In 2019, Valancourt Books began reissuing out-of-print horror novels under the Paperbacks from Hell label. It was inspired by Grady Hendrix’s excellent Paperbacks from Hell, itself an entertaining and fascinating history of a publishing subset most people saw as disposable. (Not entirely without reason, but still.)
I’ve snapped up every Paperbacks from Hell reprint, and I’m glad I have. I expected I’d be in for some gory, dopey fun. And, sometimes, I was. In a few cases, though, the material has risen well beyond what I thought I’d find. I encourage you to give the series a look, if you’re interested at all, and I might as well do so by ranking every Paperback from Hell, worst to best. And yes, I stole the format, but I stole it from myself so I think that’s okay.
You won’t find any story-ruining spoilers below, but obviously I will cite some sequences and examples from the books, so if one of them piques your interest and seems like something you’d enjoy, don’t hesitate to stop reading my mini-review. Proceed at your own risk, basically.
Also, Paperbacks from Hell is an ongoing series. As I write this, two other books are in the pipeline. My plan is to update this list as I read them, but I do not intend to revise the content of the existing entries any more than would be absolutely necessary. That’s sort of an experiment — I prefer letting my posts stand as they were written — so we’ll see how it goes.
And, finally, Valancourt is a great press and a not especially huge one. My intention here isn’t to belittle or discourage the purchase of the books I ended up ranking toward the bottom. It’s the opposite; I want to celebrate the ones I think are absolutely great. Of course, I am more critical about the ones I didn’t enjoy as much. Please don’t take that as a slight against the publisher, the Paperbacks from Hell label, or even the books themselves. These are just my opinions, and I’d always encourage you to support an endeavor like this if you are interested. Don’t let me talk you out of a purchase, in other words; allow me instead, if you will, to guide you to what I think are the best places to start.
With that out of the way, let’s rank every Paperback from Hell from worst to best.
11) The Spirit, Thomas Page (1977)
When you hear the phrase “Paperbacks from Hell” your mind is probably flooded with all kinds of monsters. Real, imagined, human, supernatural, even monsters that turn out to not be monsters at all. Indeed the series has so far done a great job of representing different kinds of monsters, keeping it from ever feeling too stale or similar. The Spirit, by Thomas Page, chooses Bigfoot for its monster. Before I read it, I looked forward to it. You can do a lot of things with Bigfoot in the role of villain. The Spirit does very few of them, and it doesn’t do any of them memorably.
It’s sort of a relief that I can so easily identify the worst of the Paperbacks from Hell. It’s about the only one I’m even comfortable applying that label to, as all horror fans know that even “bad” horror can be seductively, adorably, or riotously good. To christen something like that as the worst is to say that it has the smallest amount of value, even in an ironic sense. The Spirit has none, so it gets to prop up the rest of this list.
The real problem with The Spirit is that it’s so unrelentingly dull. It’s written exactly well enough to bore. Its competence is its liability. If it were smarter, more clever, more exciting, or more engrossing, it would obviously be elevated by those qualities. If it tried to be any of those things and failed, it would, potentially at least, be an amusing wreck.
Thomas Page wanted to write a novel about two men seeking Bigfoot, each for his own reason. He wrote that. One of them is a Native American on a spirit quest and the other is a hunter seeking revenge. He wrote that, too. He wrote it so well as to stifle both inventiveness and incompetence. It’s a book about Bigfoot that will sit as neatly upon your self as any other book about Bigfoot, and you will never be obligated to think about it again.
The closest I came to finding joy in the book was through Jack Helder, a character who runs a ski lodge doomed by his own idiocy and mismanagement. Helder has a major role around the middle of the book, and he’s interesting both for having a goal too hazy to be of any use (he wants to succeed) and for being his own biggest obstacle on his way to fulfilling that goal (he has no clue how to succeed). It would be a pretty massive stretch to say I enjoyed the time I spent with him, but I could at least see the ghost of a better version of his story playing out in my head. Hell, it would have been difficult not to.
I’m not trying to lay into Page. He may be a great author; this is all I’ve read from him. The introduction to the Paperbacks from Hell edition, though, has a number of quotes in which the author denigrates his own work, so I don’t think his feelings would be too hurt by learning that some idiot in Colorado agrees.
