About the books: Jason Zinoman cites Roger Ebert’s non-review of Night of the Living Dead as a telling inflection point in the history of horror film. He was taken aback at the shocked reactions of audience members, especially kids, who went expecting the tame thrills that had become standard by 1969. The change didn’t necessarily seem like a good thing, and the critic didn’t come out making an argument for the movie’s merits, but as Zinoman notes, Ebert also recognized the seriousness of the creators’ intent. He knew something significant was happening.
Zinoman’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror and Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction chronicle a horror heyday. In the ’70s and ’80s, truly troubling books and movies became blockbuster entertainment. You could tie the transition to Vietnam, Watergate, and other historical events, but given humanity’s constant demand for some sort of fictional terror, in retrospect the era’s intense horror craze seems to have resulted from a loosening of content strictures and been, plain and simple, a fad: one with long-lasting effects.
Shock Value (2011) is both more limited in scope and more trenchant in analysis. Zinoman’s focus is on the horror films from roughly Night of the Living Dead to Alien (1979). From the late ’60s through the ’70s, filmmakers found genuinely new ways to push viewers’ boundaries, producing still-unsettling shockers like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Halloween (1978). Zinoman is clearly fascinated with these films, and makes a compelling case that film horror is still largely burning their fumes, he doesn’t bend over backwards to defend the films as worthy entertainments. (Nor does he criticize their makers as much as he might have; the likes of Roman Polanski are extensively discussed with little mention of their problematic, to put it mildly, personal behavior.)
Paperbacks from Hell (2017) is a breezier read, although the books Hendrix covers were anything but. He takes a bemused, encyclopedic approach, running though the wide range of horrific scenarios evoked in the glory years of mass-market paperbacks. If filmmakers in the ’70s were breaking boundaries, authors seemed to know no bounds whatsoever, constantly one-upping each other to invent ever more demented scenarios. Hendrix begins his survey, broadly, with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), and ends it with the rise of Clive Barker and the “splatterpunk” movement as the ’80s came to a close.
By the ’90s, the chains had been shaken and loosened. What came next was perhaps even more horrific, but just didn’t have that same old thrill.
About the audiobooks: In Pete Larkin, Shock Value gets a gravelly voice that could be dropping a spoken-word break on Thriller. At the same time, Larkin captures the skeptical tone of a generation of filmmakers who resisted the studio system and made movies on their own terms. You get the idea that if these guys, all now grey-hairs, were to recap their own exploits, they might sound a lot like Larkin.
Paperbacks from Hell, meanwhile, starts with an uphill battle to audio. Hendrix’s book is full of cover images and other illustrations, and you really feel their absence — particularly in the sections that specifically discuss the importance of visual artists in shaping the era. Then, narrator Timothy Andrés Pabon mispronounces so many words I lost count. (The worst: repeated references to zines as “zynes.”) Still, Hendrix has so much fun recounting the books’ ludicrous plots that it’s impossible not to enjoy this very strange trip.
Trick: The greatest moment of true horror in either of these books comes near the end of Shock Value, when Zinoman catches up with Blatty. As a multimedia property, The Exorcist was ground zero for the surge in mass interest in scarefests, but the author didn’t like the way director William Friedkin skewed the story away from a morality tale in favor of deeper, existential horror. He was happier when a recent recut restored an explanation for why little Regan was chosen by Lucifer, as he tells Zinoman while listening to…Rush Limbaugh.
Treat: The funniest passage in Hendrix’s chronicle has him describing the many ways in which nature has been made to attack. Even demonic bunnies, he writes, “have nothing on Academy Award-winning screenwriter George Wells’s sole novel, the scrotum-ripping Taurus (1982), about Mexican bulls retired from the bullfighting circuit who get stoned on agave roots and go on a crime spree across Mexico, murdering women with their enormous penises, killing men by goring them in the crotch, and generally demonstrating that bulls are ‘the most virile animals the world has ever known.'”
And those are just the retired bulls.