Grady Hendrix on the Obsessive Bliss of ‘Paperbacks from Hell II’

We chat with the screenwriter and author about the bizarro treasure trove that is pre-Harry Potter young adult fiction.
Paperback From Hell
Quirk Books
By  · Published on June 10th, 2019

The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Mick Garris (Nightmare Cinema). Special thanks to William Dass and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.

All it takes is one time. Teenagers Roxanne and Pepper engage in their first sexual experience and wind up pregnant. They find themselves in an abortion clinic, but right before the exam, Roxanne flees. When they return home, they discover their town completely deserted except for a few leftover friends. Each one of them was once chummy with another girl named Betty Sue, who committed suicide via gas station self-immolation. When they investigate her journal, they discover a series of grim stories, and soon enough, the friends begin to die similarly to the characters in Betty Sue’s tales. Who is to blame? Is there a killer amongst their ranks? Surprise! It turns out that Roxanne went through with the abortion and that Betty Sue is actually the ghost of that fetus out for revenge!!

The above plot belongs to the young adult horror novel Whisper of the Dark by Christopher Pike. It was but one grotesquely absurd narrative at the center of Paperbacks from Hell II presented by Grady Hendrix at the Overlook Film Festival. The mind reels at the possibilities of what inspired Pike to put pen to paper with that one. The only answer must be a command from a higher power, or maybe simply an insane confidence built over the course of his previous eleven novels. Pike would publish twenty-four more young adult books, and they did not get any less bizarre.

I watched a lot of movies throughout the Overlook Film Festival, and I attended several immersive events and a few podcasts. Without a doubt, Paperbacks from Hell II was the most uproarious and inspirational experience of the weekend. Hendrix’s presentation was staged at the pulpit of the historic Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. I can not think of a better location to preach the most ludicrous and alarming young adult fiction ever conjured than this gorgeously spooky decommissioned 9,450 square-foot sanctuary. Here Hendrix stood and bellowed tales of delinquent debauchery. His audience received his word, howled, and fell over themselves to snatch up their phones for one-touch Amazon orders.

Whisper of the Dark was a highlight of the show, but other impossible oddities constantly sprung forth from the hour-long celebratory presentation. There are so many baffling plots and characters to work through, and it’s easy to get lost in the humor of it all. What the hell was Christopher Pike smoking? The day before his performance, we caught up with Hendrix to discuss his compulsion to compile and champion the goofiest and gnarliest paperbacks horror has to offer. “One of the reasons I make this stuff is to think it out,” he says. “I realize so many teen books are about controlling teenagers and scaring teenagers and showing them all the bad things that are going to happen to them.”

Paperbacks from Hell spun directly out of his book of the same name. Hendrix adores what many would call trash. He’s on a mission to convert as many maniacs to his point of view as possible. “Christopher Pike is so amazing!” he exclaims, “He really is a superhero as far as I’m concerned.” Before Harry Potter revolutionized the industry and adults flocked to the YA section of Barnes and Noble, teen fiction was mostly unsupervised, grimy, and full of anger. Authors like Pike could get away with a lot and murder multiple genres with less than two hundred pages. Juvenile delinquent fiction is a wondrous playground for readers seeking haunting extremity destined to corner your memory.

“Harry Potter took the curse off of it,” says Hendrix. “Adults weren’t going to read The Girl Who Owned a City or Rumble Fish. Not with any pride. It was just juvenile.” Yet, there are gems to be found in these books with the pulpy covers and tawdry titles. “I want them to read Bari Woods’ The Tribe. I want them to read Thomas Page’s Spirit. I want them to read The Auctioneer.” We may have sought out Paperbacks from Hell II to capture a good laugh through yesterday’s poor taste, but we discovered genuine passion and even a few ridiculously well-written bits of prose.

Hendrix understands why we’ve forgotten some of these authors, but he believes his duty is to shine a little light on those that deserve it. There is a real threat to many of these peculiar mavericks, and we’re on the verge of losing their work. “Legit harm comes from it,” he warns. “There’s an X-Files episode called Kaddish. It is literally the plot to Bari Woods’ The Tribe made into an X-Files episode. They just lifted it because by then the book was out of print and it was long forgotten. Fine, lift it, but fucking send her a check. It really bums me out.”

There is a myth that horror is a boy’s game. “I’m like, dude, these women have been writing it forever,” he says. “They just get forgotten. They don’t get preserved.” Bari Wood wrote seven novels between the years 1975 and 1995. Those that read her books were tremendously impacted by them, and while a few were adapted into films (David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Neil Jordan’s In Dreams), they are absent from pop culture conversation today. Hendrix is here to change that.

“The least powerful people get forgotten first,” he says. “Women writers, writers of color, writers who were trying something crazy and outside the box, people taking risks.” We don’t need anymore wannabe Stephen Kings in this world. We’re full up. “Look, I’m not into diversity for diversity’s sake. I’m into it because I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of horror novels by straight white guys.” Hendrix is hungry for different points of view, and he recognizes he’s not alone. “I want to know what women were writing about. I want to know what black people were scared of in the 80s and writing about. I want to know the nightmares of Hispanic people in the 70s, what they’re bringing to the table because it’s different. There are new stories. That’s all I care about. New stories that are different. That’s what I want because I love horror. I want new stuff, and that’s often where you’ll find it.”

Stepping out of Paperbacks from Hell II with my phone in my hand, I rapidly clicked through my go-to online booksellers, comparing prices on Christopher Pike and Barri Wood books. I drank the Kool-Aid, and it tasted damn good. We are lucky to have curators like Grady Hendrix out there in the world, pushing their passion and reminding us that the most effective art often requires thorough scrounging and a champion in its corner. I will happily join his flock and pay it forward when needed.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)