Speaking of the introduction, it’s there that Grady Hendrix states flatly, “The Spirit is the best Bigfoot book out there.” He might well be correct; I haven’t read enough Bigfoot books to know. If this is truly the high-water mark, though, I think sticking to other monsters has been wise.
10) Stage Fright, Garrett Boatman (1988)
Imagine somebody telling you about their dreams for hours upon hours. Every so often there’s some interesting imagery or a moment that resonates with you, but for the vast majority of the time, you are listening to somebody describe nonsense that has no connection to anything you recognize, understand, or care about. That is the experience of reading Stage Fright.
The novel is a disconnected mess that periodically achieves competence, but never for very long. It’s about — as much as it’s about anything — the dreamatron, which is a futuristic device that essentially allows artists to beam experiences directly into people’s minds. Whatever you can think to do with that premise is already more interesting than anything author Garrett Boatman thought to do with it. He explores the technology through Izzy Stark, a dreamatron virtuoso who basically uses the thing to make immersive horror films. The monsters become real. That’s about as far as Boatman’s imagination brings us, though he certainly takes the scenic route.
I would like to say that the dreamlike nature of the book is deliberate — the central device is called the dreamatron, and those who play it are known as dreamers — but it feels much more like poor writing. Sections are disconnected and logic rarely evident, sequences overlap and seem to repeat each other, and none of this happens with any clear artistic intent. It happens, instead, with what feels suspiciously like artistic incompetence. Characters — main characters — disappear from the story for long stretches, only to resurface for scenes that seem to be and are irrelevant to the larger story. We’re given no clear reason to root for or against anything. Pages and pages are dedicated to the specifics of who has concert tickets and who does not and who gives them to who and when and how and why, and exactly none of it matters. It’s just stuff that happens in a book that’s already so full of stuff happening that the story drowns in its own subplots.
All of which could be forgiven to some extent if the actual horror content were any good. Sometimes, to be clear, it is. There are evocative images and decently harrowing sequences throughout, but they always take too long to find and Boatman can’t seem to tell them apart from the hackneyed, writing-workshop level material that surrounds them. Even the best writing in the book is clunky, with common words being misused and every instance of foreshadowing being so overwrought that it’s basically just a direct preview of chapters to come. In spite of that, its imbecilic ending still manages to come out of nowhere, and intends to chill the reader in a way they did not expect. All it got out of me were the words, involuntarily out loud, “Oh, fuck off.”
The dreamatron is an important part of the book, until it isn’t. Stark freebases blood from schizophrenics (don’t even bother asking), which leads to its own mysterious subplot that runs directly into a brick wall and doesn’t bother standing back up. Another character — who may or may not be the protagonist of this story — is writing a book about Stark, but only when Stage Fright feels like talking about it. Stark’s journey from beloved schlock-slinger to murderer could carry the book, but it’s introduced so abruptly that it feels like Boatman remembering there’s supposed to be a conflict somewhere in here.
And it’s a conflict I don’t believe. I am willing to believe that a character gradually embraces his murderous side — especially in a horror paperback! — but Boatman never gets me to believe it. I am willing to believe his long-term girlfriend would stay beside him even after she learns he’s killing people (and has tried at least once to kill her), but Boatman never gets me to believe it. I am willing to believe this assortment of barely related characters could be woven together into a larger narrative that justifies including them all, but Boatman only gets me to believe he wrote an extraordinarily bloated first draft that nobody helped him edit.
Top it all off with some casual racism and a tiresome fascination with describing the “tits” of every female character — from teenage through geriatric — and you have a book that dodges its few good ideas and embraces its many bad ideas so expertly it’s almost impressive. But Stage Fright is not, I hasten to clarify, impressive in any way. It’s less boring than The Spirit, but so is actually being dead.
9) The Nest, Gregory A. Douglas (1980)
The Nest is essentially what I expected all Paperbacks from Hell releases to be, barring one or two exceptions at best. As you can see from its placement, I was very much and very happily mistaken.
The Nest is by no means poorly written, but it scratches little more than the most basic itch we expect to be scratched by horror novels. There’s some well-drawn gruesomeness and just enough in the way of characterization that we know what to feel when each character faces their reckoning. So far, so unexceptional.
