Grady Hendrix: how English horror shaped my childhood

Grady Hendrix: how English horror shaped my childhood

0 comments 📅26 October 2017, 00:41

The author of Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, who is appearing at MCM London Comic Con this weekend, recalls the books that left an impression…

Horror is the lens through which the world makes the most sense to kids. I grew up in South Carolina in the Eighties, terrified that nuclear war was going to break out at any minute. The video of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads I checked out from the public library only convinced me that we were one launch code away from stumbling through the rubble of our cities, giving birth to mutant babies, and trading sex for grilled rats on a stick. Being murdered by radioactive cannibals in a nuclear wasteland sounded ridiculous, but then again so did Mutually Assured Destruction.

I was six when my family moved to London for a year, and nothing made sense. The private school I attended didn’t have a playground, just an asphalt lot surrounded by barbed wire, with a view of a gorge overflowing with rubbish. The handyman’s job was to repair the heat, catch students who went over the fence, and kill rats. He did this with a hammer, then drove a staple through their tails and hung them from his shed door until he reached his quota for the day. Then he’d sling them over the fence into the garbage gorge where, over the next few weeks, they’d melt into the rusted appliances and used nappies.

Everything finally made sense after I found a volume of local legends and folklore with an emphasis on the gruesome. Pictures of witches being burned, heretics having their hands bound to the clappers of ringing bells, and howling banshees grounded me. Every weekend my dad insisted on stuffing us all into a Volkswagen camper and driving us into the cold countryside. Now I could see the vanished gibbets with their desiccated corpses swinging back and forth over the bleak landscapes, and hollow-eyed ghosts staring out at us from dreary council estate windows. I didn’t understand the sex in the copy of James Herbert’s The Rats that I unearthed, but I did understand the garbage gorge better. This was, clearly, where the rodent army would flood up from the centre of the earth and strip the flesh from our bones.

Childhood is a time when every house guards a secret, every adult barks incomprehensible orders, and you’re constantly warned that anything you do could ruin your life. I had questions about everything and, fortunately, Stephen King had answers. What was in those houses was probably vampires, adults were incomprehensible because they wanted to split your head open with a croquet mallet, and by “ruin your life” the teachers actually meant “get eaten by a clown who lives in the sewers.”

As a kid, horror kept me oriented, but after a while I put my compass away. I only rediscovered it when I stumbled across an out-of-print paperback in a bargain bin of John Christopher’s The Little People, an astonishing novel with an eye-catching Hector Garrido cover of Nazi leprechauns swarming out of an Irish castle. It sent me into the horror wilderness again, only this time, the more I read the more I was able to plot a map of those years when I grew up, tracing every horrific trend to its source.

I learned that the horror paperback boom of the Seventies and Eighties exploded when Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other all came out between 1967 and 1971 and sold millions of copies. Suddenly publishers saw fat bags of loot on the paperback racks and raced to capitalise on every new trend. James Herbert’s The Rats hit the shelves the same year that Jaws attacked American beaches, spawning a massive boom in animal attacks books in which everything that walked, crawled, swam, or flew suddenly developed an appetite for Great Britain. The best-selling novelisations of The Omen gave us a flood of killer kid books, VC Andrews heralded a rebirth of the gothic, and Silence of the Lambs gave rise to the monster that ultimately doomed the boom: the serial killer.

Everything has a reason, there are always causes, but until I wrote Paperbacks from Hell I didn’t understand what invisible forces shaped my childhood. Now, having finished writing this book, I know that, in part at least, it was England. And in part it was Nazi leprechauns.

Image credits: WF Phillipps (The Rats), Hector Garrido (The Little People)

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