JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS
(and Some Words with Evans Light)
by Robert Essig
We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, as if publishers purposely place unrepresentative covers on books just to grab the consumer’s attention. They wouldn’t do that. Right? I mean, look at the original mass market paperback cover of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, featuring a cheerleader with a skeleton head. If ever there was an example of a cover that does not fit the story,that one takes the cake. Who knows, maybe people bought it because a skullhead cheerleader embossed cover was just too damn alluring on a rack of paperback horror titles that all featured skeletons, creepy dolls, and monsters. It was the eighties and nineties, after all, and horror was a goldmine of great talent drowning in a sea of hack writers and lurid covers that, in retrospect, are pretty damn cool and entertaining. Those old covers, cheesy covers if you will, remind me of seventies and eighties rock/metal album art. Catch the consumer’s attention, dammit. Get them to buy the book. In some cases, the reader was bummed out or just plain frustrated when some sweet-ass cover convinced them to buy and the book either sucked or was seriously misrepresented by the cover art. In other cases, such as Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, the book is so damn good you forget about the skullhead cheerleader. And then when you’re finished you look at it and think, “What the fuck?”
Trends come and go and being a part of a generation who had been advertised to since we were born, we’re no strangers to the Big Sell. It’s all around us, molting and permuting from one trend to the next. Book covers mellowed out after the eighties and early nineties boom. You could say that cheesy style died with Zebra Publishing. By the time Leisure came along they took a more simplistic stock art cut and paste who gives a fuck let’s just use a creepy house or a hand or a guy peeping through blinds every fucking time sort of approach. Often times misrepresenting the book, but not nearly as fun as monsters and demonic children and dolls and skeletons. Let’s not forget the skeletons. The best example of a modern approach to the eye candy cover art would be Deadite Press and their line of horror with predominantly ultra gory and racy cover art. I’m not sure that the cheesy eighties stuff was lurid enough for people to feel awkward reading those titles in public, but the Deadite covers sure are. Many of them. And according to the folks who run Deadite, the marketing works. I know I was intrigued by the Brian Keene novella Jack’s Magic Beans after seeing a cover with a face wrapped up like meat for sale in a butcher’s display at a supermarket. It kind of represents the opening scene in the story. Kind of. It’s certainly cheesy and fun, though many of their covers are so sexually and violently graphic that I can completely understand how people feel uncomfortable reading a Deadite paperback on the bus or around the house where children might have a gander and wonder just what kind of stuff their parents are reading. But, like with the outlandish covers of the eighties, Deadite sells books. If the cover pulls you in, there’s always the e-reader version.
When I was asked to write an article about horror novel covers I was excited, but soon realized that there was one man out there more prepared for this kind of article than I am, and that’s Evans Light. Evans started #cheesyhorrorcover, where he posts covers of those gorgeous foil embossed eighties paperbacks, and his collection is incredible. He has such a wealth of books that he sells them from time to time. I’ve acquired some good titles from him. Evans’ passion for horror and preserving those old paperbacks and the many authors who drowned in that glut of fiction is second to none. I caught up with Evans and asked him a few questions.
So, Evans, you’ve forged a great presence as the cheesy horror book cover guy on social media. Based on the books you’ve posted and the book sales you’ve had, I imagine your collection is quite impressive. Tell us a little about how you became interested in horror fiction.
Horror has fascinated me as a reader from my earliest memories, though for most of my youth and some of my teens I had extremely restricted access to adult horror fiction, my exposure primarily limited to what was considered literature at the time. As a result I devoured everything remotely horror-related I was able to get my hands on: Poe, Hawthorne, Bradbury, Jackson, Wells and Matheson (as well as the Crusader Comics from Jack Chick, which feature a surprising amount of horror-based content).
Around the age of 15 (1987-88) I was finally granted freedom, and the timing couldn’t have been better to enjoy the golden age of horror paperbacks. In addition to the usual suspects like King and Koontz, I’d often pick up mass market paperbacks from the drugstore rack with unknown authors (to me, at least) based on the appeal of the cover art alone. Those gambles more often than not disappointed, and being a teenager I had little lasting affection for the books I’d buy, simply passing them along to others as I finished.
With adult life intervening during the mid-nineties and beyond, my focus shifted much more towards writing horror than reading it.
It was really only during my initial forays into publishing towards the end of 2011 that I became aware of the massive volume of pulp horror that had been released during the late 80’s and early 90’s, and then again during the 2000s (a renaissance which I completely missed at the time, probably due to a houseful of kids).
