In a show that was incessantly -- perhaps essentially? -- allusive, no reference in Netflix's Stranger Things seemed to strike the nostalgic chord in viewers quite so immediately as the title font. The stately, looming uppercase of the show's credits was a direct nod to 80s mass market horror paperbacks, very specifically to the line of Stephen King bricks that made that ITC Benguiat so ominous and ubiquitous. Allusions to specific 80s horror and sci-fi made for fun Easter egg hunting in Stranger Things, but the simple use of that font managed to evoke the spirit of that specific time and that specific fare better than any hairstyle or fanny pack.
My childhood was chockablock with these paperbacks -- Kings or otherwise. They overran my neighbourhood bookmobile, cairned toilet tanks of friends and relatives, choked the used bookstore that I frequented. I guess I was't quite old enough to be present at their initial arrival, as these books only ever seemed to be used. The shiny, embossed letters on the cover were always scuffed or torn, the fat spines were fissured and bowed from cranking open that tight binding, and the pages were somehow already jaundiced after just a few years. These books were treated like cheap books because they were cheap, and -- without bothering to pick them up until much later -- I just assumed that content was just as crumby.
Indeed, it was in the dollar boxes at a science fiction convention that author Grady Hendrix's obsession with these paperbacks started. Genre paperbacks from this stretch of publishing only ever seem to travel in hordes -- vast, nondescript brick walls that haven't been staggered. From that indistinguishable pack, Hendrix zeroed in on John Cristopher's 1966 novel The Little People, which featured cover art by Hector Garrido. A "novel of pure terror", The Little People concerns the Gestapochauns, "psychic Nazi leprechauns who enjoy S&M, are covered with scars from pleasure/pain sessions with their creator, who were trained as sex slaves for full-sized human men, and are in fact stunted fetuses taken from Jewish concentration camp victims. If something as outrageous as the Gestaopchaun could be plucked from a cheap muddle of paperbacks, Hendrix was left wondering, "What else has been forgotten?"
In Paperbacks From Hell, Hendrix individuates the glut of schlocky, shocking material produced between the late 60s and early 90s. The book is "a roadmap to [his] horror Narnia -- a weird, wild, wonderful world that feels totally alien today, and not just because of the trainloads of killer clowns. Written to be sold in drugstores and supermarkets, [these paperbacks] offered such uncut entertainment for casual readers, and their writers were not worried about causing offense... Though they may be consigned to dusty dollar boxes, these stores are timeless in the way that truly matters: they will not bore you. Thrown into the rough-and-tumble marketplace, the writers learned that they had to earn each reader's attention. Thus they delivered books that move, hit hard, take risks, go for broke."
Paperbacks From Hell is organized thematically, opening with the Satan craze of the 70s. Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist were so popular that they spawned an industry, creating such a glut that Hendrix's collation of all that followed feels like a public service. From those evil beginnings came books about evil kids, evil animals, evil houses, evil Gestapochauns. Hendrix's throughly tallies this bonanza like an arithomanic vampire bent over grains of salt. Though Paperbacks is presented as a catalogue to keep on the coffee table or toilet tank, it may very we become a gateway. Most of these tossed-off bargain books sound so good. You'll want to rush out to your nearest used bookstore or thrift store, eventually weighing your interest against your willingness to pay five dollar shipping on a one dollar book from AbeBooks.
Beyond the vast, wild, and esoteric reading list it'll leave you with, the immediate value of Hendrix's catalogue is the stunning, repulsive, full-colour reproductions of the inimitable cover art produced during the boom. This art makes for a surprisingly swift vehicle to pulp fiction's silver age. Ranging from the silly, to the trashy, to the weird, to the genuinely disturbing, the art of horror paperbacks was made to both have the book stand out from the teeming crowd of its peers and identify exactly how it fit into that crowd. The covers here are presented as rich art pieces which tell their own stories -- strange, tawdry, and macabre stories, but familiar ones. It's nice, too, to see artists who generally toil in anonymity get their due.
They don't make books like these any more -- they just reference them. Hendrix's own recent novel, My Best Friend's Exorcism, is mocked up like the VHS of some 80s slasher flick you'd rent from the corner store. Culturally, we're gaga for the 80s right now, but why read books and watch shows that reference the period when, for a couple bucks, you can grab a stack of yellowed, cracked-spine paperbacks and immerse yourself in the real deal? If you don't know where to start, Paperbacks From Hell will help you along.