Step in through the door, a little bell tinkles above you, dust swirls visibly through the thin shafts of light that peek through old windows. Books frame the walls on floor-to-ceiling shelves, pile up in haphazard stacks and cover every available surface. There’s a faint hint of vanilla in the air and it’s quiet—the only sound the smooth flick of someone turning a page in the next aisle or the muted, reverent whispering that’s required around stacks of books.
You’re in a bookstore, that most magical of places, and it’s not just any bookstore, but a used bookstore. Who knows what might be hidden on the shelves or stacked beneath so many other tomes, waiting to find a new home, a new life. That’s the magic of books—every time you open one, it lives life again through new eyes. Having been dormant so long, it rises from its grave and becomes a living, breathing thing in your mind.
While used bookstores have always been a treasure trove, cataloging the cultural past in their own unique way and there have always been seekers on a mission for that one edition, that one hard-to-find author, Grady Hendrix has started a renaissance for a specific and specifically strange era of nostalgia: the horror paperback.
I won’t wax on about it here, but when Paperbacks from Hell burst onto the scene, those crappy old waterlogged mass markets with the broken spines you had laying around in the back of your car, waiting until you could make it to the thrift store suddenly became cool. Horror fans everywhere began to seek out these hidden out-of-print gems (and honestly, some pretty terrible stinkers too) based on their amazing cover art, wacky premises, and Grady’s deprecating and charming wit.
Cut to 2019—after all the killer animals, satanic cults, and creepy kids, what’s left to talk about? Well, Hendrix isn’t done with paperback horror yet, and he’s about to get nostalgic.
His new show, “Paperbacks from Hell II: Think of the Children” premiered at The Overlook Film Festival at the beginning of June and I was lucky enough to be there to witness it. It really can only be called a show, not just a book talk, as Grady, in his truly excellent suits with a fully loaded visual presentation, power talks like a Southern revivalist preacher until you are completely converted, shaking in the aisles, and needing to immediately go out and find every single book he’s screaming about.
It’s an experience.
I can’t do the show full justice, but instead, here are a few highlights. “Think of the Children” began with a look at the greasy pulp gang novels of the 1950s through the ’70s. These books, dismissed by critics since they weren’t really “serious” literature, detailed youth subculture: all the bad things kids left to their own devices could and would get up to. Forming gangs, gang wars, drugs, sex, violence, and of course, everyone wore leather and greased their hair back. Yeah, they were cool cats.
During this period, people were also interested in mysteries and Nancy Drew came on the scene. Originally written during the 1930s, Nancy was revised beginning in ’59 to be less outspoken and authoritative and more of a classy, “modern” role model for girls. Boooo. But if you grew up reading those bright yellow hardback editions, you got the sanitized Nancy.
What I can’t help but think is, who were these books actually for? Who was reading them? Nancy Drew was definitely a sensation that girls everywhere were devouring, but one can’t help but think that the youths wouldn’t really be that into Go Ask Alice, a 1971 novel that posed as a nonfictional account of a girl spiraling into self-destructive ruin when she *gasp* tries a drug at the tender age of fifteen. It doesn’t really hold a mirror up to any real teen experience, instead truly reading like an adult who has forgotten what it was like to ever be young, or potentially an extraterrestrial who has only watched movies made by those same amnesiac adults. And yet, it was a heated, crazed best seller. So was it mostly parents who had no idea what their kids were doing and were turning to fiction to understand what it meant that their kids listened to weird music and didn’t pay attention to them anymore?
Adults have always been afraid of children, and I don’t mean creepy kids—that’s a whole other ballgame we don’t even have time for. Adults fear the changing adolescent, the way they create their own culture and rules, the way they don’t fear and respect the Man as they did when they were kids. That’s what these books seem to be about—adults seeing the changes teens are going through and creating something to be scared of out of it.
But in the ’90s, it feels like there was a shift and horror became available for kids too. Point Horror, Fear Street, Goosebumps, Terror Academy, and others all took off like gangbusters. Even mainstream series like Sweet Valley High attempted horror spinoffs with werewolves and vampires. Yeah, I’m not even kidding. Look it up.
Now we’re going to get a bit nostalgic because when I was little, a stop at the library or the Scholastic Book Fair (that magical day!) meant a big ole pile of Christopher Pike. When it came down to it, what I wanted was some weird, nonsensical, trippy, mumbo jumbo that could only come out of Mr. Pike’s brain fever. Praise the alien/lizard/vampire/time travel gods that served as the muses for these truly insane plotlines.
These books were definitely written for kids—but that didn’t mean they weren’t scary. They were. Ask any nineties kid how they feel about Slappy the ventriloquist dummy and you’re sure to get a physical reaction of revulsion. What was it about this decade the golden age of children’s horror? Why did kids want to read scary books and watch scary stuff (consider Hocus Pocus, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Tales from the Crypt, So Weird, and more) and why did parents not really give a crap?
Children face fear more than adults do—and they need to. Learning what to be afraid of is part of growing up and kids seek out this thrill in controlled environments like books and movies so they can understand how fear works. And as any constant horror reader knows, getting a bit frightened is good. Vicariously living the experiences of characters, we can learn to confront our own fears and it puts our own experiences in perspective, helping us form healthy coping mechanisms for when we’re confronted with difficult real-life situations. That’s something we carry with us—I always say horror people are the most well-rounded people I know.
At the moment, his website doesn’t state any other upcoming dates for the performance of this new iteration of “Paperbacks from Hell.” But if the people clamor for it, perhaps he will oblige.
Did you have a favorite horror book growing up? One that you read over and over, or maybe the one that served as a gateway to finding Stephen King and your true love for the darker things in life? Some of mine included Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the first Pike Spooksville book, The Secret Path. Man, I dug those books.
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