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Review: Paperbacks from Hell

The best gift for this Halloween is Grady Hendrix’s glamorously gory Paperbacks from Paperbacks_from_HellHell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, a beautiful homage to the glory days of horror publishing.

Many of you will know Hendrix from his genre-bending novels My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör (a wonderful IKEA-themed nightmare). If you don’t, you should make yourself familiar. His clear love of the genre and dark sense of humor is prevalent in his fiction, but even more so here.

Hendrix guides us through all aspects of horror fiction’s heyday, tracing its roots from the civil unrest of the 1960s and Gothic romances, through the domination of heavy hitters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, into the eventual over-saturation of the genre.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I remember many of the titles and the experience of browsing through bookstores with actual “horror” sections. Forbidden to buy these extreme books, I ingested them through the cover art and back jacket, imagining what dark delights lived between the covers.

Reading Paperbacks from Hell was like revisiting those bookstores from yesteryear. While Hendrix has much to say about the history and content of these books, Paperbacks is a celebration of cover art and story concept, no matter how ridiculous, from Nazi leprechauns to vengeful insects. It is a coffee table book and artist portfolio all in one.

While Hendrix provides the narrative, his partner in this project is Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which revisits vintage scares. It is a labor of love for these two horror nerds, one that would make the 10-year-old me jealous (and the current me exhausted!).

Though he revels in the ever-more ludicrous story plots, Hendrix gives all of the entries fair consideration and validates every sub-genre (with the exception of splatterpunk). Some of the most important sections concern the Satanic Panic, which coincided with the high tide of horror fiction.

Some of my favorite parts are the mini-biographies of the cover artists and the back stories of their work. Though the cover art was sometimes the best part of these books, the artists got short shrift. It’s nice to see them getting recognition. I enjoyed learning about them.

Of course, we know how this story ends, and it is not happily ever after. Hendrix documents the various causes of death of horror publishing: over-saturation of the product; consolidation shuttered the small presses; with the introduction of cable television and VCRs, a large amount of the population just stopped reading.

Hendrix goes further, though, digging into obscure tax law and explaining how the Thor Power Tool case of 1979 changed publishing forever. Interesting stuff, but sad nevertheless.

Unlike those disposable pulps, however, Paperbacks from Hell is a timeless beauty: glossy pages, vivid graphics, embossed printing. This is a gorgeous book, one to keep and display and start awesome dinner-party conversations.

It was an emotional ride. Reading Paperbacks took me back to those early-’80s bookstores, wide-eyed and terrified, absorbing those beautiful and grotesque horror novels I was forbidden to read, but that forever influenced me nonetheless.

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Last-Minute Literature

The tick-tock of the holiday shopping season is winding down (or perhaps gearing up with desperation). If you’re still needing a last-minute book for the literati in your life, these blurbs should help differentiate the Red Ryder BB gun from the lumps of coal.

Diary of Edward the Hamster (1990-1990)

Miriam and Ezra Elia

I didn’t think anyone anthropomorphized animals more than me until I read this diary,Hamster translated from the notes left behind by Edward the Hamster. Much like the Marquis de Sade, who wrote extensively while in prison and only achieved literary fame posthumously, this artifact of Edward’s incarceration is certain to elicit pathos in readers.

It’s clear that Edward has studied the likes of Heidegger and Sartre. His reflections are wrought with defiance, despair and existential angst. He searches for meaning within his cage. There is food, water, a wheel.

“Is there nothing else!” he cries.

Filled with wit and wisdom, this graphic novel is a black comic tribute to a beloved hamster—the most existential beast within the animal kingdom. The drawings are cute, the entries are funny, but sprinkled throughout the book are philosophical nuggets like, “Why write? Life is a cage of empty words,” and “Is this cage of my own making?”

Along the way, we follow Edward through failed escapes, domestic discord and bliss and a final, bloody insurrection. This is a quick and playful read, with clever artwork, and will bring a smile to the philosopher in your life.

The Never List

Koethi Zan

There is a bitter synchronicity to Koethi Zan’s debut novel, The Never List. Concerning the-never-listthe lives of three women held captive in a madman’s basement, The Never List hit shelves 10 days before Ariel Castro pled guilty to holding three women hostage in his Cleveland basement.

I’m reminded of the Alice Cooper tale of his first trip to England. According to legend, a woman died during the flight, and it fueled his notoriety when he emerged on UK soil trailing a cadaver. Serendipity may not be the polite word, but by dictionary definition…

So, I read this book in July and loved it. The writing is solid and the narrative compelling, and I intended to review it at that time. Unfortunately, it got lost in the barrage of new releases.

There is a news hook, though, as the book is being adapted for television, and will be written by transgressive author A.M. Homes, which should make for wonderfully disturbing television.

The First Thanksgiving

Nathaniel Philbrick

This short work, a reworking of a chapter from Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of ThanksgivingCourage, Community, and War, is a great introduction to anyone interested in historical nonfiction who may be daunted by Philbrick’s longer works. There aren’t enough superlatives for Philbrick’s writing, and this appetizer will make any reader want to read the Mayflower, or any of his works, in full.

It’s the history of a holiday that we still celebrate, yet holds little connection to its origin. Here, we get the story we never learned in elementary school—such as the high mortality rates of the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is now a spectacle of consumption and consumerism. Yet of the roughly 150 passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower, only half survived that first winter. Suffice to say, reading about the hardships of the settlers at the time of the first Thanksgiving will shame anyone who dares complain about Black Friday checkout lines.