What gives The Nest its identity is its near-perfect choice of monster: the roach. We hate roaches. We are naturally revolted by them. See one roach in a public place or business or — God forbid — your own home and the entire place feels irredeemably tarnished. I am by no means suggesting that roaches aren’t disgusting creatures, but we as human beings don’t just have an aversion to them; we have a built-in exaggeration of that aversion.
And so The Nest features swarms of roaches. Shiver-inducing on their own. Gregory A. Douglas doesn’t stop there, though; his bugs have developed a colony, much like ants or bees. They’ve learned to communicate and work together, operating like a single, larger entity, making them genuine threats as opposed to unwelcome pests. When some of the bugs are attacked, the entire colony knows and adjusts strategies accordingly. When some of the bugs sense an opening, the entirely colony takes advantage.
It’s gross, dumb fun…at least, overall. At times it’s gross and dumb in a different and less rewarding way.
Far be it from me to suggest that artists should keep their personal views out of their creations, not least because it would be literally impossible to do so. A creative mind is shaped and informed by the person who carries it, that person’s experiences, and that person’s environment. Every work of art is filtered through that artist’s understanding of what the world is. That’s as it should be and as it always will be. But it doesn’t mean all understandings of the world are equal. They provably are not.
In the case of Douglas, his beliefs about women’s place in society, about the nobility of country living over city dwelling, about sexuality…well, they’re what we could charitably refer to as backward. I am certainly aware that the opinions of characters do not necessarily reflect the opinions of their creators, but Douglas is writing a book about angry roaches; it’s a superficial experience, and what’s on the surface is too often insulting and regressive. Also, there’s a sequence in which a young girl loses her virginity to a swarm of roaches that consume her from the vagina inward. Y’know, in case you think I’m not giving Douglas enough credit as an artist.
8) Nightblood, T. Chris Martindale (1990)
Chris Stiles hunts down supernatural entities in the hopes that he will eventually enact revenge on the one that killed his brother, who is now a ghost that gives him advice. That is the greatest horror paperback premise imaginable. Sadly — well, kinda sadly — T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood focuses on one specific hunt when the possibilities should be endless. Evidently Stiles was supposed to continue his adventures in a series of books, but that never happened. We’re left instead with one book about a guy fighting a vampire, which is a bit less interesting and a lot more disappointing.
Nightblood really does feel like the only surviving installment of a long-forgotten series, and in a way it only makes sense to view it as one. While Stiles is serving in Vietnam, his brother Alex is murdered by…something. Together — from both sides of the veil — they follow some spooky clues that lead them to a vampire. Is the vampire what killed Alex? No. Does the vampire have any connection whatsoever to what killed Alex? No. So we’re left with one hell of a confused narrative. It would be sort of like a version of Moby-Dick in which Ahab spends the vast majority of the book beating up the mafia. It’s difficult to buy into the idea that a character is engaging in a single-minded pursuit of something when most of the time they aren’t focused on their goal at all.
And yet, for maybe a third or a half of its duration, Nightblood is incredible. It’s stupid in every one of the right ways. It’s written well enough to be entertaining and is executed clumsily enough that it’s endearing. It helps that Stiles — like the characters in The Pack, which we’ll get to — is kind of an idiot. He rides into town to deal with their local vampire problem, and the town is then just sort of stuck with him. He’s not Abe Van Helsing; he’s a redneck with some firearms. The town could certainly do better, but Chris Stiles: Vampire Shooter is what they get.
I’m not entirely certain how deliberate this was on Martindale’s part, but his protagonist has a knack for making a quiet pitstop into an explosively extended stay. At one early point in the book, he literally chews the town vampire into pieces with gunfire. Bits of the monster fly everywhere, until only one small, crawling, pathetic chunk remains. It disappears into the woods and Stiles — even though another character pleads with him to go finish it off — doesn’t bother to kill it. He assumes the sun will come up and fry whatever’s left. Fast forward a bit and the entire town is now under siege by a vampire army, each member of which can be traced back to the single entity Chris didn’t think it was worth pumping one more bullet into. The town goes from having approximately zero victims to having…well, whatever the population of the town is, minus about six. Whoops!
