Bow Down to the Savior of Modern Literature!

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Don’t mind the post title, I’ve just gone a little bit mad with power. It seems Silent Motorist Media has named yours truly as one of their “10 Weird Writers to Save Us All in 2018.”

While my kneejerk response is to quote a certain Stabbing Westward song (“I cannot save you / I can’t even save myself”), I can’t deny that it’s insanely flattering to see my name listed alongside writers I myself look up to, such as Jon Padgett and Betty Rocksteady and S.L. Edwards and… well, I don’t want to spoil the whole list for you. Give it a read yourself; hopefully you’ll discover some authors you haven’t heard of yet.

That is, after all, what the list is really all about. That whole “savior” thing is just a fun way of bringing together a motley mismatch of under-the-radar and up-and-coming writers beneath the same umbrella. As the folks behind Silent Motorist Media themselves said to their readers when asking for authors suggestions a few weeks ago, this list is meant to shine a light on “weird, bizarro, horror, and otherwise experimental writers who haven’t quite received the exposure you think they deserve.”

And that, more than anything, is why my inclusion on this list means so much to me. It’s not just a list put together by some random blogger rattling off his or her own personal favorites; every writer on this list is there because actual readers liked their work enough to email Silent Motorist Media. As a relatively new author with few published credits to my name, Imposter Syndrome weighs heavily on me. I often find myself wondering if anyone even reads my stories, let alone likes them.

So thanks to anyone and everyone who nominated me for this list, thanks to Silent Motorist Media for putting it together, and thanks to the other writers on it for being such damn good company.

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Con Report: Things I Did at StokerCon 2018

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Last year featured a major milestone for me, as I attended my first professional writers’ conference, NecronomiCon Providence. So memorable an experience was it that I ended up writing a gargantuan, rambling, two-part blog about the experience (which you can read here and here). This year, I attended my second such event, StokerCon 2018. But because I’m now a jaded veteran of the con scene, I’ll keep my blog about it short.

Actually, it’s just because I have a lot going on in my personal life right now, and I just don’t have the time to write something as exhaustive and, frankly, exhausting as I did for NecronomiCon. Besides, you don’t want to read something that long again, do you?

Before I start rattling off some of my favorite memories from my trip, I will say this much about StokerCon: It’s very different from NecromiCon. It is somehow both bigger and smaller, with a much more limited array of panels and events, but also a decidedly broader range, which comes from encompassing horror in all forms and formats (as opposed to focusing specifically on, say, Lovecraftian and weird fiction). One thing I noticed (and, as a novice author, appreciated) was that StokerCon seemed to offer more content for attendees interested in the craft and business side of writing, while NecronomiCon put a greater emphasis on the themes, philosophy, and history of genre literature.

Personally, I enjoyed both events about equally, and I feel I got a lot out of each. I would definitely recommend either one in a heartbeat. In fact, I hope to attend both cons again regularly in the future. I assure you, I have not been paid by either StokerCon or NecronomiCon to say these things.

Yet.

Anyway, here are some of the more memorable things I did at StokerCon 2018:

I…

…stayed at the Providence Biltmore, purportedly one of the most haunted hotels in America.

…paid my respects to the dearly departed Jack Ketchum at a special memorial panel.

…talked to editor Don D’Auria about how instrumental the Leisure Books imprint was in inspiring me to write horror.

…scored a signed copy of Amber Fallon‘s TV Dinners From Hell straight from the author herself.

…geeked out over Borkchito with Matthew M. Bartlett.

…compared neuroses with Sean M. Thompson.

…ran into fellow Wilkes University Creative Writing Program survivor John Koloski.

…gushed to Eraserhead Press founder Rose O’Keefe about how bizarro fiction changed my life.

….did my best impression of a wallflower at a get-together in Kenneth Vaughan‘s suite.

…was almost blinded by the light reflected off of Bracken MacLeod‘s smooth, shiny noggin.

