The Yellowed Page: An Appreciation of Vintage Paperbacks

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Paperbacks from Hell, the new book from Grady Hendrix (author of Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism), came out yesterday. Unlike Hendrix’s previous releases, Paperbacks from Hell is a work of non-fiction, although at times the absurdities it recounts make you wonder how they could be true.

How could Zebra Books flood grocery stores with all their garish, goofy skeletons and still be taken seriously for so long? How could Rex Miller take Chaingang, the 400 lb. homeless serial killer/rapist from the 1987 novel Slob, and reimagine him as a superpowered crusader of justice with a soft spot for puppies over the course of just a few sequels? How could talented writers like Ken Greenhall and Joan Samson remain obscure and unloved in an era when every yahoo with a typewriter could somehow land a gushing blurb from Stephen King?

Paperbacks from Hell is a smart, humorous, and affectionate look at the gory glory days of the ‘70s and ‘80s horror publishing boom. If you’ve enjoyed reading Hendrix’s blogs for Tor.com, ever spent an afternoon marveling over gorgeous and insane relics of vintage paperback cover art on Will Erickson’s website Too Much Horror Fiction, or regularly come away from used book sales with armfuls of William H. Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jensen titles, Paperbacks from Hell is an essential buy. Shit, I preordered my copy months ago.

Having spent all last night and most of today flipping through it, I can’t understate how much of a rush it’s been seeing all these forgotten names given ample limelight, not to mention gorging myself on the beautifully lurid artwork replete with evil dolls, killer crabs, and, yes, so many skeletons. It makes me want to hunt Hendrix down and give him a big, fat, sloppy kiss, because it almost feels like he wrote this book just for me.

I was born in 1987, the waning days of the horror boom. Even still, I grew up very much in its shadow. When you’re poor, you really can’t waste money such a luxury as new books, and I grew up poor. Being a voracious reader with an appetite for the dark and fantastic, I was left with few options other than whatever was cheapest, and what was cheapest were the battered ‘n’ tattered secondhand paperbacks I found at flea markets, yard sales, and the Salvation Army. It was either subsist on bottom-of-the-barrel books for bottom-of-the-barrel prices… or shoplift. I’m not too proud to admit I did plenty of both.

When I say “bottom-of-the-barrel,” though, keep in mind I don’t mean it as a knock on the quality of those books, more as an acknowledgment of how they were (and still are) valued (or not valued) by more “serious” literary types. Those typerwriter-haulin,’ Stephen King blurb-scorin’ yahoos I mentioned earlier? I poke fun, but I still respect the hell out of ‘em. Shit, I’d sell at least 50% of my working limbs for a Stephen King blurb. Maybe more.

See, here’s the thing: The bargain bin may be where the “bad” stuff lives, but it’s also where the purest stuff lives, the stuff that relishes being about ghosts ‘n’ goblins and doesn’t feel the need to “elevate” itself. Even better, it’s where the weird stuff lives. These are not New York Times Bestsellers. These are the curiosities that slipped through the cracks: splatterpunk sickos taking sex and violence to a whole new level, extraterrestrial orgasms that kill innocent housewives, horny werewolf ghosts, sadomasochistic nazi leprechauns, and, for some reason, a whoooole lot of incest.

Call ‘em crass. Call ‘em crude. They’re also some of the wildest, most imaginative stories you’re likely to come across. They don’t play by the rules, and that is often their downfall, but you don’t find ideas this outré if you’re playing by the rules. They may be crazy, but they’re also earnest, and that counts for a lot.

I grew up on a steady diet of this stuff (so now you know where to point the blame). For that reason, I have never and will never look down on any writer or publisher or subgenre of horror for being too strange or trashy or low-brow or unrefined. Ultimately, horror is supposed to be all those things; it’s the punk rock of literary genres, just one step up in the publishing hierarchy from all-out pornography.

Though no longer a penniless youth (which isn’t to say I’m not still broke, I’m just slightly less broke), I still buy a lot of used books. Not necessarily because I have to, but because I want to. Because I enjoy it.

I enjoy trawling overstuffed shelves and rickety milk crates at flea markets and secondhand stores. I enjoy hunting for secret treasures hidden under piles of James Patterson cast-offs. I enjoy finding old authors who are new to me, reading the outlandish back-cover copy of impossible-to-summarize pretzel-logic plots, and drooling over eye-popping masterpieces pieces of lush, pulpy cover art the likes of which you simply can’t find today. All those cut-outs and step-backs and shimmery holofoil; gotta love ’em.

I also enjoy the sense of history you get with used books. One of my favorite things to find in an old beat-up paperback is a “This book belongs to…” notation, or a library stamp, a dog-eared page, an inky smudged fingerprint, a bookmark, a note to self, anything of that sort; I like the idea of being another link in a chain that stretches back to god knows how many other people over the course of god knows how many years.

The yellowed page may be ugly, it may be ripped and brittle, it may even smell a little… off. But damned if it doesn’t hold little wonders just the same. Like VHS and vinyl, there’s just something magic about it.

Cheers to Grady Hendrix for paying tribute to that.

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