Stiles being an idiot becomes the story, in spite of Martindale’s intentions I’m sure. It’s appealing to watch somebody’s story about at a roaming badass going toe to toe with the undead turn into an Ernest movie before our eyes. Stiles is supposed to be our flawed hero, but Martindale only remembered to write the flaws. The only reason anyone gets out of this alive is that Stiles is surrounded by far more competent supporting characters.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it isn’t Stiles who figures out how to vanquish the vampire menace; it’s a group of townsfolk who specifically ignored his orders and went into action while he was asleep. I wish I were making that up, because I’d be tremendously proud of myself for that joke. Instead, that’s just the way Nightblood works, and it is astounding.
It’s also, however, overlong. Like Stiles himself, it overstays its welcome and never lives up to what we’re told was its potential. At one point the book shifts from a surprisingly endearing trainwreck to a competent but unremarkable vampire bloodbath. It gets boring and never approaches its own early, idiotic heights again. Those heights are damned high while they last, though.
7) The Pack, David Fisher (1976)
Burrows Island, a lovely little destination for rich tourists, is home to an astonishing pattern of vacationers abandoning their dogs when they’re “done” with them. Dogs are adopted, made part of the family, and then left to fend for themselves when the season is over. It’s villainous behavior on the part of characters we either never see or only see briefly. The prime example of cruelty in the book takes place when we aren’t looking. By the time we get here, it’s been happening for years.
If you want your readers to feel sad, do something awful to a dog. Pretty obvious, but I can’t say for sure that David Fisher had that in mind while writing The Pack. I can’t speak with any authority as to his intentions, and yet it feels quite a lot like he’s trying to push that concept to a natural extreme, just to learn as an author whether or not it always holds true. And so we have a pack of abandoned dogs literally waiting to tear a family to shreds. Will we feel bad for the dogs when they’re poisoned? Shot? Beaten away with golf clubs? For me the answer was yes, but The Pack at least made me stop and think a bit.
Part of the reason we sympathize so easily with dogs is that it’s easy to see them as human. We can see in them the same emotions and qualities we see in each other. Loyalty, stubbornness, playfulness, sadness, happiness…the list goes on. It’s likely dogs also see in us the same emotions and qualities that they see in each other. There’s a common emotional language that we share. All of which is to say, for the purposes of The Pack, that we don’t want to see a dog get hurt any more than we want to see a person get hurt.
But we do want to see a person get hurt in a story like this, right? That’s part of the fun. And if the person is a killer, or makes clear the cruel designs that he has on others, we’ll actively root for some degree of comeuppance. Now sub that person out for a dog. It should be easy, right? We see so much humanity in those animals anyway. Do we still want to see a dog get its comeuppance? In The Pack, each of these dogs was once a friend, a pet, a loved one. Do we want to see them get hurt? Even if we know they want to hurt us?
The net result is a strange sort of emotional stalemate. We don’t want either side to win, and we certainly don’t want either side to lose. It’s probably not the sort of balance most authors can maintain for long, and Fisher is smart enough to move briskly. The book is just a hair over 200 pages, and none of those pages are wasted. If a character doesn’t need to stick around, they won’t. If it takes some time for the dogs to organize into a pack of killers, we’ll skip that time and introduce them when they’re ready to kill.
Ultimately, Fisher’s smartest move is to make its two structural heroes — estranged brothers Larry and Kenny — dumb as two boxes of distinct but similar rocks. Each of them makes exactly the wrong choice at every possible opportunity, leading to an unnecessary (and easily foreseeable) death for one, and a much more difficult time of survival for the other. There’s an innately destructive pride at play that keeps either of them from…y’know…doing anything that might help. They each want to play the hero, and they’re each better suited to sit quietly and wait for an actual hero to turn up.
That helps maintain the balance as well. The dogs do some bad things, but the humans do the worst things to themselves. They all but place their own necks in the dogs’ mouths. It’s not an endearing stupidity, but it’s definitely engaging. We turn each page not quite wondering which party will outwit the other, but excited to see how the humans will bungle what should be an insurmountable advantage. And I can’t imagine The Pack working better than that.
6) The Tribe, Bari Wood (1981)
Vampires, bugs, dogs, Bigfoot…so far, so familiar to American popular culture. The Tribe chooses as its central monster a golem, and that alone makes it intriguing. That’s a monster from an entirely different horror tradition. It’s one that, to my benefit as a reader, hasn’t lost its ability to surprise or to unnerve. Even if The Tribe were poorly handled, I think I would have enjoyed it enough for that reason alone. I’ve seen almost every kind of monster go through its motions more times than I can count. But a golem? That’s something I’ve mainly known peripherally. Even a bad golem story would feel unique.