…talked Nathan Carson‘s ear off and got signed copies of his new comic, The Willows.

…caught readings by the legendary Ramsey Campbell and Caitlin R. Kiernan.

…had the likewise legendary F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone ask me for directions and miraculously managed not to turn into a stammering fanboy.

…ate my body weight in cheese.

…pushed this button:

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My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)

Today is officially the first day of 2018. If you’re a normal person that means you probably spent last night partying with family and friends and you’re now nursing a wicked hangover. If you’re a geek like me, however, you spent last night the same way you did the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that: watching the annual New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon on TV.

Just in time for this decidedly antisocial tradition is the release of a new anthology, Test Patterns, packed to the gills with original weird fiction inspired by classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy shows like The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.

Now available in both paperback and ebook from Amazon.com (hint, hint), Test Patterns features my new story “I Am Become Death.” It’s about a WWII army photographer haunted by the destruction he documented at Hiroshima… as well as by the shadowy thing he unknowingly brought home with him. This story is my attempt to filter some of TZ creator Rod Serling’s themes of paranoia, nuclear devastation, and the horrors of war through the lens of my own imagination.

Writing this story and then watching last night’s marathon got me thinking about how much Serling’s work has influenced me and about how much I love the original Twilight Zone. In that spirit I thought I’d share some of my favorite episodes. These aren’t necessarily the “best” Zones ever made, just my own personal favorites, the ones I could watch over and over again and never get tired of.

Hoping to shine a light on some of the less frequently touted episodes, I specifically tried to avoid including too many of the really famous ones. Listen, I love “Time Enough at Last,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft.,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as much as the next Zone junkie (and if you’re thinking that I’m rattling these titles off now as a cheap way of including them in my list without technically including them in my list, well, yeah, you’re totally right) but do we really need to sing their praises yet again?

Even still, I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10, so I decided to do the same thing I did with my previous ranking of favorite vampire movies and add just one more. Going forward, I think I’m going to make this my default. In this case, at least, it’s fitting; nothing is as it seems in The Twilight Zone, not even the number 10.

Oh, one last thing: there are definitely going to be spoilers here. Sorry, but this show is almost 60 years old. If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, that’s on you.

Submitted for your approval, these are, in no particular order, My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)…

obsoletemanThe Obsolete Man

Aside from Rod Serling himself, arguably no person is more popularly associated with The Twilight Zone than Burgess Meredith. The inimitable actor starred in four episodes throughout the series’ original run, including the iconic “Time Enough at Last,” and even took Serling’s place as narrator in the TZ movie. It is this Zone, however, which may well be his finest hour. In a dystopian future Meredith plays a librarian and a Christian, two things decreed “obsolete” by the authoritarian state, which has long since banned all books and outlawed all religion. The punishment for the crime of obsolescence is death, and in this cold, callous society, the only mercy left is in allowing the condemned a choice in their method of execution.

Not one to be underestimated, the librarian uses his sole remaining right to turn the tables on his oppressors, exposing the entire system as, itself, obsolete. Meredith’s performance is utterly captivating and the jagged expressionist shadows throughout give this Zone a stark Orwellian style. Despite all the talk of god and faith, “The Obsolete Man” should not be misinterpreted as proselytizing for any one particular faith. Instead, it’s a passionate endorsement of religious liberty in general, as well as a confrontational rebuke against government and conformity.

littlegirlLittle Girl Lost

If this Zone wasn’t an influence on the movie Poltergeist, man, I’ll eat my hat. See if this rings a bell: A suburban couple wakes one night to the sound of their young daughter’s voice, but the child is nowhere to be found. It’s as if she’s simply vanished, except they can still hear her, calling to them as if from far away. After seeking help from a friend, they realize a section of wall in the house seems strangely immaterial; their hands pass right through its surface as if it were an open window. But a window to where?

