So Unscary It's Scary

Among my many other obsessions is a mania for horror paperbacks. I've been snagging and hoarding 'em for years, and haunting used book stores and library sales for stuff I missed (or figured wasn't worth the full cover price). Back in the 80's there was a big "horror boom" and the market got flooded with paperback originals. People say the market has an "invisible hand," but I think it has an "invisible colon," too -- whenever any particular genre gets popular and starts selling, the market starts filling its belly with everything it can find in that area just to have a "product" to sell, resulting in a whole lot of shit getting dumped on the public. Then the genre dies from oversaturation. You can see this with music (thrash metal, death metal, grunge, rap), movies, wrestling, etc. The need to feed the public's hunger for a genre leads to standards getting lax, a lessening in quality product getting released, and then the audience soon gets sick of the crap, and the once-great genre soon becomes associated with mediocrity, and it dies out (or at least goes into a slump).

Now in the days of the internet there's no filter at all and anybody can "publish" a book and bands don't need to get signed and "filmmakers" can put anything they want on YouTube. About 90% of the self-published stuff out there doesn't deserve an audience, and the signal-to-noise ratio's getting so wide that it's too much of an effort to sort it all out, and now the public is getting pretty sick of everything. It's hardly worth filtering the din of garbage on our own to find the good stuff now, when publishers used to do that for us, so much of the public's given up and the quality of everything is lax. The entertainment industry isn't turning a profit anymore because you can download things for free, so why pay for anything? Especially since it's all shoddy anyway?

And this is my crackpot theory of why the economy is in such a slump... and an illustration of my own theory: blogs are providing non-experts like me a place to spout our crazystuff. Bad internet! You could have been spared this!

Anyway, back during the horror boom, there naturally arose a need for cover art, and there are only so many truly "scary" ideas for pictures to be had. Eventually, the industry ran out, got lazy, and wanted to put out so many books that they commissioned absolutely anything just to get product on the shelves. And that's where the fun starts.

Now, the actual art on these things isn't necessarily bad, as far as quality of technique goes, so I'm not making fun of the artists. Many of those "skeleton children" pictures that showed up on almost every Zebra book cover during those years are actually high quality paintings. But they're of incredibly silly subjects, and the covers are much more likely to induce laughter than chills.

This also isn't a critique of the book inside the cover. I liked several of these books, and haven't read some of the others yet. You really can't judge a book by its cover. Never forget, when it first came out, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door -- high on the list of the most harrowing novels ever written -- had a skull-headed cheerleader on the cover. Ketchum hated that, and rightfully so.

Anyway, onward toward the hideous horizon we go...


First up, The Feeding, by Leigh Clark. I haven't read it yet, but reviews on Amazon say it's pretty scary. The cover, however...

"AUUUGGGHHH!!! I am the displeased mountainside!
See the displeased face I make, accordingly! Enter, hapless children, into my scowling mouth of DOOM and live inside my belly of TERROR! I awaken from my ancient sleep cranky and hungry for the tender flesh of the unwary! AUUUGGGHHH!!! And, furthermore, GARRRGGHHHH!!!! as well! Surely now you are frightened, no? If not, I shall clutch you! Don't make me clutch you!"

This seems a monster that could be dispatched with an antacid. And the children certainly seem terrified, don't they? That little girl is looking back at the claws coming out of the earth with the expression one usually has while watching a chipmunk, or perhaps a dog-surprise she's avoided stepping in.

And now, what's surely one of the most brilliant ideas in all of horror-book-cover-dom... a frightening bunny!

Yes, high on the list of the fearsome you will always find the bunny. Remember Night of the Lepus, and how scary that was? The promise given by this cover -- that within the pages you will find a mean blue-eyed rabbit -- guaranteed that only those with nerves of steel would dare tackle this book.