The Tribe is not a bad golem story. It’s not a bad story in general. Its central characters — a Jewish family and their Jewish friends — offered what was, for me, a fascinating window into a culture that isn’t far removed from my own but to which I’ve never belonged. I’ve had Jewish friends and colleagues, and that’s about it. Their rich — and often sorrowful — cultural heritage gives the story a great social backbone. We see the characters at their happiest and at their lowest. We follow them through triumph and through profound grief. And at each step, I felt like I learned a little more about the ways in which different cultures express themselves when faced with the same changes in life.
The big change in The Tribe is the senseless murder of an elderly rabbi’s son. It happens on the then-crime-ridden streets of New York. There’s no reason for it. It’s cruel and upsetting as it would be for any family from any culture. And yet, because the family in this book is Jewish, they are the “other” to those who do not share their history. They are the weird, scary caricatures depicted so often in propaganda throughout the ages, meant to dehumanize them and stir up antagonism. Am I reading too much into The Tribe? Being as a major plot point occurs when we flash back to a concentration camp in which several of our characters are imprisoned, I’m going to say no. Author Bari Wood is tapping into modern history’s worst crime against the Jews to inform the way they’re seen in this book, and to inform as well the way they respond.
It’s difficult to argue that a desire for revenge isn’t understandable here. A good young man is taken from the world in a hate crime. If you can fight back after that, few would begrudge you for doing so. An elderly man and his elderly friends cannot fight back, but they are aware of something that can. Together, they create a golem.
Being a horror story, we know the golem won’t be used for that purpose alone. We know that things will escalate. We know that an understandable act of revenge will spiral into something unforgivable. And when it does, it’s up to a friend of the family to figure out what happened and how to stop it. The friend of the family is Roger Hawkins, a black cop. Another “other.” Another person who knows through a different chain of experience what it’s like to be dehumanized. Another person who has had to weigh his own concepts of revenge and restitution and come to his own conclusions.
It’s an insightful book in terms of the dividing lines humans are keen to draw between themselves, and Wood is never content to let one example stand as definitive. The Nazis draw a line between themselves and the Jews. The Jews draw a line between themselves and the rest of New York. They also draw a line between themselves and Hawkins, who is a friend but who is kept at a distance for not being one of them. The white police draw a line between themselves and Hawkins. He has enough in common with any of them that they’d all benefit from being welcoming instead of shutting him out, but they shut him out. As we shut out our own “others.” And as we each give life to a monster we feel is justified and within our control. I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Tribe, but I didn’t expect to be pulling life lessons from it months later. It’s a damned good story.
Also, Stephen King provided the following quote about the book: “Marvelous…had me nervous about going upstairs.” Which sounds like a great compliment until you read the book and there isn’t a single time the golem or any kind of danger is upstairs. Nor is there a time any character is even mildly apprehensive about going upstairs, at least as far as I can recall. Stephen King will give you a quote for your book as long as you’re willing to cut him a check. He may well read it first, but he won’t do so very attentively.
5) Black Ambrosia, Elizabeth Engstrom (1988)
In the first “season” of Paperbacks from Hell, I fell in love with Elizabeth Engstrom’s When Darkness Loves Us. We’ll get there, but for now I’ll just say that it was such a remarkable book that I wanted more. In the introduction to that book, Grady Hendrix wrote a bit about Black Ambrosia, a vampire novel of Engstrom’s that I immediately tried to get my hands on.
It was out of print. The very few copies I could find were absurdly expensive. I figured all I could do was keep Black Ambrosia in mind any time I looked through shelves of old novels in used book stores or thrift shops. And then Paperbacks from Hell announced its second season, and Black Ambrosia was there. I could not have been happier.
Then I read it, and…couldn’t really get into it. It wasn’t at all what I expected or wanted. I made it a short way through the story and put it back on the shelf. I’d get to it at some point, but it wasn’t anywhere near that urgent read that I hoped it would be.
