Once upon a time — about 40 years ago — there were few things as terrifyingly pulpy as the books at the supermarket checkout: fat paperbacks with crazy covers and titles like Eat Them Alive, The Face That Must Die and Crabs: The Human Sacrifice. This was lowbrow stuff, and Grady Hendrix, the author of Paperbacks from Hell, has read a lot of it.
His new book is an appreciation (sort of?) of horror fiction from the '70s and '80s — things like man-eating frogs, satanic sex cults and, of course, Nazi leprechauns, which, Hendrix tells me, were kind of the start of everything.
"I sort of was a film guy originally, and in film there's this real tradition, going out and finding really obscure movies no one's heard about and showing them to people to sort of blow their minds, and I didn't see this happening so much with books," he says. "So I was going through a dealer's bin looking for something, you know, that would grab my attention, a place to start. And I came across The Little People by John Christopher ... and it is quite literally a book about a castle in Ireland being turned into a B&B, and the big problem is Nazi leprechauns in the basement."
On the history of the horror paperback boom
Before 1967, horror didn't exist as a genre in fiction. If a book was scary, they'd call it a thriller or a suspense novel, or an adventure or suspense-adventure novel. Then in '67, Rosemary's Baby [by Ira Levin] came out and was a huge, huge hit, and then in '71, you had The Other by Thomas Tryon and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty that both hit the New York Times best-seller list on the same week. ... That's when publishers said, "Oh look, horror — and especially in paperback — moves copies."
On the appeal of horror paperbacks in the '70s and '80s
In the early '70s, I think part of the appeal of these books is [that] they were written fast and without a lot of pretensions, and so in doing that, these authors were kind of capturing the time in which they were writing. And so you had in the early '70s, late '60s, all this fascination with the occult. Astrology was big, Time magazine had two covers that were like, "The New Age occult craze in America" and also there was a fear of our children — "What is this rock music and this LSD and this 'Summer of Love'? Surely there must be a dark side there."
And so these books really reflected a lot of where we were at the times and answered a lot of questions, and the answer to most of the questions was, "Yes, be very, very afraid of everything." Jellyfish, mattresses, curtains, dogs, moths, caterpillars, children, dolls, clowns, puppets. But at least they were answers.
On the end of the horror paperback era
So basically, what happened is two things. One was the publishing industry was just in a spin. They were churning out more and more paperbacks more and more quickly, and there was less and less money out there and less and less readers.
But the other thing was, within the horror industry, publishers were in an arms race with each other for readers' eyeballs, and they thought (and I think mistakenly) that the way to do that was with really lurid covers, to the point at which a lot of the cover artists, like Lisa Falkenstern — who painted more skeletons than there probably are skeletons in the graveyards around the world — she actually left horror and moved to romances because she just said everything was gory and gross.
There were artists who didn't want to paint another decapitated woman, another dismembered woman, another murdered woman because women were the targets for a lot of these books, and people began to associate horror with cheap misogynistic gore, and the books looked cheap, they were made fast, and the bubble burst.
This story was produced for the radio by Melissa Gray and Gabe O'Connor, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, there were few things as terrifyingly pulpy as the books at the grocery store checkout, those thick paperbacks with crazy covers and titles like "Eat Them Alive," "The Face That Must Die" and "Crabs: The Human Sacrifice." I mean, this was low-brow stuff.
And Grady Hendrix has read a lot of it. He is the author of a new book called "Paperbacks From Hell." It's an appreciation, I guess, of horror fiction that boomed in the '70s and '80s. We're talking man-eating frogs, satanic sex cults and, of course...
GRADY HENDRIX: Like so many things, Nazi Leprechauns were at the root of this.
MCEVERS: Not just regular leprechauns - Nazi leprechauns. Grady Hendrix says these little guys are actually how "Paperbacks From Hell" got started. He recently told me all about it when he came to the studio here at NPR West.
HENDRIX: What happened was I sort of was a film guy originally. And in film, there's this real tradition - going out and finding really obscure movies no one's heard about and showing them to people to sort of blow their minds. And I didn't see this happening so much with books. And so I was going through a dealer's bin, looking for something, you know, that would grab my attention, a place to start. And I came across "The Little People" by John Christopher with this beautiful Hector Garrido cover of this Irish castle bursting open like a pinata and instead of candy disgorging this stream of Nazi leprechauns who are also wielding bullwhips, as you would expect. You know, they're small. They got to have something to even the scales.
HENDRIX: And it is quite literally a book about a castle in Ireland being turned into a B and B. And the big problem is Nazi leprechauns in the basement.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) So the boom started in the '60s, but it was really in its heyday, these paperbacks, in the '70s and '80s. Explain how that boom in paperbacks like this started.
HENDRIX: Before 1967, horror didn't exist as a genre in fiction. If a book was scary they'd call it a thriller or a suspense novel. And then in '67 "Rosemary's Baby" came out and was a huge, huge hit. And shortly thereafter the movie came out. And then in '71 you had "The Other" by Thomas Tryon and "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty that both hit The New York Times best-seller list on the same week and were on that list for 24 weeks together...
HENDRIX: ...And then 56 weeks for "The Exorcist." That's when publishers said, oh, look; horror, and especially in paperback, moves copies.