You have to admit, though, it does kind of intrigue you. You want to know what kind of story could incorporate a goblin-bunny-thing, don't you? Well, the back cover copy isn't going to help you much, as it's some of the most noncommittal, uninformative, and awkward marketing prose I've ever seen:

Reads like a third-grader's book report, doesn't it? In some unnamed "vicinity" of a "territory," gruesome incidents seemed to be accelerating (even the book itself isn't assertive enough to declare that they, indeed, are). And how much adversity is a ton? Adversity is some hard shit to weigh. It's like, "I'd like a pound of jealousy, please." A "wake" had left a "trail." That's quite a trick, since a wake is a trail. And it's all left to the irrational to explain it to us. Then weird mentions of witches and a mule who eats human hands (AAAAIIIEEEEE!).

You won't sleep much until you discover the answer. And thus we are all condemned to a lifetime of insomnia.

Okay, now, from bunnies to... lollipops!

Holy shit, I wish they wouldn't do that to me! It's irresponsible to put such terrifying images out there on the bookshelves! It's scary on so many levels, such as:

1. It's not just a lollipop, but the messiest of all lollipops -- the all-day sucker! She could, I dunno, put it in your hair or something. It'll rot your teeth out... NOW!

2. The lollipop has a SKULL FACE on it! A scary skull! Right on the lollipop there! You can see it! Surely this is the most fearsome of lollipops. What child would hold such a lollipop? A scary child, it is certain!

3. There's a bite taken out of the lollipop. Now, I dunno if you've ever had an all-day sucker, but them sonsabitches are like ping-pong paddles. You can crack somebody's skull with one, like a Viking axe (which is why you don't get one if you're a bad kid - they can't trust you with such a weapon). They're strictly for licking. You're not takin' a bite out of one of those bad boys unless you're a real beast! So, the implications are there. Implications, of course, of horror.

4. There, on the girl's chin... blood! Eek! And, while she's not really looking malevolent or anything, she's doesn't look particularly friendly, either. And not-particularly-friendly is scary! She looks a little bored, actually. And what does boredom often lead to? That's right - acts of horror. How many serial killers would have gotten started if they'd been distracted with a thrilling game of Jenga or Gnip Gnop? I'm not sure of the statistics, but I'm betting not many.

5. Her hand? It's a skeleton's hand! That does it, Zebra Books has sealed the deal, I'm shitting my pants.

Speaking of lollipops, what happens if you eat too many of them?


"Behold my fillings! And who knows when I've combed my hair? Now you are frightened, I betcha!"

Either this guy's a homicidal maniac who's just seconds away from killing you and doing a maypole dance with your entrails... or he's "the Biffster" at a Kappa Alpha kegger screaming "WHOOOOO-HOO!" because "Brown Eyed Girl" came up on the stereo and that's his jam, man! If the book cover was bigger, I just feel certain we'd see a bottle of Jager in this fudpuck's hand, and that tee-shirt'll have Seven Mary Three on it. I ain't scared, other than by the thought that this guy'll probably have children and vote.

Now here's a book cover that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Kinda creepy, ain't it? Wedding dresses, like clowns, are pretty spooky in a dim environment, and veils could hide anything. When I thought this was the front of the girl, this actually struck me as a damn eerie cover. But it's her back... and, alas, it's just the front part of a two-part cover, because, past a little trimmed edge there, there's a second page. You open that, and you see this:

I know, who farted, right? This little latex sculpt is almost insulting and destroys your confidence in the book. It's like, "Okay, if the people at Pinnacle Books think I'm supposed to be scared by a booga-booga picture of an Ann Coulter Halloween mask, how am I supposed to trust them that the novel within is scary, either?" This is just silly-lookin', and when I think of the hours some poor shlub spent crafting that gremlin-bride out of polymers while thinking "This'll be really scary!" I get a Holden-Caulfield-like level of annoyance. I see girls who look like that shopping in the country music section every time I go to Wal-Mart. Toby Keith, there's your audience, dude. Sorry 'bout that.

Okay, this one's not really horrible, but it's still a bit giggly...

I think if it didn't have the normal-person hands grabbing the monster thing, it would work a lot better. But it makes the bug-eyed grey-skinned claw-handed thing look like it's being victimized. It's not coming to get you... it's in trouble itself, at the hands of an apparently average fella. How scary can it be? It's been compromised. Still, I should probably have given this one a pass, 'cuz I've certainly seen worse.

