One day in some relatively warm month in my boyhood home of Colorado—it must have been back around 1987 or 1988—my parents were gone and I was minding my own business reading a novel in a quiet house when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door. I must have been broke, otherwise I would have been pursuing some kind of illicit activity back then, but anyway … there I was, and there they were.
They rang the doorbell. I was a little irritated, being interrupted like that, so I went to the door and swung it open. Back then I had long hair and a wardrobe that consisted entirely of heavy metal t-shirts and ripped up Levis. On this occasion I carried in one hand the book I was reading, my finger keeping my place while I dealt with these interlopers. The book I read—which they plainly saw—was Bride of Satan by William Schoell.
That was a fine day. I still remember the paling of their cheeks at the sight of me, the look in their eyes that said, “One of Satan’s own!” They didn’t stay long, and that was fine. I had more reading to do.
I still live in the 1980s in so many ways. The books I read, the music I listen to, the movies I watch. I guess maybe a lot of us do that at some point, just decide to stay focused (mostly) on things created in the era with which we most identify. Excepting a small fraction of it, my collection of horror paperbacks is composed of works published in the 1980s. Some of these near and dear favorites were published by a company with which every horror fan worth his weight in screaming blonde bimbos should be familiar: Leisure Books.
Leisure Books has been around for a while. Not as long as Dell, or Pocket Books, by any means, but back in the ’70s Leisure published a weird mix of Horror, Men’s Adventure, and “True Confession” erotica. Back then, Leisure Books was an imprint of Nordon Publications. The earliest Leisure horror paperback I own is Golem by Barbara Anson (1978), a novel about some priests and rabbis getting murdered on Halloween. Some of their other early titles were by Bruno Rossi, who wrote a series of books called The Sharpshooter, featuring a mafia-fighting Johnny Rock. Advertisements in the back pages of those were for books about stuff like the true confessions of sex starved stewardesses. Auspicious beginnings, to be sure.
Sometime around the mid-1980s, Leisure made a concentrated effort to corner the market on lurid covers, unmatched to my mind by any other American publisher of the time. I have seen some folks on a UK pulp horror discussion board, Vault of Evil, discussing this era of Leisure’s publishing history, and speculating that the company might have aimed to do something along the lines of the English “nasties” published in the UK at the same time by houses like NEL, and Hamlyn.
Much of the pulp horror of the 1980s was, by admission, pretty rough. Okay, some of it was downright bad. These were the days when every publishing house was producing five or more horror titles a month. Reading through some of them, you might be tempted to think that, back then, anyone capable of finishing a horror novel had a good chance of getting it published. By way of defending these books, I’d like to submit that “pulp fiction” has generally been associated with high-volume production and these were no different—it was about filling pages and getting product into the horror-starved fans’ hands. Yes, a lot of it was bad. Sometimes it was so bad the best part about the book was that crazy cover art. But some of it was actually pretty good.
And so we come to one of the real reasons I’m writing this right now. I loved the cover art, and I’m happy to display some of my collection online rather than have it just gather dust on my shelves, but I also submit a defense for 1980s pulp horror. It was produced solely for the purpose of being throw-away entertainment. It was campy, it was bloody, rife with monsters and demons and all manner of bad apples. The characters left something to be desired, were in many cases predictable and shallow, but occasionally you were surprised by depth and a sympathetic plight. Virgins were taken to far away castles and offered up on altars. Characters visited distant islands with looming manors or strange cults, and found unspeakable, ancient evils. Some people turned their noses at it. Some people, like me, loved every page of it.
Now, it’s true that I’ve been accused in many cases of having bad taste in books and movies. Hey, no problem. To each his own, right? I had fun with the books—good and bad. Really, that’s all that ever mattered to me. But back to that defense; there were some good books written for Leisure in the 1980s.
Let’s take a look at the list. Among several folks whom I think wrote good books for the imprint are William Schoell and John Tigges. Tigges was the star of the line back then, writing 16 novels for Leisure, three under a pseudonym, although some of them were much better than others. William Schoell is still one of my favorite authors, with Late at Night, Spawn of Hell, The Dragon, and Bride of Satan topping my list of favorites from the era. Some other folks who wrote good books for them include J.N. Williamson, who was an HWA Lifetime Achievement award-winner and World Fantasy Award nominee, not to mention the editor of the famous Masques series and author of over 40 novels. Don’t forget David B. Silva, editor of the legendary Horror Show magazine, whose 1988 Leisure novel Come Thirteen was very good. Bestselling UK author Shaun Hutson had several of his early “shock horror” novels published by their line. (Their cover for Hutson’s novel Spawn ranks as one of the most awesomely ridiculous covers they produced). David Robbins’s novel The Wereling is a long-time favorite of mine. UK author Bernard Taylor had several books published by Leisure, including The Godsend, and his excellent novel The Reaping.
I could go on, but I think the point I really want to make here is that Leisure did publish good (and by good, I mean entertaining) horror fiction in the 1980s, and anyone who claims otherwise has not done their homework. Either that, or they’re the kind of people who don’t “get” the point of pulp horror. I guess there are a lot of people out there like that. And that’s okay. I mean, I pretty much despise all kinds of popular crap.
I wish I knew the names of some of these artists. Back then, these guys were doing art in-house, and there was enough money in publishing horror I should think that they earned a deserved decent wage. Sadly, without attribution and now with a complete dissolution of the team that made these books happen, it seems impossible to track any of them down. If anyone knows anything about the folks who created these works of art, please contact me and let me know. In the meantime, I hope that with time and an understanding of what they were intended to be, these books get some of the respect they deserve.
A final note: as time wears on, I plan to feature more of my paperback horror collection here on the blog, and maybe even interview a few of the writers who were working back in that golden age of horror. Now, I have so much on my plate that I have more ideas for things to do than I have time to do them, but this is something I really want to do, and it will happen, eventually. If you’d like to keep up with these posts, along with news of my own personal publications, please subscribe to my RSS feed, or follow us on Twitter @FulbrightHawkes.