To be an enthusiast of horror and exploitation films, you have to be willing to endure a sometimes endless supply of poop to find a diamond. Author Grady Hendrix is familiar with this process. As a Charleston lad in the ’80s, he would traverse video stores in hopes of finding cinematic perfection clothed in madness. Occasionally he’d find the beauty of Vice Squad‘s neon slime and Basket Case‘s twisted Bilal but he’d have to scour through endless hours of disappointment to get there. Not content to just search the video stores for gritty gems, Hendrix also liked haunting local bookstores and libraries for nefarious novels like Crabs: The Human Sacrifice, Beserker, Satan’s Love Child, and The Little People. Known primarily for the horror comedy novel Horrorstor and the horror novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Hendrix has decided to use those years of book digging as the focus for Paperbacks From Hell, a new book dedicated to the history of horror paperbacks boom from the ’70s and ’80s. He recently took time to chat with us about Paperbacks From Hell.
City Paper: What was the impetus for Paperbacks From Hell?
Grady Hendrix: I’ve always loved going out into uncharted waters and looking for obscure movies or books, but I was having a tough time doing that with paperbacks. I’d go into Sullivan’s Trade-a-Book or Mr. K’s and see row after row of lurid horror paperbacks but I didn’t know anything about them. Taking a book off a shelf was a game of eyeball roulette and I spent hours reading really boring books, trying to find the ones that rocked. I yearned for some kind of a map and it took me a long time to realize that if I wanted a map I’d have to draw it myself.
CP: Do you have fond memories connected to those times when you were seeking out books?
GH: The Book Bag in Mt. Pleasant was one of my haunts, but the major location of the birth of my fascination was the Book Exchange in West Ashley. Their used comics got me in the door but I started spending hours going through their shelves of sci-fi and horror mass market paperbacks. More than that, though, the web of libraries in Charleston are what really turned me on. Whether it was the pink castle of the downtown public library, the tiny cottage that was the Mt. Pleasant library in the Old Village, the MUSC library where I would go through books loaded with bizarre diseases and syndromes, or the dim, labyrinthine stacks of the Library Society downtown, I spent hours in all of them and they made me who I am today.
CP: How long of a process was it creating this book? I’d imagine securing the rights to the images alone could be a trial of its own.
GH: I read hundreds of paperbacks and scoured the internet and public libraries and Amazon for newspaper articles, press releases, and out-of-print books about publishing trying to put this history together and get the facts right. In terms of the artists, I will always feel guilty that there are so many I couldn’t identify. Legally, we can use the covers without paying the artists, but I thought it was morally wrong, so every artist I could find I licensed their images from them out of my own pocket. It was the least I could do.
CP: Why did you choose The Little People as the introductory title?
GH: That’s the book that launched a thousand paperbacks. I wasn’t real serious about this until I stumbled across a copy of The Little People in a dealer’s dollar box at a convention. I bought it for the cover, but the contents boiled my brain. It doesn’t hurt that its cover, by the great Hector Garrido, features Nazi leprechauns spilling out of an Irish castle that’s bursting open like a pinata.
CP: The enthusiasm for your subject is infectious.
GH: For a long time I helped run the New York Asian Film Festival and I fell into the job of introducing the movies. I learned that the audience had a much better time if I gave them some context for what they were about to see, how it fits into the film industry of that country, who the director was, and why the movie mattered. And if I did it with some energy and enthusiasm they had an even better time. Establishing that you are the biggest idiot in the room by introducing a movie in diapers, or dressed as a cow gives everyone else permission to cut loose and enjoy themselves. That’s carried over into everything I do. Enthusiasm is the least cool thing on the planet, in fact, it’s the opposite of cool. So I’m always trying to be as uncool as possible.
CP: What were your thoughts on the latest It adaptation?
GH: The movie really bored me. Moving it to the ’80s was a stroke of genius, and it looked fantastic thanks to Chung Chung-Hoon the Korean cinematographer. Bill Skarsgard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Sophia Lillis were fantastic, and the other kids were pretty good, too. But I think they remained faithful to the book in the wrong places while failing to capture the vaulting ambition and go-for-broke creativity of the book.
CP: What are your views on ’80s nostalgia utilized in horror film/books?
GH: I hate it, to be honest. Too many writers seem to think that you can name check some brands, goof on a few trends, commission a minimalist synth soundtrack, and make your colors neon and that’s it. I grew up in the ’80s and to me the decade was strange, ominous, amazing, and dangerous. I don’t like seeing its complexity reduced to a lazy punchline.
CP: If you had a Delorean what movie would you want to discover and in what theater?
GH: The Riviera on King Street was closed for decades and just sat there rotting away, untouched. When I was around 10 years old, they opened it up for movie screenings, and I remember going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey there. It was shown on 16mm from a projector in the balcony, and they had put plastic over the seats so you could sit on them. Ferns grew from the walls and old rotting velvet curtains hung around the stage. I’d love to go back and see the movie again in that cavernous, decrepit splendor now that I’m old enough to appreciate it.
CP: If you had a choice who would be the composer for your life: Jan Hammer or Goblin?
GH: Goblin. 100 percent. If they were the composer for my life, it would probably mean that I was a screaming lunatic, confined to a locked cell, writing my next book in my own blood on the walls, but I’d take it if it meant I got to listen to Goblin 24 hours a day.
CP: You’ve hosted the great Stephen King rereads and put together film festivals — so that urge to share art is evident. We’re getting close to Halloween, any recommendations for the hungry?
GH: Fall is when I usually re-read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes because it’s the ultimate autumn book. But as Christmas approaches I highly recommend picking up Such Nice People by Sandra Scoppettone. It’s about a big, loving New England family gathering at the old homestead to celebrate the holiday, not knowing that one of their sons is hopelessly insane and believes that his version of God is telling him to murder everyone in the house. Fun for the whole family! And I’ve always loved watching The Stepfather when November comes around. The 1987 original is set during autumn and it’s another wonderful tale about someone deciding that the time has come to wipe out his entire family. It helps me get through the Thanksgiving visits.
CP: Is there another book in the works?
GH: Absolutely. It’s called We Sold Our Souls and it’ll be out in Fall of 2018. It’s a horror novel about a heavy metal band.