MCEVERS: So it sounds like the sort of satanic fascination was the early part of the boom. And you've got other categories in your book, some really interesting ones. There's creepy kids - who could forget "The Omen"? Another theme is when animals attack, "Jaws," of course, being the most well-known of these. Could you run me through some other titles in that category? There are some really...
HENDRIX: Sure. I mean, animals attack is my favorite category. I love the idea that animals have just had it with us. You know, they're done.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) It's just like, I'm going to eat everyone.
HENDRIX: Exactly. And so '74 was the year "Jaws" came out and became a best-seller, but also the same year "The Rats" came out in the U.K., which actually...
MCEVERS: "The Rats."
HENDRIX: "The Rats." That's James Herbert. And he wrote "The Rats" and the following year a book called "The Fog" about a killer bacteria. It was also the year punk broke. And "The Rats" had a huge impact. It was a really anti-class - rats are coming out - it's like the return of the repressed in London. They're swarming up out of the poorer parts of town, and they're eating everyone - rich people, poor people, government ministers, everyone. And it's up to this sort of blue-collar art teacher in a tough inner-city school. He doesn't tolerate red tape. He doesn't tolerate bureaucrats. You know, and he's the only person who really stands a chance against the rats. And it's an angry, angry book. But it really lit a fuse. And England became sort of ground zero for these animal attack books. Sort of as Japan is to giant monsters in movies - like, they can't get enough of attacking Japan - animals can't stop attacking Britain in these books.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Give me some other examples.
HENDRIX: Oh, sure. I mean, "The Crabs" (ph) that you mentioned earlier...
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right, yeah.
HENDRIX: Guy N. Smith's five-volume "The Crabs" about killer crabs coming up in southern England. There's a whole chunk of rabies fear novels where someone goes to France and inevitably they bring back a dog and break British quarantine. And the dog is a French dog that has rabies.
MCEVERS: Those French dogs.
HENDRIX: Oh, my God, they're the worst. And it destroys England. Killer maggots in the book "Maggots."
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Yes.
HENDRIX: There's two different books about jellyfish, which I think of as sort of aimlessly drifting sea creatures that sting you. No, they are actually man-hating killer homicidal beasts from the sea.
MCEVERS: Well, yeah.
HENDRIX: Yeah. They get into the water system in one of the books. So people will turn on their bath, and instead of filling up with water their tub will fill up with jellyfish and...
MCEVERS: Wow, nice. That's...
HENDRIX: Yeah. You know, if you don't test the water before you get the bath...
MCEVERS: That's going to hurt.
MCEVERS: What is it about these books that people liked so much?
HENDRIX: In the early '70s, I think part of the appeal of these books is they were written fast and without a lot of pretensions. And so in doing that, these authors were kind of capturing the time in which they were writing. And so you had in the early '70s, late '60s all this fascination with the occult. Astrology was big. Time magazine had two covers that were like, the new-age occult craze in America. And also there was fear of our children. What is this rock music and this LSD and this summer of love? Surely there must be a dark side there. And so these books really reflected a lot of where we were and answered a lot of questions. And the answer to most of the questions was, yes, be very, very afraid of everything.
MCEVERS: Right. Right.
HENDRIX: Jellyfish. Mattresses. Curtains. Dogs. Moths. Caterpillars. Children. Dolls. Clowns. Puppets. But at least they were answers.
MCEVERS: What made the boom - like, what brought about the end of this?
HENDRIX: So basically what happened is two things. One was the publishing industry was in a spin. They were churning out more and more paperbacks more and more quickly, and there was less and less money out there and less and less readers. But the other thing was within the horror industry publishers were in an arms race with each other for readers' eyeballs. And they thought, and I think mistakenly, that the way to do that was with really lurid covers to the point at which a lot of the cover artists like Lisa Falkenstern, who painted more skeletons than there probably are skeletons in graveyards around the world, she actually left horror and moved to romances because she just said everything was gory and gross.
There were artists who didn't want to paint another decapitated woman, another dismembered woman because women were the targets for a lot of these books. And people began to associate horror with cheap, misogynistic gore. And the books looked cheap. They were made fast. And the bubble burst.
MCEVERS: So we don't have this genre of books really called horror, but do you see things today that would have fit perfectly in that genre in the '60s, '70s and '80s?
HENDRIX: Yeah, today what's happened is the fallout from the horror bubble bursting. Horror's a word you want to scrape off the spine of your book and put on thriller because thrillers sell. So today you have people like Gillian Flynn - "Gone Girl," "Dark Places," "Sharp Objects." She's a horror writer. And she would have been marketed as a horror writer in 1989. But she's marketed as a thriller writer now. All the domestic thrillers - you know, a woman bumps her head and wakes up 39 years later married to a man. Who is this man? Is he trying to murder me? Or she can't remember the day before. Or she's holding her child's hand in the park and he goes missing, and somehow is her husband perhaps to blame? Those are gothics.
MCEVERS: So this - what you're saying is this pulpy horror has not gone away. As much as we can sort of laugh at the past, it's still with us now.
HENDRIX: Oh, it's almost like a magic eye picture. Everything looks normal, and then if you sort of squint at the bookshelves from the right perspective you realize they're teeming with horror novels. They're just called something different and have less lurid covers.
MCEVERS: Grady Hendrix, thank you so much.
HENDRIX: Thanks for having me.
MCEVERS: Grady Hendrix. His gleeful and thorough appreciation of horror novels from the '70s and '80s is called "Paperbacks From Hell."
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