Rather than being a portal into Stephen Spielberg’s computer-generated afterlife, this one turns out to lead somewhere far more astounding: fourth-dimensional space. The idea of higher spatial dimensions beyond the paltry three we humans can perceive—i.e. height, width, and depth—makes for mind-bending material to this day. Putting something this high-concept on mainstream television in 1962, the same time as such programs as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, is ample evidence of how far ahead of its time TZ really was. Brainy as this Zone is, however, it also has heart. When the girl’s father finally enters the fourth dimension (complete with trippy alien geometry) the terror any parent would feel at the thought of losing a child proves just as moving as the fortitude said parent displays in risking everything to save that child.

comewanderwithmeCome Wander with Me

There’s a long tradition in folk and blues music of “murder ballads,” stories in song form which unspool lurid yarns of love, death, and vengeance. Usually mournful in tone, many  are based on true crimes or long-held pieces of regional folklore, and I personally count them among my favorite genres of music. It should be no surprise, then, that the criminally overlooked “Come Wander with Me” would strike a chord with me. Pun intended.

In this exceptionally eerie and dreamlike Zone, a fast-talking rockabilly musician encounters a young woman (played by future counterculture mama-bear Bonnie Beecher) singing to herself in the middle of backwoods nowhere. The song—about a woman who falls in love with a wanderer even though she is betrothed to another—is hauntingly beautiful. Recognizing a surefire radio hit, the rockabilly kid offers to buy the rights but the woman resists his advances. This song, she says, was meant for someone else. Pressuring her to teach it to him anyway, he discovers the rest of the lyrics are about the aforementioned wanderer killing his lover’s fiancé, only to be hunted down and killed in kind by the man’s brothers. When the rockabilly kid subsequently finds himself pursued by a pair of gun-toting hillbillies, it becomes clear that by trying to make the song “his,” the story behind it has become his as well.

livingdollLiving Doll

Long before Chucky and Annabelle, there was Talky Tina. One of the earliest examples of the “killer toy” trope in television and film, “Living Doll” is a fairly straightforward episode, wherein a sweet little girl receives an expensive new doll as a gift from her mother, only for her brutish stepfather to rage that it’s a waste of money. The doll doesn’t take too kindly to the man’s verbal abuse of his family and, when no one else is around, taunts him with threats of murder.

At first the man thinks his wife or stepdaughter is somehow playing a kind of twisted prank on him. So he tries to throw the doll away. But it comes back. So he tries to destroy it. But he can’t even make a dent. Then one night, as he’s drifting off to sleep, he hears faint sounds in the dark, something like the whirring of tiny gears… or maybe the soft steps of tiny feet. While this all feels fairly formulaic now, “Living Doll” is still damned effective thanks to its ominous atmosphere, methodic pacing, and creeptastic imagery, not to mention June Foray’s chilling line readings as the voice of Talky Tina. Besides, I’m a sucker for evil doll stories, so this Zone was never not going to make my list.

iamthenightI Am the Night—Color Me Black

Killer toys, dimensional portals, and ethereal sirens are all well and good, but one of the things that always made The Twilight Zone special, and which still sets it apart from its many imitators and successors, was its social conscience. Rod Serling  believed deeply in the power of stories to explore real-world issues and to inspire audiences to think in new ways. TZ got a lot of hard-hitting material past fidgety network censors by dressing it up in the fanciful clothes of science fiction and fantasy, but rarely did it attack any subject with such unapologetic head-on aggression as it did in this episode.

