mirror, a la Marty McFly, looms large in my mind. Part of that could be that I remember how my fourth-grade teacher came by my desk to inspect the ridged lettering on the cover of the book one day during class, dragging her long fingernail along the foil ridges that gave the Goosebumps title the literal feel of gooseflesh. I got my first boner that I can remember that day. A boy doesn’t forget things like that.
Minimalist, tasteful covers have their place (Black Sparrow put out some wonderfully understated poetry volumes in handsome, cork-bound editions before Ecco obtained the imprint) but those aren’t the kind of books under discussion in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, a tour-de-force marriage of images and lively text that becomes that rarest of all gems: a coffee-table book that’s as informative as it is gorgeous to behold.
Herr Hendrix writes very well, in a funny and accessible tone, and he is not only knowledgeable about the horror industry and the writers and artists who labored in it. He is also passionate in his belief that those nerds among us who seek these books out from bargain bins and secondhand stores are not just wasting our time with trashy, disposable literature; we are rescuing and hopefully preserving the art of a class of craftsmen and craftswomen who’s denigrated, ignored, or forgotten works are worth honorable reassessment. Hendrix could have adopted a totally camp approach to the books he’s talking about, and given them a good skewering (and sometimes he does), but he’s not a snob or a cynic. He’s a believer in what he’s writing about and sharing with the reader.
The book is well-structured, with chapters devoted to different themes. There’s a section on the proliferation of books on the Satanic and occult that enjoyed great vogue after Charles Manson (thankfully now departed) and his group of followers committed the Tate-LaBianca murders and proved there was a dark, destructive obverse side to the sunny Age of Aquarius that so many were sure would soon be ushered in. Mr. Hendrix does a good job of showing how original and creative practitioners of horror who gave us works like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby redefined the genre, which in turn stimulated artists’ imaginations in new ways. This of course led to slews of knockoffs, rip-offs, and books branded In the Tradition of (fill in the blank) or More Terrifying than (fill in the blank). Rarely if ever were the successors and imitators as good as the books they mimicked (or cashed in on), and the fact that these subsequent books marketed themselves in imitation of their forebears only proves the permanence of a tale like The Exorcist compared to the easily forgotten money-grabs that cropped up in its wake.
Books by horror stalwarts are featured in the pages of Paperbacks from Hell, but lesser-known and fascinating works by writers whose disturbing and sometimes brilliant work got buried in the midlist are also now awaiting rediscovery thanks to Hendrix’s diligent digging. In fact, if one were so inclined, one could spend a year or two tracking down all the books mentioned in Paperbacks and acquainting themselves with a forgotten wellspring of gory, creative, and sometimes wondrous creations. These authors cranked out material for the supermarket rack at a white-heat clip, but they also managed to do some very good work as mass market subalterns, while the more literary-minded looked down their noses at these brave and intrepid souls laboring in the trenches.
Since the best horror books marry the fears of the moment with those of a more eternal nature, one could learn quite a bit of history just by taking this tour with Mr. Hendrix. Books about nuclear war and mutants obviously reflect the fear of mutually-assured annihilation during the Cold War (resurgent now due to Kim Jong Un’s bellicose missile tests), but less obvious anxieties are unearthed (literally) when eldritch medicine men emerge from Indian burial grounds to exact revenge on the Europeans living in America, reminding us that the relative peace and prosperity of the American Dream was built on the realization of a nightmare for the indigenous peoples here before we arrived. Or sometimes when houses were built on Indian burial grounds and the walls in the living room started to bleed and the appliances flew free from the walls, it was Middle America’s way of grappling with fears of a monthly mortgage nut that couldn’t be met.
The book ends on a bit of a down note, as Hendrix documents how the bottom fell out of the market after the Splatter Punk genre had run its leather-clad, sadomasochistic gender-bending course. The little fish who could have made decent livings writing short stories in the days of the men’s magazines couldn’t even manage to recoup the cost of their advances before publishers sent their books to be pulped.
Grady Hendrix’s examination stops before the print-on-demand revolution gave the little guy or a gal another fighting chance to scare readers silly, with or without the backing of agents, hefty advances, or large publishing houses. This independence opened the market back up, but may have unfortunately opened it a bit too wide, as the books from the talented mavericks who use guerilla marketing now get mixed in with titles by people whose only talent (aside from cribbing and recycling the ideas of others) is making it harder for the indies with talent to have their voices heard amid the democratized din in which crap and gold carry the same price tag. My advice to writers with talent: find a talented cover artist. Oh, and support the talented and diligent author Grady Hendrix by buying two copies of Paperbacks from Hell, one for you and one as a Christmas gift for friends who don’t mind a little something macabre for the Yuletide. It’s probably the most enjoyable reading experience I’ve had all year, and considering this is December, it is most likely to remain at the top of my year-end list.
Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix, available from Quirk Books. 256 Pages.
***** of ***** Rats with Wings