The second time I picked it up, I had my expectations far better aligned, and I ended up enjoying it a lot more. Black Ambrosia the first time around didn’t strike me as bad; it struck me as slight, and that was the last thing that I expected a full-length horror novel by Engstrom to be. Finally reading it properly, I was more willing to engage with it on its own terms. I’m glad I did; it’s quite good and at times achieves greatness. It’s worth reading. Its biggest crime is not being the heart-stopping work of horrifying brilliance I’d read earlier.
T. Chris Martindale’s Nightblood, which we’ve already discussed, featured a type of vampire that had more in common with the monsters seen in Night of the Living Dead than with Dracula. That’s okay. Engstrom’s vampire is of a more classical bent, and that’s by design. Not just the author’s design, but the vampire’s.
The vampire here is young Angelina Watson, and to her being a vampire is something like a career choice. She has a natural aptitude for it and it suits her personality. She likes being a vampire. She likes what it represents. She likes its tradition. She likes the label. In his introduction here, Hendrix posits that Angelina isn’t a vampire; she’s a lost girl who stumbled upon an identity. I won’t say he’s wrong, but I am at least not sure I agree. I think the truth is a bit of both. I think Angelina is a vampire. I also think that it doesn’t quite matter, because even if she weren’t, she’d choose to live this way.
Engstrom’s most interesting artistic choice here is to essentially write each chapter twice. We get the narrative version — basically, we get the novel Black Ambrosia — and then we get a first-hand account from one of the characters involved. We cut from one perspective to another. It’s an interesting method of telling the story, but in the end I’m not sure quite how much it adds. I think most of what “really” happened — or at least most of the interpretations other characters would have — is already there in the main narrative for those who are paying attention. But an overly cautious Engstrom is still damned good Engstrom. It’s not fair to be disappointed when somebody capable of A+ work turns in a B+ paper, but we always will be.
4) The Reaping, Bernard Taylor (1980)
The Reaping is a difficult novel to explain, at least in terms of its appeal. With others, I can point to big moments or indelible images, and sort of dance around those as illustrations of my feelings. Not so with The Reaping; its appeal is almost impossible for me to articulate.
I think that’s because it’s a very atmospheric book. In fact, in terms of sheer atmosphere, it might be the best release Paperbacks from Hell has given us yet. I was swept away by it not because of what was happening or because of what might happen next, but because of the way in which things happened. Bernard Taylor, basically, gave us a book so well written, it almost didn’t matter what was in it.
The story follows an artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait. He’s offered a massive sum for the job, but is required to reside in the same manor as his subject until his work is done. It would be a lie to say that there isn’t more to the story than that, but that’s more than enough space for Taylor to give us a spooky mystery that only gets stranger as its questions are answered.
…to a point, at least. The Reaping falls down pretty hard in the end, mainly due to just how good it was until its central mystery was resolved. Maybe that’s the problem; The Reaping is at its best when resolution seems to be permanently on the horizon, always there but impossible to reach. I think Taylor’s talent trapped him. Had he provided no resolution, we’d obviously be disappointed. But any resolution he can provide can’t possibly live up to the heights of the mystery he created.
The book is at its best when it just exists. Sounds in the night. Shifts in behavior. Sentences unfinished. When you don’t know what’s happening, everything has significance. That’s true for us and for our protagonist, a character whose entire life involves taking what he sees and immortalizing it on canvas. Throughout the book he sees so much but understands so little. It’s a naturally frustrating situation for an artist, and a playfully frustrating one for a reader.
There’s also a strange social anachronism at play throughout the book. It was published in 1980, but could at times pass for a comedy of manners from 100 years prior. It would make perfect sense for the strange residents of the manor to be many decades out of step, clinging to some kind of imagined social order that is not remembered by anybody beyond the boundaries of the estate, but our artist does get to go home. Our artist does get to spend time in the “real” world. Our artist does get to walk us through his daily routine both before and after his commission is complete. It’s not the manor that exists out of time; it’s The Reaping. And I love it.
Taylor’s book is such a difficult one to discuss. In fact, I wouldn’t have bought it on its own, and I can’t think of a single thing that somebody could have written about it that would have convinced me that it was worth my time. (At least, not a single honest thing.) You just need to be invited in, without knowing what awaits you, and see what you find.
3) Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, Mendal W. Johnson (1974)
When reading the Paperbacks from Hell releases, I read the introduction before the text proper. I’ll have certain things spoiled for me, but I honestly don’t care much about spoilers, and with original release years running (so far) from 1974 to 1990, getting a bit of context around what I’m about to read is helpful. I’d like to engage with the books — as much as possible — on their own terms. That’s more fair to them and I’m happier for it.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ opens with an introduction, but it’s one that pleads with you not to read it first. And so, for the only time so far, I read a book in this series without prefatory matter. I don’t want to speak for Grady Hendrix, who wrote that introduction, but I think there’s tremendous value in going into this particular story blind. The escalation of cruelty is the story, and that’s something no introduction can explain. It’s something that must be felt.
I will be honest with you: Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is one of the most haunting things I’ve ever read. I spent weeks having difficulty falling asleep without certain moments rushing back into my head. The book is vivid and unrelenting in its horrors. You will see very clearly in your mind everything author Mendal W. Johnson describes, whether you wish to or not. (To be honest, I’d hate to meet anyone who wished to.)
And so I won’t be spoiling anything here. I will only tell you what I knew ahead of time, and then emphasize how true it is. What I knew ahead of time was that the book was about a babysitter who is bound by her young charges, and that what follows is a harrowing and horrifying story that takes itself farther than you’d ever expect it to. Knowing that ahead of time, I set my expectations quite a long way out indeed. It went still farther. Knowing this, you’ll set your expectations even farther out. And it will go farther still.
I think the reason the novel disarms so effectively is that it’s good. I don’t know anything about Johnson outside of this book, but I don’t get the sense that he’s writing shocking things for the sake of shocking his readers. What happened is that he created a very specific cast of characters, and then let everything happen as it must happen. And so as awful as nearly every plot point is, they are also always the correct plot points. To take them anywhere less extreme would be a disservice to the hideous world Johnson let us peer into. Everything happens because it must happen. Everything gets worse because it must get worse. Nothing gets better because nothing can possibly get better.
It is a work of artful excess. It seems that a lot of critics dismissed the content of the book as being Johnson working through a sick fantasy. I was willing to believe that myself; it’s difficult to read something like this and not see it that way. But Johnson is not writing fantastically. Johnson is writing with icy commitment. I never got the sense that this reflected his desires — as a person, as an author, as an artist — in any way. I wish it did, because that would let me off the hook. That would let me shrug off everything that happens in Let’s Go Play at the Adams’. That would let me box up everything I experienced in this book and put a label on it and never open it again. But it’s not sick fantasy; it’s a horrifyingly natural sequence of events that shocks and horrifies and overwhelms not because we’re peering into the mind of some weird writer but because we’re peering into the souls of too many people we already think we know.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ does tell one scary story, but the real horror comes from the fact that you close the book and it’s still there around you. It’s in the air. It’s in people whose smiles seem so genuine. Johnson isn’t writing sick fantasy; he’s chronicling sick reality. And he does it so fucking well, I promise you it’s worth reading once. Exactly once. You won’t need a second time.
2) A Nest of Nightmares, Lisa Tuttle (1986)
I’m not sure if I’ve ever gotten into the discussion here, but I am not a fan of short fiction. Do I mean that uniformly? Of course not, but the novel is the perfect delivery method for fiction, as far as I’m concerned. With few exceptions (Carver and Chekhov, mainly), I don’t feel satisfied by them. I can’t so much explain why as I can guess. I think it has something to do with the appeal of fiction — to me — being the opportunity to be transported to a world of the author’s creation. Short stories feel more like glancing through a narrow window. I have respect for short stories, but rarely much love.
All of which is to say A Nest of Nightmares was far and away my least-anticipated installment of Paperbacks from Hell. If I don’t even enjoy the greatest short stories, what would I possibly get out of this collection? The fact that it’s this far up my list reveals, I’m sure, that I got a hell of a lot out of it. If I could have snapped my fingers and had Valancourt publish just about anything else in its place, I would have done so. I know now how much I would have regretted it, too.
Lisa Tuttle’s tales here absolutely qualify as horror, but they’re not limited to horror. There is so much effective, efficient storytelling here that the horror — whatever form it may take — is just one element of each story. You get some degree of spookiness, but it’s one part of a larger story about the people who encounter that spookiness. It isn’t great horror writing; it’s great writing that happens to be horror.
