Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix
2017 is not yet over and I am already confident that I can unequivocally call Paperbacks from Hell my favorite book of the year (OK so, it’s a book about other books, but whatever.) When the title was first announced I had so many people reaching out to me to share the link and say, “Sarah, I saw this and thought of you!” and 1. I love that this weirdness made people think of me, and 2. you can bet your booty I’d already pre-ordered my copy by then! I had extraordinarily high hopes for a book that promised to take me “…on a tour through the horror paperback novels of two iconic decades” and galleries of book covers featuring “well-dressed skeletons, evil dolls, and knife-wielding killer crabs!” and not only was I not disappointed, it over-the-top met every one of my expectations–and far exceeded them. In the introduction Hendrix details his encounter with psychic Nazi S&M leprechauns in a life-changing paperback that he uncovered while rummaging in a dollar box at a sci-fi convention (which he describes as a story that “rockets from 0 to 60 on the loony meter”); he then details how this led to his addiction with the fabulous, freaky, and usually very flawed titles from the horror paperback book that began in the 60s with Rosemary’s Baby and ran until the early 90s, just after the success of Silence of the Lambs. Organized by the themes and subgenres that defined the eras (chapters include “Hail Satan”, “Creepy Kids”, and “Weird Science”, to name a few) the book manages to hit upon the popular titles associated with each chapter, as well as share the more obscure gems– so please be assured, you will rack up titles on your to-read list higher than a pile of comatose bodies in a Robin Cook medical thriller. The writing in relation to the subject matter is a delight; Hendrix is sassy and sarcastic and I don’t know about you, but even the things I take deathly seriously (like horror!) I don’t want to see it dissected and analyzed in dry, academic, scholarly language; I want it to be fun. And Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, while thoroughly researched and respectfully appreciative, is a joyful celebration of all the weirdness and absurdities of this strange period in paperback history that will leave you giggling all the way to the mankiest corner of your local used bookstore to search out that copy of Tricycle, with a bundled-up-for-cold-weather skeleton child furiously pedaling toward the viewer, hell-bent to jump off the page and fuck you up with its little mittened hands. I mean what the hell, what is that book about? Well, as the back cover suggests, no plot is too ludicrous, no cover art is too appalling, and no evil is too despicable–so no doubt Paperbacks From Hell will shed some light on the subject for you.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc and Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones are two titles I received from The Nocturnal Reader’s Box and which I devoured in the week we were without electricity and internet, post-hurricane Irma. I honestly don’t remember much about them except that I thought they were both excellent for different reasons and that I wanted to be sure to recommend them. Both are ghost stories of sorts, both deal with relationships, both involve mysterious houses and homes.
It’s officially autumn now, and you need some spooky stories, so that’s probably enough to go on, right?
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
This is the second book by Rebecca Solnit that I’ve read and now I’m certain I need to read everything else she’s written and whatever else she publishes in my lifetime. Much like A Field Guide to Getting Lost (and every bit as soulful and beautifully written), The Faraway Nearby is not about one thing, but many things – personal stories, the tales of others, history, art, fairytales and folklore – and it’s both Solnit’s perspective and the way she weaves all these threads together that has me hooked on her writing. This time Solnit explores interconnectedness and stories, the stories that shape and map our own lives, how we are woven into each others stories and, in turn, form even greater, more complex charts of the geography of self, life and death, memory and perception, illness and injury, treatment and healing, discovery, growth and change. It’s both a memoir and exploration of distance – the physical, the interpersonal, and the internal. One of my favorite aspects of this book is that, in addition to the myriad stories interwoven on its pages, a separate winding essay about science as poetic narrative and myth is simultaneously told in a single line along the bottom of each page running the length of the book. I started out trying to read both at once but quickly decided to leave this second piece for after I finished the main book. And I’m so glad I did, because it was an achingly beautiful essay that both stood on its own and contained the threads of everything explored in the book itself:
“Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. The birds sleep on, inadvertent givers. The moths fly on, enriched. We feed on sorrow, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imaginations beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves.”
Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive by Kristen Sollee
We already had the pleasure of Kristen Sollee guest-blogging over the summer with excerpts from her book, so including it here may be somewhat redundant. But having recently finished reading it myself, I simply want to add my voice to the coven choir praising this engaging primer on all things witchy, past and present, and exploration of the nexus between witches, sluts, and feminists as both powerful and persecuted people. Any one of these chapters could serve as a tremendous starting point for deeper personal exploration and it’s positively overflowing with recommended reading to do just that.