At some point over the last few years, I got the idea that in fairly short order I might be able assemble a complete collection of mass market horror paperbacks from the modern golden age of horror. The fact that many abandoned collections are being donated to thrift stores and used book stores at increasing rates for bargain-bin prices bolstered my belief that this would be a fairly simple and inexpensive feat to accomplish, and would give me an invaluable reference library for my own ongoing endeavors as a horror author.
Little did I comprehend the enormity of my undertaking. I still don’t have a solid grasp of exactly how many mass market horror paperbacks have been released since 1980, but the number is well over 10,000 for certain. My own personal paperback collection is hovering around the 5,000 mark, and is still far from comprehensive. It’s gratifying to know that many of the books in my library have been found for a dollar (and often much less).
Do you have any horror book covers that you consider favorites? What is it that draws you to these particular covers?
I have so many favorites that it would be difficult to list them all here, but I’ll list a few that quickly come to mind: THE NIGHTRUNNERS (Joe R. Lansdale), NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP (Frank Lambirth), PREMONITION (J.N. Williamson), SLEEP (Lynn Biederstadt), DRESS UP (F.M. Love), MIDSUMMER (Matthew Costello), DEVIL’S MOON (William M. Carney), THE DEVIL’S LAUGHTER (William J. Johnstone), SINS OF THE FLESH (Don & Jay Davis), TREE HOUSE (Victor Mullen). PRAY SERPENTS PREY (Nicholas Randers), CAMPFIRE STORY (Robert Y. Kline), EXCAVATION (Steven Rasnic Tem), GOBLINS (Vincent Courtney) and almost anything by John Tigges, William Schoell, and Rick Hautala. THE FEEDING, by Leigh Clark, is one of my all-time favorite covers. Jim Warren is a master artist in the field, and any cheesy horror cover painted by him is likely to be a keeper (including the cover of THE LAKE, by John Peyton Cooke).
There is so much talent on display by the mostly unsung artists of these cheesy horror covers, it is sad that so few of them were ever credited. Tracking down who is the creator of what can be exceedingly difficult, especially for publications released prior to the digital age from publishers that no longer exist. It’s truly a pity.
Personally, I’m drawn to covers that possess the capability to reach across the room and command your attention, covers that use a thrilling burst of color to draw you in and reward closer examination with a wealth of hidden detail. Beautiful foil and embossing each provide a special kind of cheap thrill, and perhaps if you’re lucky you’ll find a second glorious painting peeking through a cleverly placed step-back hole carved in the cover. The story told on these magnificently garish covers is often completely unrelated to the tale that unfolds between them. In many cases the cover provides more fulfillment than the story inside, and that’s fine by me. Sometimes a great cover is enough. Other times, less frequently for certain, both the cover and the book prove to be a forgotten jewel. That’s when things get glorious. That’s what keeps me searching.
You’ve started the #cheesyhorrorcover movement, bringing attention to books that are often forgotten in this digital age. When I go to a bookstore and find one Robert Bloch book I can imagine how easy it is to forget some of the good authors who came and went during the horror boom in the 80’s. Aside from something that’s just for fun, do you have any bigger goals in mind with this hashtag?
Something I continuously strive to remind myself as an author is that writing is a long game. History is littered with classics whose authors had been dead for decades before they became widely read and recognized as such.
I’m under no illusion that a high percentage of the cheesy horror covers I feature are classics waiting to be discovered. Most are not. Hundreds, maybe thousands even, of these books are nothing more than bottom-barrel D-list pulp fiction pumped out as fast as the author’s fingers could type them. The quality ranges from “kinda bad” to “barely readable” for many titles from the 80’s and early 90’s.
However, there are also books hidden inside cheesy horror covers with quality ranging from “pretty good” to “mindblowing”, amazing should-have-been classics whose authors never got their due thanks to a single printing that got saddled with a cheesy cover and lumped in with the rest of the junk, authors who despite incredible talent never got another shot at the big time once the 80’s horror heyday was done.
Many of them are still alive. Some are still interested in writing. Not only do I want to do my part to share outstanding undiscovered horror fiction with my fellow fans, I want these authors to get the accolades they rightly deserve, perhaps it will encourage some of them to give it another shot.
It’s what I’d want somebody to do for me.
Who do you consider some of the best of the forgotten voices of horror from the heyday of cheesy cover art and paperback originals and why?
This is such a tough question, as I’m still slowly working my way through so many books I’ve never read. I’m sure I’ll leave many worthy names off this list, but a few authors from that period who have penned some excellent overlooked books are David Searls (Yellow Moon should be considered a classic), Alan Ryan, Stephen Laws, Rick Hautala (especially his short fiction), Joseph Citro, T. Chris Martindale, Gene Lazuta, David J. Schow, T.M. Wright, Lisa Tuttle and Ronald Kelly. There are so many more names that should be on this list and it pains me to not be able to list everyone. Joe R. Lansdale’s early horror is criminally neglected as well.
