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Oklahoman book review: ‘Paperbacks from Hell’ brings 20th century horror back from the dead


“Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction” by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books, 256 pages, in stores)

The moment I saw the opening credits of Netflix’s breakout horror drama, “Stranger Things,” I knew I was going to like the show. All I needed to see was the font used to spell out the title. That alone told me the series was going to be set in the 1980s; the accompanying music and images cemented the accuracy of that observation.

Many viewers probably had a warm reaction to that typeface, even if they didn’t recall why. As collider.com points out, the font is called ITC Benguiat, and it was used on horror novels throughout the ‘80s, including several by Stephen King. (Oddly enough, the British post-punk group the Smiths used it in 1987 on the cover of their final album, “Strangeways, Here We Come,” which is one of my all-time favorite records.)

“Stranger Things,” which returns for a second season on Friday, features four young boys and a girl named Eleven, who has telekinetic powers. The entire series, like the upcoming film “Ready Player One,” is an homage to all things ‘80s, making it immediately attractive to Generation X.

I felt the same pull of familiarity when I saw Grady Hendrix’s new book, “Paperbacks from Hell.” The book examines the themes and artwork of ‘70s and ‘80s horror novels, which were big sellers back then; bookstores had whole sections devoted to horror. Hendrix’s focus is largely on cover art, which predated Photoshop and had to be painted by hand.

The book includes 350 color reproductions of such covers, the majority of which have been forgotten by history. Not by me, though. As a young teen, I spent most of my allowance on books. New ones weren’t the best options, because I’d finish them in a day and then have to wait a week for a new read. Used books were my bag, as long as the spines weren’t so badly broken that pages were in danger of falling out.

I remember many of the covers in Hendrix’s book because I owned many of the novels. Others I recall from the shelves at a Pennsylvania used bookstore. You may remember some of them, too, like the white letters splashed diagonally from the bottom left to the upper right on a red background, spelling out the words “Rosemary’s Baby,” or the extended, barbed prong of the H in Jay Anson’s “The Amityville Horror,” which looks like a devil’s tail. (If you want to argue that Anson’s book is nonfiction, do a little digging; the supposedly true story has been thoroughly debunked.)

Today’s books tend to feature a central image and relatively small titles and author’s names. That’s not true in every case; megaselling authors sometimes have covers dominated by their names. Stephen King is as bankable now as he was in the ‘80s, so the title is far less important in attracting readers than King’s name is.

In ‘70s and ‘80s horror, some book covers were text dominant and others emphasized (frequently bizarre) artwork. Generally, the fonts were bolder and bigger, sitting at odd angles or warping to surround an image. F. Paul Wilson’s “The Keep,” for example, pictures a rounded tower viewed from ground level; the title wraps around the tower to stick with its circular shape. (Wilson’s book was made into a fairly shoddy 1983 horror movie starring Scott Glenn and directed by Michael Mann.)

Over the past few years, Hendrix has authored two innovative horror novels: “Horrorstör” and “My Best Friend’s Exorcism.” He approaches 20th century genre fiction with a historian’s eye and a comic’s sense of humor and timing. While it’s clear he takes his job seriously, it’s equally evident that he wants people to read the book, not just look at the fascinating covers.

He breaks the book down into a series of chapters:

•“Hail Satan,” which considers the impact “The Exorcist” film had on subsequent possession novels.

•“Creepy Kids,” such as David Seltzer’s “The Omen” and Laird Koenig’s “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.”

•“When Animals Attack,” such as Arthur Herzog III’s “Orca,” James Herbert’s “The Rats” and Shaun Hudson’s “Slugs.”

•“Real Estate Nightmares,” including Richard Matheson’s famous “Hell House,” the Amityville books and Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives.”

•“Weird Science,” featuring everything from alien pregnancies and clones to epidemics and human-created monsters; examples include Robin Cook’s “Coma,” Whitley Streiber’s “Majestic” and John Farris’ “The Fury.”

•“Gothic and Romantic,” such as the V.C. Andrews books, Robert McCammon’s “Usher’s Passing” and Michael McDowell’s Blackwater novels.

•“Inhumanoids,” which includes traditional scares such as skeletons, mummies and werewolves; examples include Graham Masterton’s “The Manitou” and Jack Ketchum’s early work.

•“Splatterpunks, Serial Killers, and Super Creeps,” among them David J. Schow’s “The Kill Riff,” Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood,” Robert Bloch’s cash-grab “Psycho II” and Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon,” which introduced the world to Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter.

Hendrix’s book should prove fascinating to old horror hounds like me. He ends with a fitting lament.

“The lesson that horror teaches us,” he writes, “is that everything dies. The horror fiction boom of the 1970s and ‘80s became roadkill on the superhighway of the ‘90s. Authors disappeared, cover artists found new outlets, and this publishing Titanic hit an iceberg, split apart, and released its cargo into the cold, dark waters to wash up on the shores of thrift stores and used paperback emporiums for years to come.

“Things change, flesh rots, houses decay and fall into disrepair — there’s no point complaining. But the lost creativity makes you want to scream and pound on the inside of your coffin lid as it’s being nailed into place.”



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