The Bone Mother by David Demchuk
At the outset this book seems to be a collection of unrelated short stories, each a uniquely unsettling and otherworldly combination of horror and folklore, but it soon becomes apparent that they are all in fact related. The supernatural creatures that are the subject of these tales – some easily recognizable from Slavic folklore and others entirely new – each come from one of a trio of neighboring villages fighting for survival on the border of Ukraine and Romania. This book contains stories of their struggle to survive eradication, to assimilate into modern society or face down their persecutors. It also tells the stories of the humans who live alongside them or subject to them, the faithful, the facilitators, and the prey. Some of these tales are ghostly and haunting, others are brutal and thoroughly disturbing. While I enjoyed some more than others, particularly stories that featured LGBTQ characters, I love how they collectively paint a picture of an entire pocket of fictional folklore urgently telling its tales as the shadows of genocide and war loom large.
The Fireman by Joe Hill
Oh, Joe Hill. You’ve yet to write something that I didn’t eagerly devour. The Fireman is the story of a global pandemic known as Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or Dragonscale to the layperson. It’s a highly contagious disease, the method of transmission unknown, that first covers its host in surprisingly beautiful black and gold markings and later causes them to smoke and ultimately burst into flames. With people spontaneously combusting all over the world, society breaks down and thus emerges the true horror of The Fireman. Told from the perspective of a compassionate nurse named Harper Grayson who eventually meets the titular Fireman who has learned to control the fire within his flesh, the true horror here it isn’t the rampant, fatal disease, it’s how people react to it and to those affected by it, both on an individual basis and collectively. This wasn’t my favorite Joe Hill novel. Heart Shaped Box and N0s4A2 are still tied for that spot, but I found it thoroughly freaky, vividly told, and almost impossible to put down.
American War: Omar El Akkad
I picked up American War for a couple of reasons. First, I will read almost anything that has the phrase ‘dystopian fiction’ in the review. But second, because the author’s background is so interesting. Egyptian-Canadian journalist turned novelist Omar El Akkad made his name covering the War in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, and his interest focuses particularly on the destabilization of societies. His real-world experience covering war, revolution, and protest make every detail in this novel deeply, painfully realistic. American War is no fun romp through the Wasteland. It’s dark. Dark enough to draw comparisons to The Road from a number of reviewers, although the two are so different that I didn’t feel that was actually a good analogy. The book follows Sarat Chestnut from her childhood, as life carries her and her family into a new American Civil War again, this time fought over fossil fuels. We follow her as she becomes a woman, from refugee to freedom fighter to something much darker. We understand every step she takes down a road we often ask ourselves how anyone can travel. With Sarat, we see every horrible, inevitable step. American War is a good read, but it’s not an easy one. It will leave you unnerved and unquiet. But that’s the point.
The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction tear recently, probably to balance out the fact that I’ve also been watching The Vampire Diaries for six hours a day. I discovered The Devil in the White City while researching another American serial killer and promptly added it to my list. This isn’t a typical serial killer bio, though. The book covers two intertwined stories, that of architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, the Chicago World Fair’s director of works, and H.H. Holmes, the “murder hotel guy” American Horror Story: Hotel’s character James March was based on. I suppose it’s a bit like sneaking spinach into brownies, where you pick up a book about murder and end up reading a metric shit ton about architecture, history, and the history of architecture, but all of the information is so goddamn fascinating that you don’t even care. One of the best books I’ve read all year.
Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction by Steven Martin
Steven Martin, a freelance writer living in Southeast Asia, was writing a piece about the vanishing culture around opium smoking when the collector’s impulse he’d had since childhood kicked in and he began buying up pipes and other antiques necessary to smoke opium. In a “why have a garage full of vintage cars you can’t drive” moment, he smoked opium using his new wares and, well, you can see where this is going. This book is both memoir and history book, detailing his varied spirals downward and attempts at recovery as well as describing the intricate paraphernalia used in the opium ritual and busting some opium myths. Did you know opium smokers lie down not because it makes them lethargic, but because the prone position makes it easier to use the lit lamps? What about the fact that despite fiction and even nonfiction works to the contrary, there is no actual history of opium dens and widespread opium usage in the UK? Definitely recommend this book.
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt
Just started this one but my current takeaway is don’t keep hamsters as pets.
Tell us what you’ve been reading lately in the comments!