Paperbacks from Hell

Tomorrow night (Tues, 9/19) at Film Noir Cinema (122 Meserole Ave), the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies presents NYC-based author, performer and miscreant Grady Hendrix, who will chat about his latest book, Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, followed by a panel discussion with the talented artists behind some of the most disturbing horror novel covers of all time. After trolling the shelves of secondhand shops and used bookstores, Grady was inspired to pen a detailed history of horror fiction’s big boom in the late ’70s and early-to-mid ’80s. Three big-hit books kicked off the popular category: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Other. Prior to that, “Horror was not a genre,” says Grady.

After their colossal success, publishers saw a ripe new market, and a moneymaking opportunity—and the crazy cover graphics were essentially advertisements for the books themselves. Some of the smaller horror publishers couldn’t afford B-list or even C-list writers, so they’d put all of their budgets into hiring the best cover artists. “They knew the one chance they had to sell this book was the cover art,” Grady says. “You want to stand out… and you’ve got one chance.” And the more over-the-top the cover art was, the better. Grady’s seen ’em all: from a skeleton delivering mail to Nazi leprechauns to killer crabs, horror art was definitely having its heyday.

Grady says that a lot of the artists prided themselves on reading the full manuscript before doing the cover, but that the publishing house’s art directors were the real superstars. “Their gut was considered gold,” he says. The art directors would come up with the cover concepts, draw up some rough sketches and hand them over to the artists who would hand-paint the covers.  “You wanted a crazier concept, more over the top violence,” whatever would hook readers. A book had six months to become a hit, or it went to the shredder. In those days, publishers would receive tax credits on unsold inventory. So they didn’t totally lose out by printing too many books. Grady says that by the end of the ’80s, a hundred million books were shredded per year.

And despite many people thinking of pulp horror as a disposable genre, Grady says that there are some surprising gems in the mix, and that the insane subject matter of the book was really not an indicator of how good the writing was. He cites the Blackwater series by Michael McDowell as an example–a story about people who are married to river monsters—and says that the writing is actually beautiful and tremendously moving.


And sometimes the most demented books were absurdly horribly written. Grady mentions the book The Searing, with one of the more ridiculous premises: it’s about aliens from the far side of the galaxy who make women have spontaneous orgasms that cause their brains to melt. The summary of the book on Amazon reads—”Her body seemed out of her control … her hips and pelvis jumped involuntarily, thrust forward, as the warm blood burst through her body … Another shuddering. Another rage of thick pleasure … And then, just as suddenly, it was over …

As their frequency and ferocity increased, the women of Renaissance Village became terrorized by these inexplicable ‘attacks.'” One of the reviewers says, “There were spats of good writing here and there, but too many times a woman was ‘weeping’ and the climax (literally! Get it – climax!) was just completely lame.”

You can catch Grady and horror artists Jill Bauman, Lisa Falkenstern and Thomas Hallman at Film Noir tomorrow night (9/19) at 7pm.

Killer Crabs, 1979.

WHAT: The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies: PAPERBACKS FROM HELL
WHEN: Tuesday September 19th – 7pm-9:30pm
WHERE: Film Noir Cinema – 122 Meserole Ave
TIX: Admission $12 advance / $15 door

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