The golden age of popular literary horror was the late 1970s through the early 1990s. It was in this period that horror fiction came out of the shadows, partly due to the explosion in popularity of 1980s slasher-film franchises such as the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and partly because of the groundbreaking mainstream success of three genre titles in the late ’60 and early ’70s. Those novels – Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971), and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) – were blockbuster bestsellers capable of convincing publishers that there was a market for dark fiction about demonic possession, haunted houses, and supernatural goings-on.
Certainly the genre had been profitable prior to that: books like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) had all been reasonably successful and were all adapted for the screen. (It was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 adaptation of Bloch’s novel that really spurred its success; Matheson’s and Jackson’s novels enjoyed more mainstream literary acceptance outside of their respective film adaptations.) As Stephen King points out in his 1981 overview of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, literary writers had always been attracted to the weird and the macabre, and the three foundational novels of 19th-century Gothic horror – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) – have been enormously popular ever since their first appearances. Canonical literary writers as diverse as Henry James, Edith Wharton, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Colson Whitehead have all reached for tropes and techniques of genre horror in their work and it is difficult to imagine a situation in which horror fiction would not play some role in writers’ imaginations or publishers’ acquisitions.
But the 1970s and ’80s were a different beast altogether. The runaway success of Levin’s, Tryon’s, and Blatty’s novels, alongside real-world events – the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the nuclear brinksmanship of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and the AIDS crisis, among others – darkened the public mood and seemed to create the perfect conditions for horror to proliferate.
And proliferate it did. Major houses launched dedicated lines of paperback originals and houses like Zebra Books and Leisure Books started churning out a seemingly endless stream of horror – including many titles of dubious literary merit to say the least – packaged in gaudy, pulp-influenced covers with embossed lettering and die-cuts that practically assaulted readers from bookstore shelves and drugstore spinners. These were books with titles like Slime and Spawn and Blood Worm and The Succubus. Their stories were at the very least in questionable taste, and many display aspects of the era’s casual racism and misogyny. But bad taste is part of the point: much of horror’s allure arises out of its disreputability and the authors of this period were frequently unafraid to push their material to the limits, whether it be in the areas of sex and violence or the outrageous premises they came up with.
Many of which were admittedly derivative: when James Herbert’s 1974 novel The Rats became a bestseller in England and the U.S., it provoked a whole series of novels in which various animals or insects – from slugs and maggots to gila monsters and killer rabbits (in David Anne’s 1978 novel The Folly) – ganged up on human victims in increasingly repulsive or inventive scenarios. (Gregory A. Douglas’s 1980 pulp horror opus The Nest features a scene in which an escaped prisoner is torn apart by an intrusion of giant cockroaches just after the man has finished sexually pleasuring himself in the leaves and dirt of a forest.)
For people who remember this period fondly, Grady Hendrix’s 2017 volume Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction represents a nostalgic journey through the era’s horror publishing. For those unfamiliar with this period, the book provides an effective primer along with beautiful reproductions of the decades’ most memorable and outlandish cover art.
Hendrix breaks his chapters down by subject, covering demonic possession, haunted houses, killer children, and science run amok, among others, and finishing with a chapter on the hardcore splatterpunks of the early ’90s whose devotion to depictions of extreme sex and violence led to outcries from scandalized readers and helped put an end to the mainstream desire for this kind of genre writing. (Though as Hendrix points out, it was as much a turn away from straightforward horror to novels about serial killers that were more often categorized as thrillers that put paid to publishers’ enthusiasm for this kind of book.)
It is a truism that horror fiction tends to do well during times of political conservatism, which may explain the demand for these books during the dour Thatcher-Reagan era of the 1980s. Rampant political conservatism combined with real-world crises similarly afflict us in 2020, which makes it odd not to see a resurgence of horror fiction in our current moment. It hasn’t gone away – movies like Hereditary, Get Out, and It Follows continue to do well with audiences and critics alike. But there does not seem to be the same thirst for the kind of horror fiction seen in the recent past, or in the same volume.
Which is too bad. One thing Hendrix points out is that no matter how gruesome or distasteful or outrageous the books of the ’70s and ’80s became, the one thing they could never be accused of being is boring. And that’s something that can’t be said for a lot of the more supposedly literary or upright fiction being published today.