Savoring the Cheese: An Appreciation of 80's Horror Paperbacks by Evans Light

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely already a fan of horror fiction.

Maybe you’re just now beginning to explore the wide world of the horror genre that exists once you venture outside of the stacks of King, Koontz, Rice and V.C. Andrews titles crowding the horror sections of bookstores that bother to have one.

Or perhaps instead you started your trip towards horror fiction as a kid who devoured every Goosebumps volume that R.L. Stine pumped out, and as you grew up so did your tastes.

If you were really lucky, then you were a teen or young adult in the 80’s, a glorious period when horror ruled in just about every form of media: theaters bursting with the latest gory masterpiece, mom-n-pop video store shelves brimming over with the craziest low-budget stuff you could imagine, horror-themed metal blasting from half the radio stations on the air.

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I’m completely aware that 80’s worship is in full swing. From SUPER 8 to STRANGER THINGS and a hundred other throwback projects in between, you can barely walk in a straight line these days without plowing through piles of acid-washed, big-haired synth-pop crap entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, a little nostalgia from time to time is fun, but it’s getting to the point I’m about to hang myself with a leg warmer.

But there’s one thing I don’t think I’ll ever stop appreciating the 80’s for gifting upon the world: a massive tsunami of horror fiction.

My god, those books.

Spinning racks stuffed with a seemingly never-ending supply of fresh pocket paperbacks, with leering, lurid, oversaturated, foil-stamped, embossed, step-back covers an apparently required-by-law  fixture in nearly every grocery and drug store. Those covers promised unspeakable horrors and unthinkable depravities specifically designed to subvert and pervert innocent young minds. Even better, they could be had for barely more than a pocket full of change and without a moment’s hesitation from the clerk no matter your age.

Those were the days.

I was lucky to be a teen in the late eighties and enjoyed my fair share of horror fiction back then, although in those pre-internet days there was such limited information available anywhere about pulp horror that buying a paperback was frequently a leap of faith based on little more than a glorious cover and a blurb on the back, a leap that more often led to crushing disappointment rather than a hidden gem.

But there were gems, those books of unexpected greatness and perfectly perverse pleasures that kept us coming back again and again, full of hope for just one more. Even if a book turned out to be a stinker at least the cover looked cool as hell on the nightstand.

My path to becoming the fan of vintage horror fiction that I am today wasn’t straightforward. Even though initially reared in a very sheltered environment, I loved spooky tales from a very young age. My brother Adam and I would scour the library for anything dark and unusual that we were allowed to get our hands on. Fortunately, books that were viewed as “classics” slipped through the filters of our censors. As a result we devoured such great foundational horror as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson. Little did we know at the time that we taking exactly the right classes for our horror education. An occasional episode of the Twilight Zone here and there pushed me further towards my current direction.

Around the age of 15 (1987-88) I was finally granted the freedom to pursue most any entertainment I saw fit, and the timing couldn’t have been better to enjoy the golden age of horror paperbacks. Being a typical teenager, I had little lasting affection for the books I’d buy and simply passed them along for others to enjoy once I finished. With adult life intervening during the mid-nineties and beyond, my focus shifted much more towards writing horror than reading it.

It was really only during my initial forays into publishing towards the end of 2011 that I became aware of the massive volume of pulp horror that had been released during the late 80’s and early 90’s, and then again during the 2000s (a renaissance which I completely missed at the time, probably due to a houseful of kids).

At some point over the last few years, I got the idea to attempt to assemble a complete collection of mass market horror paperbacks from the modern golden age of horror. Abandoned collections are being donated to thrift and used book stores at increasing rates for bargain-bin prices these days, and this bolstered my (inaccurate) belief that amassing a complete collection of 80’s horror paperbacks would be a fairly simple feat to accomplish (it hasn’t been), and would give me an invaluable reference library for my own ongoing endeavors as a horror author (it has).

I have a sneaking suspicion that these 80’s horror titles are being discarded at such an alarming rate right now that quite a few of them will likely become rare and valuable collectibles before too long. Some titles have already spiked in price over the last couple of years, particularly novelizations of 80s horror films.

