Were-sharks and Nazi leprechauns: the rise and fall of the horror paperback

Since the late 1960s, dimestore horror novels have been spooking readers with all manner of kitschy occult. But evil babies and scary animals aside, some of these books contain strong social commentary and very good writing

From killer crabs and murderous moths to possessed clowns, via were-sharks and evil babies, Grady Hendrix estimates he read a horrific 326 books as research for Paperbacks from Hell, his fabulously detailed, hilariously intense history of the horror paperbacks of the 1970s and 80s.

“It might be slightly higher, but at a certain point I started experiencing blackouts,” he says. “On a slow day I could read about two books, and on a good working day four. There were some days when I managed to put away six, but I was an absolute wreck the next day … I strongly encourage no one to attempt this, as it’s nothing to brag about and could cause lasting brain damage.”

Out just in time for Halloween, Paperbacks from Hell traces the origins of pulp horror, its roots in the gothic romance boom of the 1960s, and how between 1967 and 1973, the massive success of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Thomas Tryon’s The Other and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist influenced the fiction that came after. As Hendrix puts it in his book: “Soon every paperback needed Satan on the cover.” The occult was in fashion, and in a big way.

What possessed Hendrix to delve into the genre? “I love roaming around used bookstores and a lot of them have horror sections full of books I’d never heard of, by authors whose names didn’t ring any bells. Where did these books come from? What kind of man would write a novel about Nazi leprechauns lurking in an Irish castle that’s been turned into a bed and breakfast?” he says, citing John Christopher’s 1966 book The Little People. “Who was the genius who wrote the African American version of The Exorcist, The Black Exorcist? Why were there so many killer dolls on so many covers? I kept looking for some answers, before finally realising that if I wanted any of that I’d have to do it myself.”

The books Hendrix studied – which are largely out of print – feature “Jewish monster brides, sex witches from the fourth dimension, flesh-eating moths, homicidal mimes … golems stalking Long Island”, he writes. They were written for supermarkets and drugstores, and according to Hendrix, they are “timeless in the way that truly matters: they will not bore you”.

“Thrown into the rough-and-tumble marketplace, the writers learned they had to earn every reader’s attention. And so they delivered books that move, hit hard, take risks, go for broke. It’s not just the covers that hook your eyeballs. It’s the writing, which respects no rules except one: always be interesting,” he writes.

Hendrix says he loves the horror genre because it literalises everyday terrors. “Anxious about being a first-time homeowner? Here’s a book where the house you bought wants to kill you and you can only abandon your down payment and run screaming into the night. Do you have a hard time being understood by others? Here’s a book about a woman transformed into a skinless monster who can only howl with rage and murder everyone around her. Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after coming home from combat? Here’s a book about a veteran who moves to the countryside to get away from it all only to discover that he’s living in a house haunted by the ghost of witch who wants to drive him insane.”

Paperbacks from Hell follows the development of horror subgenres – from that of the homicidal child (“adopted or chemically altered children should be destroyed immediately because they cannot be reformed”), to the “cultured and elegant” devils of the 1970s (“They had violet eyes, black dogs and vast libraries of antique tomes, and when they died their souls slipped into good guys’ bodies”).

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He looks at how cultural and societal changes affected horror – changes in contraception and fertility treatments in the 1960s and 70s, for example, birthed a swath of horror novels about pregnancy and childbirth. “Fortunately, horror paperbacks were there to address every new parent’s fears with a resounding ‘Yes!’” he notes. “Yes, having sex will cause your baby to die, especially if that sex involved a female orgasm (Crib, 1982). Yes, having a baby will cause a woman’s breasts to look ‘as though a vandal had defaced a great work of art’ (also Crib). Yes, you will be confined to a locked mental ward after giving birth (too many books to list). Yes, if you have an abortion, the remains will be buried in a shallow grave behind the hospital, where they will be struck by lightning and reanimated as brain-eating babies who telekinetically explode your womb (Spawn, 1983).”

There is the evil toys subgenre, the clowns subgenre, the insects attacking human genitals subgenre, the haunted-house trope, evil foetuses and evil vegetables (generally Venus flytraps or as Hendrix puts it, “salad of the damned”).

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But Hendrix’s favourite, he says, is “the animal attacks novels that that came out in the wake of Peter Benchley’s Jaws and James Herbert’s The Rats”, both published in 1974.

“For some reason, animals really love to eat British people, and Great Britain became to animal attacks what Japan was to giant monster attacks,” he says. “You guys have been invaded by killer dogs, cats, lizards, moths, crabs, jellyfish, maggots, rabbits, frogs, pigs, geese and slugs, and that’s just off the top of my head. I love the idea that animals are sick and tired of our baloney and that all of them, from ducks to border collies, have declared open season on anything that wears socks.”

By the late 80s, the supernatural horror market was glutted, and the publication of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs in 1988 marked its collapse, as readers turned to gore and serial killers instead of the occult. But it hasn’t vanished.

“At the end of the horror paperback boom in the mid-90s, marketing departments scraped the word ‘horror’ off spines and replaced it with ‘thriller’. Authors rewrote their manuscripts to turn their suddenly lame vampires into hip and trendy serial killers. We’re still living in the shadow of those events,” says Hendrix, who believes Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s bestsellers are horror sold as thrillers. “I look at the rash of domestic thrillers that are burning up the bookshelves right now and I see the gothic novels of the 1960s all over again.”

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Ed Soyka’s stepback cover for the 1975 novel The Manitou by Graham Masterton.

Fortunately, Hendrix says he doesn’t find the genre that scary. There is one book which made his jaw “drop open again and again and again”, though: Brenda Brown Canary’s The Voice of the Clown, “about a six-year-old whose stuffed clown doll whispers in her ear, telling her how to murder her siblings and drive her parents insane”.

And he cites the “absolute genius” of Ken Greenhall’s novels Elizabeth and Hell Hound. “Greenhall was treated terribly all his life, published by the most bottom-of-the-barrel publishers, fired by his own agent for being too old, and he worked as an encyclopedia editor to pay the bills. But if any author is the inheritor of Shirley Jackson’s chilly, precise prose, it’s Greenhall,” he says. “Elizabeth could almost be a sequel to Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hell Hound is narrated by a bull terrier searching for an owner who lives up to his high standards, which means he has to keep killing the owners who disappoint him. If I can get one person to read Greenhall’s books, I’ll consider Paperbacks from Hell to have been a success.”

Hendrix is also a novelist – his books include My Best Friend’s Exorcism and a tale of a haunted Ikea-esque furniture shop called Horrorstör – but he doesn’t think pulp horror is about to make a comeback. “They’re products of their times. Our culture has kind of passed the point where people can read books about Nazi leprechauns, women having their brains melted by spontaneous orgasms caused by extraterrestrials, or Native American curses causing coyotes to walk on two legs and kill without having seizures.”

But he does think that reading so many horror novels has improved his own writing. “These books had one rule: never be boring. They taught me to keep pushing, to not repeat what’s been done and to always head for territory other authors haven’t ploughed into oblivion.”

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