Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix: A Review (of Sorts)

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Novelist Grady Hendrix, most noted for Horrorstör and My Best Friend’s Exorcism, casts a nostalgic eye to his forebearers with Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction.  This was the generation that spawned Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Saul, and Clive Barker. Hendrix doesn’t spend much energy on those gentlemen, however. Instead he concerns himself with those who haven’t survived the decades, but who haunt out-of-print memories and send twisted aficionados scouring used bookstores, Amazon, or eBay for cheap but passable copies.

Hendrix’s tongue-and-cheek plot summaries of novels in sub-genres ranging from the satanic, to real estate nightmares, to creepy kids, to splatterpunk spur continued reading, but interested parties will revel in the abundance of schlock covers from the day. This one’s going on to my coffee table, right next to The Art of the Brothers Hildebrandt and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths.  To celebrate, I present ten novels of the kinds appearing in Paperbacks from Hell, whether Hendrix discusses them or not. A few I might read again.

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

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“Imagine that among us lives…,” starts many a horror tale. Perhaps among us are a species masquerading as people, or humans with special powers who may or may not wish society well?  Simmons’s spiritually hideous band is psychic vampires who can possess the bodies of others, devolving them into slaves.  The most powerful congregate once a year for a chess-based combat operating, of course, through their slaves.

Carrion Comfort sticks in my mind, because here I first encountered Kohlberg’s Scale of Morality.  In short, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. earn high marks, occupying the highest category on Kohlberg’s scale, those concerned with universal justice for all with scant thought for self.  At the other end of the spectrum we find the completely self-absorbed, those who use power only for selfish gain — welcome to the realm of sociopaths. Guess which end Kohlberg would place Simmons’s psychic vampires?

Simmons says much about politics and power that remains glaringly relevant given our current situation in Washington, DC.  He does include individuals immune to the vampires, but even these inspire dread.  Due to Simmons having won several major awards, Carrion Comfort remains in print.

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

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Remember the television mini-series starring Bette Davis?  Ned Constantine moves his family to Cornwall Coombe where the villagers follow the old ways, rituals surrounding nature, especially corn.  If The Wicker Man, Children of the Corn, and The Lottery come to mind then you understand the subgenre in question.

The New York Book Review Classics imprint has reprinted Tryon’s more famous for The Other, also adapted to film featuring a very young John Ritter.  I wish they’d reissue Harvest Home as well if only because I’m sentimental for stories with pagan themes. I question, however, how well the story might have aged given an increased tolerance for paganism in contemporary society, and hence a sensitivity to negative portrayals. We still read and watch Children of the Corn, so why not Harvest Home? Get it back in print!

Slob by Rex Miller

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I read Slob while on winter break during my senior year at San Jose State University. A straight-up splatterpunk escapade featuring a 500-pound anti-hero on a killing spree, Slob has survived as a cult classic, even if out of print.  Our “hero,” Daniel “Chaingang” Bunkowski, murders, rapes, and cannibalizes with abandon. Miller draws from the same well as Tobe Hooper before him and the makers of the Hostel series after him.  Let’s just call it torture porn, a subgenre that angers and disgusts rather than provoking the thoughtful dread inherent to other brands of horror.  Given that I only lasted ten minutes with Hostel, I wouldn’t read Slob again. I can’t watch Animal House anymore either, but that’s an entirely different article.  In either case, hello, Suck Fairy.

I don’t understand the widespread allure of slasher films. Psycho and Silence of the Lambs work wonderfully for me, but most leave me feeling depressed and questioning the human race.  That Freddy Krueger, a child molester, has achieved anti-hero status and returns in film after film to torment former victims and to prey on new ones challenges my sobriety.  I can’t celebrate this trend in horror that in the 1980s we began calling splatterpunk. I’m not so sensitive to the gore, but the attitude, the consequence-free air toward those practicing our deepest fears, kind of pisses me off.  Should Leatherface come at me with that chainsaw I’d punch him in the face.  I need deeper fare, significance beyond wicked depredation for shock value alone.  Sorry, Wes and Tobe. That’s how I roll.

The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane by Laird Koenig

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Unlike with Slob, the controversial elements in The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane move beyond debased spectacle to considering the relationship of adolescents and adults in society.  According to Koenig, this relationship isn’t a good one. Thirteen-year old Rynn Jacob’s father dies, but to avoid living with an unwanted guardian, she pretends he’s still alive. Frank Hallet, the son of her landlord and a sexual predator, hones in on her, and other adults treat her abusively.  Being precocious, however, Rynn survives well, better than many adults I know, in fact. No doubt she’d live admirably, completely able to care for herself even surrounded by such awful adults.

Jodie Foster portrays Rynn in the film, with Martin Sheen playing creepy Frank Hallet.  How unsettling to remember that Foster went from Taxi Driver to The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane to Bugsy Malone before doing a 180-degree turn to star in Disney’s Freaky Friday.  I love Freaky Friday, and I never could understand why my mother’s unease when watching it with me.  Years later, after viewing Foster’s earlier work, I understood her predicament. Nonetheless, all three make for an interesting triple feature.

The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

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By now you may have gathered that I have a soft spot for satanic stories.  From the late 1960s to around 1980, entertainment media exploded with films, television shows, books, and comics that employed Satan directly or played off related demonic elements.  Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist stand as premiere examples in both literature and on the screen. When the Comics Code Authority loosened its rules for comic content, Marvel introduced Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, to the world. Satan himself also appeared frequently in that company’s Tomb of Dracula.