The real Nest of Nightmares, if you’ll allow me this indulgence, is the series of flawed relationships we forge as we go about whatever we consider to be our lives. And so while terrible things pop out and yell their personal synonyms for “boo” at various points throughout the collection, what haunts is the tortured relationship between jealous siblings, the failing marriage being taken out on a pet, the hurtful thing we said to somebody who made the mistake of caring about us, the perfect marriage lost forever through untimely death, the distance between who we are and who we wish we could be to others.
Those are the things that leave the worst scars. The monster in the closet feels incidental. By comparison, the time he revealed himself and tried to eat us is the funny story we’ll share at dinner parties. The rest is what we keep and fight and struggle to process alone, in silence, in the darkness.
Tuttle’s work here is astounding, and you’ll have to forgive me for going light on details. That’s one of the other things I’ve always tripped over when it comes to short stories; it’s impossible to describe them, even vaguely, without giving away so much of what they are.
But I will single out “Flying to Byzantium” as my favorite in this collection. It’s the kind of story that hurts to read at the same time you’re laughing at the insight. Maybe it won’t hit all readers quite as hard as it hit me — a writer, like the protagonist, with my own new book that I’m hawking — but it was, I felt, Tuttle at her absolute best, speaking the mundane truth in a profound and unforgettable way, elevating a tiny, quiet tale into something that quite literally redefines the world.
I can’t recommend this one enough, and it’s still not the best Paperback from Hell.
1) When Darkness Loves Us, Elizabeth Engstrom (1985)
And, yes, both of the top slots on this list are taken by things that aren’t full-length novels, despite the fact that I nearly always prefer full-length novels. It’s a weird feeling, but don’t worry; it won’t make me reconsider a thing about my preferences or the entertainment I choose to consume in the future!
When Darkness Loves Us is a set of two novellas. The first gives the book its name, and it’s one of the most affecting and unsettling works of literary horror I’ve ever read. It’s strange and funny and unnerving and terrifying, and it easily would have been worth the cost of the book on its own.
On the surface, it’s a story about a young woman who explores an underground tunnel while her new husband is doing yard work. It’s a tunnel she explored as a child and, slipping back into it now, as an adult with a brand-new life ahead of her, is a sort of comforting indulgence. The tunnel is then sealed behind her so that nobody will fall into it and get hurt.
That’s the entirety of the premise, and that’s probably enough on its own to make for a solid read. Engstrom does not stop there, however. It’s not enough to trap her heroine underground without anybody knowing where she is or even that she’s in need of help. She compounds the nightmare, many times over, drifting further from reality at about the same pace our main character does. Protagonist and narrator slide away in a mutual spiral of insanity, executed with horrifying beauty and a strangeness that feels both inventive and inevitable. It’s an excellent novella, and had this been the only pleasant surprise I’d gotten from Paperbacks from Hell, I still would have considered it a worthwhile purchase.
The second novella, “Beauty is…” has a completely different tone, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did “When Darkness Loves Us,” the fact is that just about anything would have felt like a step down after that. “Beauty is…” is much longer and takes its time weaving a believable, recognizable world before the horror truly sets in; precisely the opposite approach from “When Darkness Loves Us,” which thrusts its heroine into Hell within a page or so and only digs deeper from there.
“Beauty is…” is a story of several kinds of cruelty visited upon a character who doesn’t seem to be able to recognize or process them. It centers on a mentally disabled woman who proves herself slowly to be more capable than anybody around her suspected, which — depending on how you read it — could lead her into an even worse situation than being universally dismissed as useless. It’s a melancholy story with a sadness that sometimes feels too human to be entertaining. Unlike in “When Darkness Loves Us,” there’s not the comforting barrier of obvious fiction. Engstrom here is working through and exploring a very human tragedy, and it’s one that hurts more the closer we get to resolving it.
I’d love to say that when taking them both together we end up with one larger whole, something greater than the sum of its parts, which manages to achieve more than either story could on its own. That would not be true. We don’t end up with a singular, unforgettable collection as much as we end up with two separate unforgettable novellas. When Darkness Loves Us isn’t a work of brilliance; it’s two works of brilliance. That’s a neat trick in itself.