Here, a white man known for helping the local black community is set to be executed for murdering a cross-burning bigot. There’s evidence that the murder may have been done in self-defense, but the white townspeople want blood and the sheriff just wants peace and quiet. On the day the man is to hang the sky turns black over town. To some, this is confirmation that the man deserves to die. To others, it’s a sign that it was the bigot who deserved to die and that his killer should go free. Who is right? Who is wrong? Serling lets us squirm beneath the weight of sobering silences and ambiguous non-answers. By episode’s end the sky is still black… and the darkness is spreading. The only thing made clear is the fact that nothing is clear. No one is right. We’re all wrong.

willtherealmartianWill the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

This one is probably right up there with “Living Doll” in terms of being among the more popular Zones on this list, although it’s nowhere near as fondly remembered as equally classic episodes like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “To Serve Man.” And yet it is cut from very similar cloth as those two. Set almost entirely in a single location, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” sees a pair of UFO-investigating police officers holed up in a small snowed-in greasy-spoon, along with the diner’s proprietor and his customers, i.e. the six occupants of a broken-down bus, as well as its driver.

Wait, did I say six? Because there seem to be seven people here, not counting the cook, the driver, and the cops. With no one else around for miles, could that mean one among them is the pilot of that UFO? Repeating many of the same beats as the more po-faced “Maple Street,” this episode is a coy study in how paranoia can drive people to turn on one other. But then it throws into the mix the same campy humor that made “To Serve Man” such a blast. From bug-eyed Jack Elam’s cackling, wisecracking performance as a man loathe to take any of this flying-saucer business seriously, to a final twist which is more zany punchline than shocking revelation—yes, one of the bus riders is a Martian scout, but it turns out Earth has already being colonized by Venusians!—it’s hard to find a Zone that’s as just plain fun as this one.

owlcreekbridgeAn Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an extraordinary episode of The Twilight Zone for a number of reasons. For one, it is almost completely devoid of dialogue; the story is told primarily through its visuals. For another, this is the one and only Zone that’s not actually a Zone. It is, in fact, an award-winning French short film which received honors from both the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars. It so impressed one of the TZ producers that he purchased the film for inclusion in the show’s final season (a move which also saved a boatload of money, natch), and it’s not hard to see why. It had much the same effect on me when my teacher screened it during English class in high school.

Based on a story by legendary author Ambrose Bierce, the film is about a Civil War prisoner facing execution by a group of soldiers. When the rope around his neck snaps, he escapes and begins a long journey home, evading his would-be executioners while suddenly finding new appreciation for the myriad wonders of life all around him. Like all the best Zones, of course, there’s a twist at the end, and this one really punches you in the gut. I know I said I wouldn’t shy away from spoilers, but if you don’t already know how “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends, I’m not saying a word. You need to experience this story yourself.

agameofpoolA Game of Pool

Now here’s a Zone I was initially hesitant to spotlight because I figured it’s such a classic that surely it’s on most folks’ top 10 lists already, right? Then I Googled some other people’s top 10 lists and you know what? I think I saw it pop up maybe once. Once! How is that even possible?!? This brilliant gem of an episode takes something as minor and (if you ask me) boring as billiards and creates a riveting life-or-death conflict from of it, one where you’re constantly unsure which side to root for.

TZ regular Jack Klugman plays a pool shark who’s dedicated his life to the game. He can beat anyone, but the only player worth the effort died years ago. Because this is The Twilight Zone, the legend obligingly returns from the grave (played by the great Jonathan Winters) and agrees to the titular game, but only if his opponent is willing to bet his life. What follows is a tense back-and-forth contest accompanied by a thoughtful discussion of what it truly means to be “the greatest.” When the final ball is pocketed a new king is crowned; our up-and-comer’s life is safe for now. Alas, he’s unknowingly condemned himself in a different way, because once he does die, he must spend the rest of eternity just like his idol. That is, constantly being summoned to play other wanna-bes looking to prove themselves by beating a legend.

theskywasopenedAnd When the Sky Was Opened

Have you ever put an item down for a second, then come back for it only to find it’s not there anymore? You know you put it there, but now it’s gone. Wouldn’t it be worse if everyone around you said you were wrong and that the thing in question was never there to begin with it? And wouldn’t it be even worse still if that thing wasn’t a thing at all, but one of your closest friends? That’s the situation faced by three recently returned astronauts in “And When the Sky was Opened.” Or is it two astronauts? Or maybe just one? Or… wait… what astronauts?

