1980s Pulp Horror: The Lurid Days of Leisure

BRIDE OF SATAN by William Schoell (Leisure Books, 1986)

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.

Ehren M. Ehly had several novels published with Leisure Books from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. Arguably some of the best cover art they produced, both OBELISK and TOTEM featured die-cut covers that opened to reveal half-skulls with crazy eyes.

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.

GOLEM by Barbara Anson (Leisure Books, 1978)

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.

UNDERTOW was the first novel for Leisure by Drake Douglas, who would go on to write CREATURE, and a co-authored novel, DEATH SONG. The founder of Space and Time magazine Gordon Linzner wrote THE ONI (1986, Leisure Books), followed by another novel for Pocket Books called THE TROUPE in 1988. John Snellings' 1987 novel CARVINGS features a box carved from graveyard trees found on a construction site. Dig those claws.

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.

KISS NOT THE CHILD by John Tigges (Lesiure Books, 1988)

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.

SPAWN by Shaun Hutson (Leisure Books, 1983)

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.

THE WRATH was among the many action and horror novels David Robbins wrote for Leisure. DEAD SEASON by J. Bradley Owen features some excellent cover art. After 1986's CHILD OF DARKNESS, COME THIRTEEN (1988) was David Silva's second and last novel for Leisure for Leisure Books. In addition to being a writer, Silva was also editor of one of the best horror fiction magazines of the the 1980s, The Horror Show, which published early work by such talents as Robert McCammon, Bentley Little, Gary Raisor, Billie Sue Mosiman, Joe Lansdale, Gary Braunbeck, J.N. Williamson, and so many more they won't fit in this caption.

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.

Comments 12

  • I would buy every single one of those, based on the covers alone.

    • I sure did! Granted, I was a fan of some of these guys (David Robbins, David Silva, William Schoell), but I bought a lot of them solely on the basis of that cover art.

      • I have also looked everywhere for the info on who did this cover art. Undertow is my favorite cover. Would love to find a copy to frame. Sign me ‘addicted to horror book cover art’

        • In some cases, with other horror covers, I’ve been able to discern an artist’s signature. In most of those cases (which are not many, unfortunately), if I find anything at all online, I’ll usually find the website of someone who does landscapes, or portraits, and other “serious” art. I wonder if folks who did these Leisure covers were in-house folks, or if it was work-for-hire, and artists just did them to pay the bills, but don’t want to really own-up to the work for some reason. In any event, I think they’re all works of art, and I wish it was easier to track the artists down. Guess you’d have to find someone who worked at Leisure back then, in whatever passed for their art department…

  • Love these covers! Thanks for posting from your collection; I’d love to get hold of those Ehlys! Heard of most of these except for Silva’s, so thanks for that too.

  • I read your article with great interest, particularly the comments made about the books written by Ehren M. Ehly. This was the pseudonym of my mother, author Moreen Ehly. I wish she had read your article, but she had been very ill over the last few months and recently passed away a few days ago on December 26. I think her stories were very entertaining and the covers were amazing. I am so glad that there are a growing number of readers who are discovering and appreciating these vintage pulp fiction horror books.

    • Juliet,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to post. I’m so sorry to hear of your recent loss. I do think that there’s a growing appreciation for these books among collectors as time goes on, which means that your mother’s work will live on through those of us who continue to appreciate and enjoy her work. If you have the means to do so, you might want to make her books available to a new generation of readers by converting them to eBook formats and re-releasing them. This is probably furthest from your mind right now, but if you give it some time and decide you have an interest in that, I’d be happy to put you in contact with a company that does an excellent job with re-releases of vintage horror.

      Thanks again for the note, Juliet. Best wishes to you and your family.

      Chris Fulbright

  • I had the pleasure of writing with Moreen as she was part of my writers group for several years. She had a knack for packing a punch with an economy of words.

    Releasing her work in digital, both “E” and audiobook, would be fabulous and a labor of love…at the right time.

    I hope that can be done, but if not we can still cherish her words “the old fashioned way” with a cup of tea while curled up on the couch reading a horror novel.

  • […] interviews with authors who worked for different publishers during the 1980s. I had already done a feature on my blog about some of the Leisure paperbacks of the time, so I thought I’d move on to Zebra books. In […]

  • […] for Leisure Books. One of the most popular articles on my personal website is an article called 1980s Pulp Horror: The Lurid Days of Leisure. My first recollection of reading a title published by Leisure was during an extended visit to my […]

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