Paperbacks from Hell-Featured_1200x630 / Fair use doctrine.

PRESENTATION: Grady Hendrix – Paperbacks from Hell

The event was held in a mausoleum.
The venue was PhilaMOCA, the Mausoleum of Contemporary Arts, a former showroom for tombstones and mausoleums in Philadelphia, and we were there for a presentation of Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstor and My Best Friend's Exorcism.
Grady-Hendrix-rev-My Best Friend's Exorcism / Fair use doctrine.All the lights went out except one red spotlight glowing over a podium on the stage at the front of the room. Grady Hendrix walked onto the stage, stepped into the spooky red light and, without preamble, read an excerpt from a book about a town besieged by a rain of maggots. It began quietly, with the creeping dread of a family seeing maggots covering their doorstep, their walkway, their front yard, their fence, unfurling outward over the countryside. It picked up a humorous cadence as Hendrix emphasized the author's constant repetition of the phrase “covered... with maggots,” since, clearly, the reader needs a complete inventory of every single thing that was covered... with maggots.
Hendrix brings up an image on the pull-down screen behind him of a screaming face, missing an eyeball and some skin, crawling with repulsive little white things. It's the cover of the book he's been reading from. You guessed it: Maggots.
Hendrix then gave historical context for the time period leading up to that masterpiece of the written word. For the first half of the 20th century, the horror genre had almost no significance. It provided no answer to the call of social upheaval and cultural change of the 1960s. Horror in the movies was the Gothic fare of the Hammer studios and on television; it was whimsical family comedies. Horror was absent from bestseller lists dominated by literary blockbusters like Catch-22, In Cold Blood, and Valley of the Dolls. Genre fiction was westerns, Gothic romances, and reissues of Tarzan and Conan adventure pulps from decades prior.
In 1971, Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, and Thomas Tryon's The Other were all on bestseller lists and were all adapted into hugely successful movies. They generated multitudes of novels about Satan and the occult, branded with blurbs comparing them to one or more of the aforementioned three. Novels that weren't actually about Satanism were given descriptions, or at least covers, that hinted at something devilish. That trinity of novels had gotten horror taken seriously, and the ensuing imitations rode the wave of the trendy Satanic panic.
On the heels of that craze, the success of The Exorcist inspired David Seltzer to write the movie The Omen, and a novelization of the movie that spawned its own franchise and inspired scores of books about children who were possessed by demons, gifted with supernatural powers, or just generally evil. They didn't even have to be in existence to be menacing. The availability of birth control, the legalization of abortion, and the first “test tube baby” born through IVF led to misinformation, speculation, and, consequently, paranoia. There were books about evil embryos, mutant fetuses, and macabre advancements in any medical technology involving fertility.
Next were the things beyond man's law or control: animals. Peter Benchley's Jaws, Stephen King's Cujo, and James Herbert's The Rats were successful novels that took people's fears of sharks, rabid dogs, and rats and built upon them in ways that were somewhat plausible and wholly terrifying. After that, countless authors utilized every available mammal, amphibian, and insect in their plots. Hendrix displayed covers of horror novels about whales, jungle cats, farm animals, all manner of bugs and crustaceans, both normal-sized and mutated to gigantic proportions: a murderous menagerie dedicated solely to wiping out the human race.
Anne Rice-Vampire-Chronicles-the-wrap / Fair use doctrine.He crossed over to the 1980s and touched on horror subgenres like hackneyed haunted house novels and outlandish medical thrillers. Hendrix also focused on two of the best-selling authors of the 1980s: Anne Rice and VC Andrews. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles explored the existential dread of the elegant, indulgent undead. VC Andrews only wrote a handful of novels in her lifetime: lurid and scandalous family dramas in sinister Gothic settings. The success of her first novel, Flowers in the Attic created a legacy that was carried on by Andrew Neiderman who has been “ghostwriting” novels under her name since her death in 1986.VC Andrews-Flowers in the Attic / Fair use doctrine.
Horror fiction's success continued uninhibited throughout the decade. Dozens of publishers flooded the market with books nonstop, publishing anything horror, particularly supernatural.
Then, in 1988, Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs came out and won the World Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award, proclaiming itself the leader of the bloodthirsty pack. The novel and the film adaptation a few years later changed the readers' and publishers' demand from the improbable menace of the paranormal to the entirely possible threat of serial killers. Book covers and content became darker and more sadistic. Many writers didn't adapt to the changing climate or were dropped by publishers who wanted to thin the herd. The horror genre went dormant like a folkloric beast with no peasant population to feed on. “Horror” morphed to “thriller” if it wanted to sell.
The horror fiction of the 70s and 80s was not subtle. The book covers Hendrix showed in the PowerPoint presentation became indistinguishable, using and reusing things like occult imagery, skeletons, broken dolls, evil clowns, and spooky big-eyed children. Plots were derivative or outrageous to the point of self-parody. Hendrix read detailed synopses of several books whose plots and writing didn't just border on ludicrous, they smashed through the boundaries with convoluted storylines, outlandish events, bizarre deviances, clichéd characters, and bad dialogue. The unintentional hilarity wasn't just in the content of the books but in the fact that many of them even got published in the first place.
Ken Greenhall-Lenoir / Fair use doctrine.Despite that, the presentation was as much tribute as it was satire. He went into detail about the lives of some of the artists who painted the covers and the writers who persevered to remain relevant today as well as those who unfairly faded into obscurity. The biggest injustice, Hendrix stressed, was the underwhelming career of Ken Greenhall, whose skill as a writer was comparable to any big name, if not better. He wrote several stunning horror novels but was never considered distinguished from his contemporaries and was moved to smaller and smaller publishing houses. His final book was Lenoir, a historical novel inspired by the model for Peter Paul Rubens' Four Studies of the Head of a Negro. Greenhall's attempt to transcend genres was torn apart by critics and, according to Hendrix's interview with Greenhall's widow, that destroyed his confidence as a writer.Peter Paul Rubens-Four Studies of the Head of a Negro / Fair use doctrine.
Hendrix urged the audience to read books by Greenhall, as well as any other writer whose work he had featured in the presentation, in hopes that, even if the writer or cover artist is no longer living, their contribution to the history of horror fiction will not be forgotten and they will live on through their PAPERBACKS FROM HELL.Grady Hendrix-Paperbacks From Hell-cover / Fair use doctrine.

Posted by Laura D. James

Laura D. James has written two novels – Revenge in Blood, and Demon Flesh – and is the co-author of the horror-themed children’s book series Spooky Skwerl Stories, all of which are available on Amazon. She lives in New Jersey and enjoys metal concerts and true crime podcasts.

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