Someone or something is erasing these men from existence. The world is forgetting them. A newspaper headline about the three of them is about only two the next day, then one. Their own parents are forgetting them. When one of them calls his mother, she claims to have never had a son. Worst yet, the astronauts are forgetting each other. When the first one vanishes completely, the second pleads with the third to remember their missing companion, only to be told time and again that no such person ever existed. What begins as an exercise in psychological dissolution—are these astronauts just going crazy, remembering people who were never there?—quickly spirals into existential panic. As each astronaut gradually disappears from reality, those left behind are stuck with the awful certainty that the same fate awaits them as well.

thedummyThe Dummy

Earlier I mentioned my weakness for “evil doll” stories. That weakness carries over to “evil ventriloquist dummy” stories too. The inherent horror in both these tropes, I think, stems from the Uncanny Valley, from the discomfort that arises when one encounters something that superficially resembles a human being, but which is nonetheless patently inhuman. Part of that is probably rooted in a fear of being replaced, as well as in a sense of being mocked. These horrors are especially palpable when you’re dealing with dummies because there’s so much in ventriloquism that is akin to madness. It’s the act of fabricating an alternate personality for yourself and pretending that it is separate from the rest of you, exacerbated even more by the fact that you’re giving it part of your voice and, by extension, your soul.

Who’s the real dummy, dummy? When TZ introduces us to an alcoholic ventriloquist beleaguered by a failing career and a growing suspicion that his dummy has a mind of its own, we already know the answer. Most “evil dummy” stories play out essentially the same way; what sets one apart from another is the quality of the execution and the strength of the ending. This one’s a doozy on both counts, boasting oodles of heart-stopping suspense, snappy dialogue, skewed camera angles, and one grotesquely surreal final twist that sees our sad-sack protagonist finally achieving career success, just not as the one pulling the strings.

twoTwo

I mentioned all the way back near the tippy-top of this list that my latest published story, “I Am Become Death,” (COUGH read it now in the anthology Test Patterns, available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com COUGH) was inspired by one of the most frequently revisited of TZ’s pet themes, namely the horrors of war. Rod Serling was a WWII veteran who found a positive use for all the psychological baggage he brought home through dedicating himself to creation rather than destruction. Through the Zone, Serling and his close-knit circle of writers appealed directly to millions of viewers, imploring them to condemn those ugly impulses which turn brother against brother and to beware the apocalyptic perils of nuclear armaments.

Of all the depravities and degradations war is capable of, the worst of all might be the way it dehumanizes those involved, turning soldiers into killing machines, as well as machines to be killed. Enter “Two,” which features a before-they-were-famous double-header, with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery playing the sole survivors of a war that may or may not have wiped out the rest of society. The problem? They both hail from opposite sides of the conflict. Despite having no reason to continue fighting now, breaking free of the conditioning which war has ingrained in them is no easy task. Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this episode is almost completely free of dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s clear as day what what kind of war these characters are fighting, not just against each other but within themselves as well. And while the ending leaves civilization’s future decidedly unclear, it’s apparent that Serling & Co.’s faith in the better angels of human nature may be bent but is never broken.

A Yuletide Miracle: Test Patterns is Here!

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Looking for a last minute present for X-Mas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule? Trying to decide what to get with all those gift cards you’re sure to get from unimaginative gift-givers? Well, fret no more; Test Patterns is finally available!

The debut anthology from Planet X Publications, Test Patterns features all-new original stories and poetry inspired by such classic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy TV shows as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Outer Limits.

My story, “I Am Become Death,” is about a WWII combat photographer who, after documenting the devastation at Hiroshima, returns to America only to find that some shadowy thing has come home with him.

Check out the full list of contributors below.