Tell us a little something about your fiction and what has influenced you as a writer.
As a writer of horror fiction, I attempt to bring something new to the genre each time I release a work, a fresh perspective or unexpected twist. This task becomes ever harder as I become increasingly aware of all the amazing horror fiction that has come before and is being released each and every day by so many talented up-and-coming authors.
My most basic influences are the short stories of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, often filtered through the tongue-in-cheek worldview of Tales from the Crypt.
Of course that’s just a starting point, and a hallmark of my work is its amorality. Whereas many classic horror tales are presented as cautionary lessons to be learned, I enjoy utilizing that basic structure to toy with readers’ assumptions about expected moral repercussions.
Many of my stories start with a familiar trope to provide comfort for the reader before dragging them out to parts unknown. I enjoy experimenting with story structure and eschew traditional character motivations as much as possible. Often this leads to delight for readers who have seen it all before, sometimes it leads to frustration for readers when the story defies initial expectations. Regardless, the path less travelled is the one I find most appealing, and expect to find myself better able to move myself further and further from what has come before the more I immerse myself in the history of horror fiction.
After devoting myself exclusively to the short story / novella format over the last couple of years, I am currently elbow deep in two novels, both being co-authored with my brother and partner in crime Adam Light (you can find a significant chunk of our work in our collection titled HARMLESSLY INSANE).
Short stories always have been and will likely always be my favorite format for horror, undoubtedly due to my early love affair with Bradbury and Poe. Nevertheless, I’m excited to join the ranks of modern horror novelists (and I promise that at least one edition will sport a suitably cheesy cover).
Do you think the mass market paperback will ever come back?
I hope the mass market paperback will come back. King and Koontz still routinely hog what little shelf space is left for other modern horror writers, so it would really take a major influx of demand, a wave of new horror readers, to bring about a renaissance in the format. It’s encouraging to see a few publishing houses recently releasing MMP horror-related titles from people whose last names aren’t King or Koontz, including Ronald Malfi, Adam Nevill, Joe Hill and Hunter Shea.
With the small press boom and self-publishing, book cover fads seem to be changing all the time (for a minute there every other cover looked like a faux movie poster, for instance). Do you have any preferences, and what would you like to see in the future?
Most publishing and distribution seems to be fixated on the trade paperback at the moment, with muted-color matte covers being the current fad, so only time will tell if advances in publishing technology will drop the cost for producing limited runs of MMP-style horror covers with all the typical bells and whistles.
How wonderful would it be for the small horror press scene to be able to bring back the embossed, foil-stamped, step-backed glory days? I know that if and when it does, Corpus Press will be among the first in line to help get the movement going again.
Personally, I love a cover that is able to stand as a work of art on its own. Iconic imagery. Something that perfectly encapsulates and delivers the mood of the book inside. The original cover for Stephen King’s IT, is a good example. Jon Foster’s cover for Norman Patridge’s DARK HARVEST that features a flaming pumpkin man is another.
You mentioned horror covers that look like movie posters as a recent trend. I find that style of cover art to be better than most, honestly, as long as it is appropriately scaled down for the format. Many horror movie posters outshine book covers these days (IT FOLLOWS in particular had a painted poster that would’ve made an excellent cheesy horror cover), and a lot of the same thrills that are to be found with cheesy 80’s covers are certainly present for collectors of 80’s VHS horror.
I’d like to give praise here to one particular publisher which shines so brightly in terms of beautiful modern horror design, and that’s Shock Totem Publications. Everything they release is top notch, from the glorious throwback of James Newman’s THE WICKED in 2012, to this year’s unparalleled packaging of Adam Cesare’s ZERO LIVES REMAINING, complete with an actual VHS clamshell. Simply brilliant.
Honorable mention has to go to Sinister Grin Publications, who appear to be upping their game with each new release, from the perfect cover art selection for Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason’s MAYAN BLUE to the extremely handsome upcoming limited edition they are producing of John Everson’s THE FAMILY TREE.
Through my work with Corpus Press I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the talents of some up-and-coming horror-based visual artists Mike Tenebrae and James Daniel Mabe, and I hope that they and others like them will find good homes within the horror press for years to come.
Tell us about how we can find you on the web and where your books can be purchased.
I can be tracked down at the following links:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Evans-Light/e/B0075WB5WI
Corpus Press: http://www.corpuspress.com/evans-light/