Horror novel fans are in for a nostalgic treat when they pick up Paperbacks From Hell, a new book by Grady Hendrix that thoroughly examines the 1970s and 1980s explosion of horror fiction. An aficionado of the genre and author of novels Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Hendrix provides fascinating backstories for the era’s delightfully twisted and often demented books. The many talented artists who helped make library and bookstore shelves far more eye-catching—with sexy, gruesome and sometimes hilarious cover illustrations—also get their due. Sure, the 1990s had R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, but those kid-friendly books were child’s play compared with the pulp-publishing madness that the 1970s and 1980s delivered. One particularly memorable paperback that Hendrix looks at is John Christopher’s The Little People, which stars whip-swinging devilish Nazi leprechauns. Alien pregnancies, sex-crazed demons, man-eating animals and insects—you name it, the 1970s and 1980s horror section had it. Hendrix writes about it all in spectacular detail, accompanied by sensational imagery—Paperbacks From Hell includes hundreds of full-color covers and illustrations.
Some of these old horror-fiction gems were published by the now-defunct Playboy Press. In 1976, Hendrix writes, Playboy Press “began targeting female readers with horror novels and bodice rippers.” For an exclusive look at some of these old Playboy Press book covers, check out the gallery below.
We caught up with Hendrix and talked to him about his favorite horror novel art, which books he’d like to see translated to film and why you should always judge a book by its cover.
You once bought a copy of The Little People solely for its crazy cover art. There’s that old saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Do horror book covers from the 1970s and 1980s make it hard to follow that rule?
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is supposed to apply only to serial killers—as in “We were getting married in three weeks and then the police dug up his backyard. Oh well, don’t judge a book by its cover.” Books should 100 percent be judged by their covers, and the fact that this advice has been misapplied to books accounts for the drastic decline in the awesomeness of book covers since the early 1990s.
You describe H.W. Hocherman’s The Gilgul as not living up to the promise of its cover. Out of all the books you include in Paperbacks From Hell, which has the best cover, but worst story?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. The Gilgul cover features a one-of-a-kind sculpted screaming lizard-faced bride by artist Jim Thiesen—so unless the book inside was The Great Gatsby, there’s no way anything could live up to it. And The Gilgul features said bride spraying black breast milk, so it has its own charms. Probably the one book that didn’t deliver for me is The Christmas Babies, which promises evil Yuletide infants on the cover and then doesn’t even take place at Christmas. Silent tears slid down my face while I read that one.
What’s your favorite book-cover art of all time?
You have to approach this from two directions. For sheer, jaw-dropping majesty, it doesn’t get any better than illustrator Hector Garrido’s Nazi leprechauns spilling out of an Irish castle on the cover of The Little People. For technical prowess, I’d have to go with Jeffrey Catherine Jones’s covers for The Guardians series, which are beautiful pieces that look like Frank Frazetta doing art nouveau.
Out of all the talented artists mentioned in the book, do you have a favorite?
It’s hard to pick, but there is no arguing the fact that William Teason should be considered one of America’s great illustrators, yet the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. And George Ziel’s covers, cloaked in a suffocating Gothic miasma, are drop-dead gorgeous.
Ghost-werewolf sex, clashing armies of insane toys, an unholy obsession with anal violation—I don’t know about you, but that spells ‘summer blockbuster’ to me.
What horror book from the 1970s or 1980s would you like to see translated to the big screen?
I really want to see Pixar tackle William W. Johnstone’s Toy Cemetery. They did so well with the Toy Story movies that I feel like it would be just one small step for them to make Toy Cemetery and bring Johnstone’s world of ghost-werewolf sex, clashing armies of insane toys, a town held hostage by heavy metal music and the bestial products of incest—and his unholy obsession with anal violation—to the big screen. I don’t know about you, but that spells “summer blockbuster” to me.
VHS art from the 1980s has plenty of parallels to book art of the same time. Have you considered doing a book on VHS horror covers?
I’d love to, but it’s been done really well by Tom Hodge.
Your knowledge of horror fiction seems so comprehensive, it gives the impression that you live in a museum filled with hundreds of books and posters. Is that correct?
If by “museum” you mean a tiny hovel bulging with moldering mass-market paperbacks that rise up over my head in tottering towers that threaten to crush me if I make the slightest misstep or any sudden moves, then yes. I live in a museum.
Is nostalgia for old horror tales partly responsible for the resurgence of 1980s-flavored pop culture creations such as Stranger Things?
Absolutely. These books leapt off drugstore racks and stabbed us in the brain at an early age, inspiring a generation of writers, and filmmakers, and graphic designers. These covers were our primal traumas and the stuff of our earliest nightmares. Pick a word—“influenced,” “haunted,” “scarred”—they did all that to us and more. And we loved it.
You’ve described illustrated covers like the ones featured in Paperbacks From Hell as part of a dying art. Are there any current artists you’d like to give a shout out to who are keeping this old-school style alive?
A lot of the original artists are still working—Jill Bauman, Les Edwards, Lisa Falkenstern, Tom Hallman. The artists didn’t go away, the books did. But there are also younger artists; Marc Schoenbach does poster art in this style, and it looks amazing. I’m not sure why he doesn’t get more work.
The Closed Circle, 1976; The Transformation, 1976; The Haven, 1976
The Hunters, 1978; The Sibling, 1979; Mind War, 1979
Rhea, 1980; Shadows, 1980; The Desecration of Susan Browning, 1981
The Woman Next Door, 1981; Nursery Tale, 1982; The Shaman, 1982