Dave Eggers has written that his mother read a horror novel every night.
“I couldn’t look at her books,” he wrote. “[I] would turn them over so their covers wouldn’t show, the raised lettering and splotches of blood–especially the V.C. Andrews oeuvre, those turgid pictures of those terrible kids, standing so still, all lit in blue.”
If that was ever true of Grady Hendrix, great enthusiast of and advocate for grim books, it’s not now. The author of Horrorstor has put out a celebration of the kind of paperbacks that featured terrible kids, or naked women impaled by knives, or leprechauns whose uniforms boasted swastikas.
The book is large, thank God; the images get the prominence they deserve. It’s a fun book to flip through. Those covers that stand out are particularly artful, or absurd, or terrifying.
Throughout, Hendrix provides plot synopses. He loves when the stories spin out into madness, when they break away from good manners sharply enough to allow for prehensile penises or deadly babies. His commentary’s often funny, although sometimes glib.
Sometimes, a book manages to surprise him not by its over-the-top plot but by its subtlety or power. Here, he does his finest work, carefully arguing for the retrieval of forgotten classics or near-classics.
His grouping of the paperbacks into various categories is fine, and occasionally illuminating. I’ll never again be able to see a skeleton nurse holding a baby without flashing back to this book.
Paperbacks From Hell is an amusement park ride. It’s fun, and it’s better than it has to be. That Hendrix was able to write it at all, and to write it as he did, speaks to the limits of the fun house, though: you can only write about Hell this way if you don’t believe in it. Throughout, you get the sense that these books rarely if ever got under the author’s skin.