Thursday, April 19, 2018

Paperbacks From Hell: The sweet smell of rot

The mass-market horror paperback novels of the 1970s and 1980s were, by their very definition, disposable. They were designed to be read once on boring commutes or long flights, usually by somebody who was a bit embarrassed to be reading something so crass, and then discarded. Nobody ever went for literary immortality by writing about giant killer crabs.

The books have had a long half-life in second hand bookstores over the years, but nobody really collects this stuff - absolutely nobody is hugely interested in The Collected Works of Shaun Hutson - and they are slowly starting to rot away, out of both physical existence and their place in the history of the novel.

But they're not totally forgotten, not when there are books like Grady Hendrix's recent Paperback From Hell, which traces the history of this sordid sub-genre from its birth from a flailing romance book industry, through to a quiet end as any kind of cultural force somewhere in the 1990s.

Hendrix is undoubtedly enthusiastic about all the nasty shit that showed up on bookshelves over the years, but also doesn't hesitate to point out that there is a lot that is insanely problematic about many of these books - they often dish up lashings of rampant sexism and homophobia, and frequently veer into outright and unmistakable misogyny.

But there are also crazy, mind-bending ideas and plots that are totally bonkers and utterly unpredictable, and loads and loads of gorgeous cover art from the likes of the astonishing Jill Bauman or the iconic Jim Thiesen.

A lot of people would argue that there is no way these books can be intellectually or morally healthy for anybody, but I devoured this kind of thing when I was in my teens, and other than the usual despair over our meaningless existences in this vast and cold universe, I think I turned out okay.

So many of the sub-genres Hendrix exhumes from their literary graves for Paperbacks From Hell are queasily familiar - there are all the books about heavy metal-laced satanic cults, and novels about the horror lurking beneath the pastel surface of stifling suburbia (a theme that is always massively disturbing in its banality). There are novels about alien abductions, killer hospitals, haunted houses, collapsing cities, creepy-ass children, and sick, demented twists on the usual vampires and werewolves.

There were slightly less gory books for young adults and some surprisingly hardcore novels for snobby adults who were above all that unpleasantness, but didn't mind digging into Silence of the Lambs when it was marketed as a thriller. There were blockbuster chills from authors like King and Barker, and a huge numbers of books about nature gone wrong, with killer rabbits, bees, ants, slugs, pigs, dogs and cats. (I always had an inexplicable soft spot for Guy N Smith's Crabs novels, but James Herbert's Rats books were the undeniable best.)

All these nightmares - and many, many more - are lurking within the pages of Paperbacks From Hell, and it's a compelling compendium of these gruesome tomes, while never taking these things too seriously.

These objects have a half-life of about 30 years, and are even starting to disappear from the faded shelves and deep backrooms of second hand bookstores, (also, second-hand stores are disappearing themselves as the secondary markets go online). But there will always be some glorious freak who is determined to get their hands on every book in the Satan Sleuth series, and plenty of others who are happy just to read about them instead.

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