Monday, November 30, 2009

Softcover Books, Hardcore Horror - RIP

I've just returned from one of my two weekly trips to the local Barnes & Noble - yes, while Amazon confiscates a major portion of my paycheck, I still find prowling the aisles of a bookstore to be one of the most relaxing things I can do for myself - where I've just acquired my monthly dose of mass market paperback horror novels from the good folks at Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). This month's releases are Ghost Monster from Simon Clark and The Resurrectionist by Wrath James White. For at least the last thirty years or more this has been my weekly ritual - going to the bookstore (or bookstores) and picking up that week's offerings of cheap (I would add "disposable," but I never throw them away) paperback horror. Two books tonight. There was a time when I would have hauled two books up to the counter and the clerk would have said, "Slow week, Steve?" But now, two books may well be all that I purchase for the month of December...and it's definitely not because I have cut back on my buying habits.

There was a time when paperback horror novels were not just great in number, but they were available for purchase everywhere. It was impossible to walk through the checkout aisle of your supermarket without seeing the latest titles - and this was even before a certain fellow from Maine came along and invigorated the industry. Horror novels would routinely hit the best seller lists in hardcover, cycle through into a cheap mass market edition a year or two later (there was a longer turnaround time then), and then the last step - Hollywood. By the time the film version of the book came out, it had been drilled into the public consciousness for years. When novels like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Other, Audrey Rose, Demon Seed, The Fury and The Entity struck gold, it was not a matter of if they would find their way onto the screen, but when. There's a reason that Spielberg's Jaws copied the design of the book jacket for its Summer 1975 debut: that image was iconic before the first ticket was sold, thanks to the paperback best seller.

Stephen King entered a market primed for multi-medium success. Carrie was published by Doubleday in 1974, and while it was a modest seller, it didn't explode until Signet published a mass market softcover edition one year later, and that mysterious neon-lit profile was
ubiquitous. (You had to open up the book to the inside jacket to find out the title, and lots and lots of us did.) Brian DePalma's film version was out by 1976, and the rest, as they say, is horror history.

But then the publishers changed the rules. The outstanding sales for the paperback edition of Carrie - as well as Salem's Lot - demonstrated that there was an enormous public appetite for inexpensive horror novels, and publishers like Dell, Bantam, Ballantine and Avon began greenlighting titles to be sold as straight-to-mass market, or with only the feint of a hardcover release. Suddenly King was joined on the racks by a plethora of new writers: Dean Koontz, James Herbert, John Farris, Robert McCammon, Michael McDowell, John Saul, Whitley Strieber. And, in the late 70s and early 80s, the paths of publishing and Hollywood slowly diverged. The publishers were putting out far too much product for even a percentage of it to find its way to the screen, and cinemagoers were embracing non-supernatural chills, as the Slashers began their reign of terror. For those who bemoaned the screen's preoccupation with knives and nubile young things, the paperback industry was putting out as many as a half-dozen new titles every week, exploring the wide range of Horror subjects; creatures on the loose, ghosts, demonic possession, vampires, werewolves, ecological catastrophe, nature in revolt, and, yes, stalk 'n' slash. Whatever your taste in terror happened to be, there was something inexpensive between two covers waiting to satiate your hunger.

Was there a lot of dreck? Absolutely. Zebra Books saturated the market with dozens of "skull face" titles by authors like William Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jensen, books that were pilloried at the time, but I confess I look back upon them now with nostalgia. Yes, they were knocked out like so many flapjacks, but they were still Horror, and taken together with the better stuff, they allowed bookstores to feature actual Horror sections of paperbacks, and from authors whose last names started with letters other than "K." These were important if for no other reason than they allowed Horror to coexist on the racks with genres like Romance, Western, Science Fiction, and Crime & Detective.

As the Eighties became the Nineties, there was some drop-off in quantity, but every now and then there'd be a sign of renewed life (like Dell's superlative, boundary-breaking Abyss line of slipstream Horror), and it also became a challenge for adults to sift though the titles on the stands and avoid those countless books marked YA - Young Adult (although I would pronounce it "Yaaaah!"). The novels of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine seemed to be grooming a new generation to take up the practice of perusing well-worn volumes of paperback horror at an affordable price.