God is Disappointed in You

By Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler

Some jokes never get old, as evidenced in this irreverent abridging of The Bible. The god_is_disappointed_in_you_cover_lghumor is sharp, varying from silly to satirical, and the illustrations add to the humor. While it is funny, there is also an earnestness within the narrative, as Russell attempts to condense the entire text to its core concepts.

Ambitious idea, and one not to be taken too seriously, but I dispute the author’s claims of accuracy. For example, which version of The Bible? If biblical scholars have been unable to agree on the official canon, I won’t expect it to be decoded in a humor book.

But taken for what it is, God is Disappointed in You is good, clean fun, filled with soul-lightening humor. If the publisher is smart, they’re already compiling a 365-frame calendar version to market over the holidays.

If so, sign me up.

Doomed

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck, we love you. Please remember that. Lullaby is one of the most amazing booksdoomed-us_0 I’ve ever read, and I even found a way to work it into my master’s thesis. Choke is cutting social satire of the first order, Fight Club one of the greatest films ever made. Survivor is brilliant in plot, character and execution, and don’t get me started on the thrill-ride that is Haunted.

But I do have a few pet peeves that pop up in Doomed, the sequel to Damned.

First, I don’t have much patience for fiction written in the voice of a child. No matter the skill of the writer, an adult giving voice to a child always comes across as inauthentic and, in the worst cases, foolish. Also, exactly what are we to learn from a child narrator? It certainly won’t shock or disturb any hardened reader of horror or transgressive fiction.

Second, humor in horror is an iffy proposition. When it works, it’s organic, or the comedy is more disturbing than the tragedy (for example, many of the stories in Haunted). Better incidental humor than intentional. Doomed reads more like a Christopher Moore novel (albeit an extremely dark and cynical one).

I’m a fan of Moore’s, but his brand of humor is expected. When I read Palahniuk, I look forward to that nausea that lingers and ultimately consumes me, which I’ve found absent in Doomed.

Review: Best American

The Best American series has designed such a unique identity that I can recognize a volume through the thickest wrapping paper. The symmetry of the books is soothing, Best American Science 2013and they look dynamite aligned on the shelves. A friend recently stared in awe of their arrangement on my bookcase (thanks OCD).

But it’s the content that really makes Best American stand out.

My three favorite editions are the science, essay and mystery writing editions, with lots of love for the sports, short stories and nonrequired reading, but that’s part of what makes the series so successful: everybody has a favorite, but is usually willing to take a gander at the others.

So when I see a Best American beneath the tree, I’m not worried about which one it is. I know I’ll enjoy it no matter what.

Here is a sampling of what you’ll find in this year’s editions:

For me, the 2013 headliner is The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies). Standouts include Kevin Dutton’s “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed,” adapted Best American Essays 2013from his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, as well as Oliver Sacks’ “Altered States,” and Gareth Cook’s “Autism Inc.”

The Best American Sports Writing is edited by J.R. Moehringer, whose magazine feature, “Resurrecting the Champ,” inspired a wonderful fictionalization on the big screen. Must-reads include Rick Reilly’s “Special Team,” Paul Solotaroff’s “The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem,” and Erik Malinowski’s “The Making of ‘Homer at the Bat,’ the Episode that Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago Tonight.” For top-shelf nonfiction, look no further than The Best American Essays, featuring Zadie Smith, Michelle Mirsky and Alice Munro.

Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connolly and Hannah Tinti headline The Best American Mystery Stories, while Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Steven Millhauser take the spotlight in The Best American Short Stories. Elizabeth Gilbert guest edits The Best American Travel Writing.

Once again, The Best American Nonrequired Reading slays us with its Best American Comics 2013combination of literati and irreverence. Case in point: there are pieces by Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie and Kurt Vonnegut, while the “best of” categories include “Best American Poem About a Particle Accelerator,” “Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers” and “Best American Comic That Ends in Arson.”

Speaking of comics, one of my favorite new editions is The Best American Comics, featuring fiction and nonfiction art work, from the “funny pages” to graphic novels. There’s now even The Best American Infographics. With an introduction by David Byrne. Go figure.

Saki and Edward Gorey: The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories

In a wet-dream coupling worthy of GothicMatch.com, New York Review Books Classics has reissued a collection of Saki short stories illustrated by Edward Gorey.gorey

This twisted ballet of Edwardian sensibilities is darkly hilarious, and Gorey breathes new life into Saki’s drawing-room nightmares. Saki’s black humor shines in the dark delicacies “Sredni Vashtar,” “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” and “The Open Window.”

Like Saki, Gorey had a love of macabre humor, particularly set in the dramatic Victorian and Edwardian periods. His drawings incarnate the grim, merciless caricature of the English elite.

My favorite is the story “Tobermory,” which concerns the titular cat who discomfits house-party guests when he acquires the ability to speak. Gorey, a devout cat lover, must have enjoyed drawing this twisted tale. As a cat lover myself, I think Saki captured the spirit of how a cat would talk, if he could. He tells the ugly truth about the superficiality of the aristocrats, and he has little use for small talk: “It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.”

This makes him a threat to the partiers because he is the only one willing to scratch (if you’ll pardon the pun) beneath the surface and capable of exposing their dirty laundry and has no vested interest in status to keep him quiet.

So, of course, they set out to kill him.

When Mr. Appin, who taught Tobermory to speak, protests, the others suggest he experiment with less-independent animals “who are under proper control.”

The rich, absurdly disastrous ending both lampoons the artifice of the elite and the dangers one faces when speaking truth to power.