Enter Dennis Wheatley and his Duke de Richelieu, a tireless campaigner against Satanists and dark happenings.  Wheatley’s among my favorite authors handling these themes, and today interested parties can procure omnibuses containing The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, and others. And, yes, we have screen adaptations.  Christopher Lee awesomely brings de Richelieu to life in The Devil Rides Out, a Hammer era classic.

Hobgoblin by John Coyne

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Hobgoblin first appeared in 1981, during the heyday of Dungeons and Dragons, and Coyne’s plot explores what happens with fantasy and reality begin to combine for a role-playing game devotee, Scott Gardiner.  Does Scott suffer from schizophrenia or a neurosis stemming from his need for such games? Table-top role players and LARPers everywhere could cringe rightfully at the implications here. The merging is real, of course, so matters progress beyond the psychological.  The book cover says it all: “The dungeons are real. The dragons are real. The terror is here.”

From age twelve to seventeen I played Dungeons and Dragons regularly until my group split apart to distant colleges and jobs. Coyne’s work leaves me cold. I much preferred reading inspirational sources for Dungeons and Dragons — Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft, for example. James Fink, our dungeon master, once crafted a reality based on the Nights of Wundagore arc that appeared in Avengers (1963) #181-187.  We understood reality and why we wanted to escape into fantasy, with creativity and a skills-building approach that later would help James pursue radiology and me to…well, we’re figuring that out.

The House of Caine by Ken Eulo

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Whatever happened to Ken Eulo?  With his Brownstone Trilogy so popular among the masses, I thought he’d pull past the hordes and rank up there with King, Koontz, Straub, and Barker. With a little poking around Wikipedia, I learned that Eulo moved from writing novels to writing teleplays for Small Wonder, Marblehead Manor, and, no kidding, Benson. Then he moved to Orlando, Florida where he formed and still artistically directs the New York Ensemble, a repertory group that writes and produces shows for tour.

The House of Caine is good old-fashioned vampire fare, like Salem’s Lot. How I miss nasty vampires who never sparkle or initiate romantic relationships with their hunters. Bring back the evil bastards hiding in the shadows! Away with frilly-shirted existentialists pouting their way across the centuries. More recently, 30 Days of Night represents what I mean: outright bloodsucking pillage and ultimately symbolic triumph over evil with no invitations for wine spritzers and Percy Bysshe Shelley readings.

The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz

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Mixed reviews of The Sentinel abound. Truly the old saw “people either love it or hate it” applies emphatically. I read The Sentinel as a teenager while accompanying a truck driver delivering desks and office equipment to a warehouse in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. After we finished unloading, the driver would wander off to meet his buddies at the local bar. Since I was only 16, I stayed with the truck at the truck stop, bundled up with Konvitz and explaining to prostitutes who banged on the driver’s side window that I was too young and had no money. Maybe associating this novel with an adventurous period has heightened the experience for me? To clarify, I need to reread The Sentinel.  That movie though. Where else can you see Ava Gardner and Burgess Meredith acting together?  I may regret my decision. But, hey! The Devil!

The Guardian by Jeffrey Konvitz

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Then Konvitz decided to write a sequel, The Guardian, the worst book ever. The author’s religious exposition would sedate a Cardinal, and toward the end readers confront the most vile plot twist before thudding against the worst ending. I don’t have enough negative adjectives for this turd floating in a bowl.  Thankfully, I paid no money for my copy. Upon hearing that I’d read The Sentinel, our office secretary gave me her copy, exclaiming, “I can’t believe you didn’t know about the sequel!” A nice woman, but thankfully I only worked summers, and so never participated in the office secret Santa program. I’m not sure my gift would have pleased her, revenge being such a chilly concept. Will thinking about this now alter my decision to reread The Sentinel?  I’ll consider my options.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

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Demonic possession dominates any discussion, but so much more defines The Exorcist.  The green-pea soup, the blasphemous religious imagery, the bodily contortions and defilement of a 13-year old girl – merely window dressing for what lies at the heart of this story: three individuals representing particular stances toward faith.  First, Lankester Merrin the priest whose absolute faith rattles the demonic force inhibiting young Regan.  The entity bellows, “MERRIN! FEAR THE PRIEST!”  Second, Damien Karras, the younger priest, but also a man of science, a psychiatrist grieving for his recently deceased mother, guilt-racked over her dying alone in a state facility. His faith bangs along like an engine held together with duct tape and binding twine. Lastly, Pazuzu, Satan, whichever evil force has overtaken Regan, a sociopathic manipulator exploiting its enemies’ weaknesses with glee.  Without this struggle between three figures occupying different places on the spectrum of faith we’d have base shock, exploitation without topical meat.  No splatterpunk exists that can lay a finger on The Exorcist.

Blatty’s dialogue shines. The demon’s repartee sparkles with false logic and barbs, passive-aggressive innuendos and taunts.  The battle resides more on the mental and emotional planes, although physical entanglements dot the landscape. For me, this novel epitomizes the best satanic tale, one that extends over shock to engage our emotions, particularly our fears about existential vulnerability, universal malevolence, and a God who doesn’t seem to care. At the very core lies faith. Both the novel and the movie strike thematic gold in this regard.

 

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