It’s not a secret that Emily and I love Grady Hendrix. While I was dogsitting last fall, Emily suggested I read My Best Friend's Exorcism. Though I had lots of work to do, I plowed through the novel with a faithful pug by my side (Frederick the pug has been featured on our Instagram, for reference). I couldn’t put My Best Friend's Exorcism down, like I was cursed to bear witness to the gruesome story of demons, high school, and friendship. The book horrified me for reasons I won’t write here (because it would ruin your own enjoyment when you inevitably read it!), but trust that I loved it. Hendrix employs a type of humor that balances his use of horror.
Hendrix’s new book, Paperbacks from Hell, does something different than My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstor--both of which we’ve discussed on the blog and podcast before. Paperbacks from Hell is a nonfiction look at the history of horror novel covers, which leads to an examination of the trends in horror fiction.
Hendrix isn’t so much poking fun at these books (though there’s a warm humor in his writing) as he is acknowledging a tradition of silliness and surprise in horror. This same sort of thing is true in my experience studying comic books—there’s always a ridiculous plot that seems like it should be fake, but no. It’s always real. Hendrix writes in his introduction, “Divorced from current trends in publishing, these out-of-print paperbacks feel like a breath of fresh air” (9). And they do. How many Gone Girl ripoffs have you seen in the last few years? Publishing goes through some serious trends. This is something I’m even more aware of as a young adult lit scholar. Paperbacks from Hell reminds us that sometimes the way to break out of a rut is to look to the past—even if that past is kind of nuts.
So let’s get to the nitty gritty.
Set Up for Easy Browsing
Hendrix has organized this book in a way that’s easy to understand. Each chapter covers a specific genre of horror novel with subheadings that explore more nuanced aspects of the genre. Looking for information about killer crabs? You simply head over to “When Animals Attack,” then “Seafood Gumbo.” Boom—you’re now enjoying learning about Crabs: The Human Sacrifice. This method of organization makes more sense than a chronological approach, and kept my interest.
It’ll Educate You
It may seem counterintuitive, but this book is wildly educational. If you are AT ALL interested in the history of horror—or pop culture in general—this book smoothly walks you through some of the most basic horror tropes, then branches out to show how those tropes evolved (or went haywire). Horror novels aren’t just segregated to their own small world. This is what I personally love about pop culture—it’s a giant, churning pot of media, all influencing each other continuously. When I read the subchapter “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Hell Baby),” I think of the first season of American Horror Story, and mother!, and a slew of other demon baby stories. Each subgenre discussed in Paperbacks from Hell taps into a very real fear we have as a culture, forcing the reader to consider why these trends appear in horror. What about 2017 made a movie about a clown so popular?
I want to have criticisms of this book, but I really don't. Instead, I'll leave you with some general thoughts.
I'm pleased that Quirk is moving away from their rewrites of classic literature (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and publishing more original fiction. I'm even more excited that they've branched out into nonfiction. Nonfiction about horror seems very on brand for Quirk, and I hope that lovers of the publishing house take this leap with them and learn about horror.
I'm also happy to see Hendrix write nonfiction. His writing style is clear and informational and funny. I felt like I was talking to a particularly knowledgable friend about horror books, not learning about an entire genre from some stuffy scholar.
Do I think everyone should read Paperbacks from Hell? Well, no, not exactly. If you don't like horror, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you've ever flinched at a horror film or shivered under the covers while reading a scary novel, this is a book you don't want to overlook.
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.