But that didn't happen. The readers of such series
as Goosebumps and Fear Street did not matriculate to adult horror. In fact, they didn't matriculate to anything - they just stopped reading. As book sales faltered, paperback horror was one of the hardest-hit genres, and even established authors whose last names begin with the letter "K" saw their sales slip. Horror novels became the domain of small publishers whose titles are impossible to find at the chains, and sometimes even a challenge for Amazon to intercept. Of the two biggest chains, Borders still features a Horror section that struggles to find books from more than a handful of writers, and Barnes & Noble dissolved its Horror section years ago. (The stores in the Milwaukee area have taken to folding books with vampires, werewolves and zombies into the - shudder - Sci-Fi and Fantasy section.) Kudos must go to Dorchester Publishing and its commitment to release two titles a month by new stars like Brian Keene, Sarah Pinborough and Ray Garton, as well as established talents like Al Sarrantonio, Jack Ketchum, Rick Hautala and Ramsey Campbell.

The conventional wisdom is that paperback Horror collapsed under the weight of dozens and dozens of crappy books, but I don't buy that. Will that same wisdom then try to convince me that the Romance, Sci-Fi and Crime shelves are stocked with minor masterpieces? Horror used to be a reliable go-to for the traveller passing time with a page-turner while waiting for a connecting flight. It used to be an impulse buy for the shopper with a cart full of groceries. It used to be the theme for many a hardcover bestseller, later to be turned into a glossy, big-budget feature with a stellar cast. Horror fiction used to be available, dare I say it - Mainstream. It's not anymore. It's appealing to an insular, isolated audience. Success in the cinema is not pulling readers into bookstores. (It never has. Not even the phenomenon of Star Wars produced more than a temporary uptick in the popularity of published Sci-Fi in the 70s and 80s.) And with the entire publishing industry in flux, and with the future of print itself in question, it's doubtful we may ever see those days return.

How I miss coming home with a stack of paperbacks.


Jay Watson said...

Thanks Steve for a wonderful look down the memory lane of horror fiction. What you said!

senski said...

Thanks, r/e! Glad to have you following!

Jeff Allard said...

Senski, that was a rockin' remeberance of the heyday of paperback chillers! Back in the late '70s and early '80s, while my mom would be shopping in our local supermarket or Bradlees or Sears or whatever, I'd always go off and wait for her in the book racks. I used to love looking at the covers for these books. Always plenty of skull or creepy doll covers to be found! It's sad that horror fiction has become such a niche thing over the past few decades because, like you say, it used to be front and center in the mainstream.

senski said...

My dad still has every one of my paperbacks at my parents' house - seven bookcases, books shelved two or three deep, piled high on top. Easily over 3000 titles. One of my Jar goals for 2010 is to relocate these to my place (three hours away) and start scanning the covers and posting reviews. Many of these books have zero presence on the Interweb, and the Jar is all about preserving! Thanks, guys!

KenPaul66 said...

Thanks for writing about this. I'm a Barnes & Noble employee and you're right,new horror titles(that have nothing to do with this current vampire craze) are few are far between. Sad. I miss writers like Ruby Jean Jensen. Nobody could write a book about demon-possessed dolls better than Ruby !

senski said...

Thanks, AiGD. I'm always gratified when one of these older posts elicits a response. Things at my B&N have gotten even worse, as the last three months they've only bothered to stock one of the two titles that Leisure publishes every month, and I've had to go hunting for the other. What up with that?

PS - 80s Brit Pop - Yes!

Will Errickson said...

Wow, wonderful post on a subject near and dear to my own black heart. In the late '80s/early '90s I worked in a used bookstore and we sold these books by the dozen. I feel the same nostalgia for those insane covers! I even started my own blog on the stuff, Too Much Horror Fiction.