Even after several years of dedicated collecting and cataloguing, I still don’t have a firm grasp on exactly how many mass market horror paperbacks have been released since 1980, but the number is well over 10,000 for certain. My own personal paperback collection is hovering around the 5,000 mark, and is still far from comprehensive. It’s gratifying to know that many of the books in my library have been found for a dollar (and often much less).

Everyone has a compulsion, some call it a vice, something to help occupy the part of our brains that would otherwise be incessantly wrought with worry and drive us to insanity. Some people fix that part of their mind with drink or drugs. Some watch television or play games.

To each his own.

Personally, I enjoy collecting, reading and writing horror fiction.

Could be worse, I suppose.

Collecting is an odd thing, an uncomfortably close relative to hoarding but separated from it by a tenuous gap of alphabetization and being able to walk through a room unhindered. Perhaps a self-justification but I consider myself not a collector, but rather a preserver. A protector of what has come before. The beauty of the technology books represent is that they require no electricity to read, have no software to become obsolete. So many items in a technological civilization evaporate into junk and are rapidly discarded as they lose value and purpose, but a book can provide a window into the mind of its author for as long as eyes remain to read it. A book is a slice of consciousness set down in ink, moments in time frozen and preserved.

Storytelling is a form of magic, and books are perhaps the most comprehensive form of immortality that exists.

But what about those glorious cheesy 80’s horror covers? What makes them particularly special?

There is so much talent on display by mostly unsung artists on the covers from this era, it is sad that so few of them were ever (or ever will be) credited. Tracking down who is the creator of what can be exceedingly difficult, especially for publications released prior to the digital age from publishers that no longer exist. It’s truly a pity.

Personally, I’m drawn to covers that possess the capability to reach across the room and command your attention, covers that use a thrilling burst of color to draw you in and reward closer examination with a wealth of hidden detail. Beautiful foil and embossing each provide a special kind of cheap thrill, and perhaps if you’re lucky you’ll find a second glorious painting peeking through a cleverly placed step-back hole carved in the cover. The story told on these magnificently garish covers is often completely unrelated to the tale that unfolds between them. In many cases the cover provides more fulfillment than the story inside, and that’s fine by me. Sometimes a great cover is enough. Other times, less frequently for certain, both the cover and the book prove to be a forgotten jewel. That’s when things get glorious. That’s what keeps me searching.

Even though horror fiction as a genre has seen it fortunes fall significantly since those high cotton days, it’s still alive, still fighting to make a full comeback. Fans new and old find themselves awash in more books than could ever be read in a lifetime, all the thousands that have come before, all the new books that are coming still.

Here you’ve seen some of my favorite cheesy horror covers. Let me know in the comments which of your favorites I’ve missed!

 

About Evans Light

Evans Light is a writer of horror and suspense, and is the author of Screamscapes: Tales of Terror, Arboreatum, Don’t Need No Water and more. He is co-creator of the Bad Apples Halloween anthology series and Dead Roses: Five Dark Tales of Twisted Love.

Evans lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, surrounded by thousands of vintage horror paperbacks. He is editor-in-chief and co-owner of Corpus Press, which specializes in original horror and weird fiction. He is the proud father of fine sons and the lucky husband of a beautiful wife.

More information on Evans and his work can be found at the following links:

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Evans-Light/e/B0075WB5WI

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5816392.Evans_Light

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Michael Schutz

Michael Schutz was born and raised in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, where the macabre tales of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King kept him warm at night. He’s seen way too many horror movies to be healthy and blogs and podcasts about them on Darkness Dwells. Watch for his new novel, Edging, from Burning Willow Press in spring 2017. He is the author of the novel Blood Vengeance and the novella Uninoch. His short fiction has been featured most recently in Dark Moon Digest, Sanitarium, and the anthologies Beasts: Revelations, Beyond the Nightlight, and Cranial Leakage: Tales from the Grinning Skull. He lives with his three naughty cat-children in northern California.