Table of Contents:

  1. “The Woman in the Forge of Saturday Night” by Joe Pulver
  2. “Evidence of Absence” by Scott Graves
  3. “I Am Become Death” by William Tea
  4. “The Judge” by Philip Fracassi
  5. “The Snake Beneath My Skin” by Sarah Walker
  6. “The Hands of Chaos” by Ashley Dioses
  7. “The Nomenclature of Unnamable Horrors” by Peter Rawlik
  8. “Golden Girl” by S.L. Edwards
  9. “Scenes From a Forgotten Diorama” by Brian O’Connell
  10. “You Can’t Go Wrong with Grass-Fed Beef” by Jill Hand
  11. “Abettor” by Ruth Asch
  12. “Work Group” by Pete Carter
  13. “The Cliffside Tavern” by Sean M. Thompson
  14. “One Evening in Whitbridge” by Scott Thomas
  15. “The Velveteen Volvo” by Nathan Carson
  16. “Outre Non-Limitations” by Frederick J. Mayer
  17. “The Kumiho Question” by Frederick J. Mayer
  18. “I’ve Lived in This Place a Long Time” by Can Wiggins
  19. “The White Terror” by Frank Coffman
  20. “Symptom of the Universe” by John Claude Smith
  21. “Sustenance of the Stars” by Scott J. Couturier
  22. “Alien Shore” by Rob Martin
  23. “Ye Hermit’s Lay” by Adam Bolivar
  24. “Bridge” by Don Webb
  25. “Balls” by Russell Smeaton
  26. “Call Me Corey” by Matthew M. Bartlett
  27. “Hero Mother” by Cody Goodfellow
  28. “Red-Eye” by Mark Rainey
  29. “Séance” by K.A. Opperman
  30. “Looking for Ghosts” by Duane Pesice

Yes indeed, this anthology is surely the perfect holiday surprise for that special someone you love. Or for the one you just kinda like. Or for the one you hate. Or for yourself. For anybody, really!

Art Inspired by… Me???

reset-art

Well, this is a first! I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of someone liking something of mine enough to be a “fan” of it, but I’m nevertheless amazed and humbled to know that a story I wrote (“Reset,” from the video game-themed horror anthology Terror in 16-Bits, which you can get through the Muzzleland Press webstore or Amazon.com) inspired someone else to create something. If you’ve read “Reset,” you know all too well the critical moment this illustration depicts; if you haven’t, then you should probably get yourself a copy so you can find out all about it! Anyway, major props to Mat Fitzsimmons of Feral Teeth Press for making this image, and additional thanks to Terror in 16-Bits editor/publisher Jonathan Raab for bringing it to my attention. I love this so much!

Talking Splatterhouse on the Spooklights Podcast

 

Don’t “BE GARBAGE OF CESSPOOL HA HA HA.” Listen to the latest episode of Spooklights instead!

The new episode of Muzzleland Press‘ podcast is up now, and co-hosts Jonathan Raab and Tom Breen were gracious enough to have me on as a guest so I could ramble on incoherently about one of my all-time favorite video game series: Splatterhouse!

We also talked a little about my meager bibliography, the inspiration for my contribution to Muzzleland’s latest anthology Terror in 16-Bits (available now in paperbook and ebook format through Amazon or the Muzzleland Press webstore, nudge nudge), our experiences at NecronomiCon Providence, and how A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is so woefully underrated.

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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 his 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 of 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 so much beautifully lurid artwork replete with evil dolls, killer crabs, and, of course, a neverending parade of 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 broke, you really can’t waste money on such a luxury as new books, and I grew up broke. 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 such books, more as an acknowledgment of how they were (and still are) valued (or not) by more “serious” literary types. Those typerwriter-fingerbangin,’ 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.

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 full-blown 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 beneath 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 the shimmery holofoil; gotta love ‘it!

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 wonders just the same. Like VHS and vinyl, there’s just something magic about it.

Cheers to Grady Hendrix for paying tribute to that.