Now, gird thy loins, because here comes.... A MONSTER JELLYFISH!!!!

O' course, if you've spent any time at the beach at all, you know that jellyfish don't have faces, but still, if you have a book dealing with a plague of walking jellyfish, I think you're to be allowed a certain amount of license. I like John Halkin's books. The first I got was Squelch, about killer caterpillars (which later turn into deadly moths), and it was one of the goriest things ever, wallowing in disgusting bloodshed so hard that you just didn't give a damn that it was stupid-ass city.

I remember when I bought that one, even though it's silly as a fish with titties, the lady at the book store got really grossed out by it and said, "UGH! Why would you want to read that?" and I told her something like "Because I'm a sick bastard!" Anyway, I remember reading it during dead spots between my classes in my Freshman year of college, and was impressed enough to seek out Halkin's other books, which include Slither (about ravenous legless lizards) and Bloodworm (which I think was about intestinal parasites). All British "nasties" in the mode of our next guy, Guy N. Smith. Smith is most famous for his "Crabs" series, about giant killer crabs. The best title is Crabs on the Rampage, but the best cover for our purposes is this one:

SHRRRRIIIIIEEEEEKKKKK! It's a giant crab... and IT'S GOT A KNIFE!!! Held there in its giant claw which could easily snap a human being in half like scissors through a paperdoll! A shiny dagger! And he's gonna hurt that girl with it! I'm gonna swoon!

Yes, a crab with a knife.

Somebody (most likely a whole committee of somebodies) greenlit this idea. Somebody ponied up the money to commission a crab-with-a-knife painting. And someone painted it. And somebody published it in mass quantities, and some people with trucks drove it all over the country and people were paid to put it out on shelves.

And then I bought it, so who's the real asshole here, right? Yeah. I got it used, though, so I'm only about a buck-seventy-five worth of an asshole.

Anyway, I'm waiting for Sasquatch with a gun.

Now, on to the omnipresent children-with-skeletons wave of book covers. There are so many of these I didn't bother to scan more than one, but I could do a post on the kids/toys/skulls covers all by itself.

That little girl certainly doesn't look too horrified, does she? And the skeleton is wearing overalls.

I dunno, I just don't feel any nightmares on their way from this. Mein spine is not ashiver, and alas, my pants, they remain unpeed. And I remember the book itself actually being pretty freakin' scary. Andrew Neiderman, by the way, wrote most of the books ascribed to "V.C. Andrews." She wrote Flowers in the Attic and a few others, then died. Only about 8 of the books under her name are actually by her. As an in-joke, a few of the books under Neiderman's name (including this one) have cover blurbs from "V.C. Andrews." I love that.

And, I think I saved the best for last. Are you ready for this, motherfuckers? Don't say yes to that too quickly, because this is some heavyweight-stupid, rat'cheer.... I don't think you're ready. But I might as well post it, because I don't think you'll EVER be ready for...


A skeleton, with eyeballs, and a sideways baseball cap, and a bloodstained banjo! Do scary things get more-scarier than that-there-thing?!? The answer would have to be NO, there is none more scarier, it is just not possible for a thing scarier than that to exist! Your feeble mind would shatter like a frozen pee-diaper if confronted with an image more fearsome!

"Yes, I have risen from beyond the grave and shall be haunting you and turning your life into a hellish nightmare of terror from which there shall be no escape right directly, but first, how 'bout a little 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown'?"

Seriously, what the fuck? I've been into horror practically since birth, I got in trouble in first grade for reading the novelization of Amicus's Tales From The Crypt movie in first grade, and my grandmother caught me reading my cousin's copy of The Exorcist about the same time. I've researched the origins of this stuff back to cave paintings, I've watched Edison's silent version of Frankenstein and just about everything since, I've studied back to Castle of Otranto and beyond... and in all my delving into the darkest depths the human mind can conjure, "fucking skeleton with a fucking banjo" has just never shown up.

If this is scary, then a werewolf holding a bunch of carrots is also scary, as is a ghost with a badminton racquet, a ghoul with an AbFlex, a vampire with a road atlas, a mad scientist with a bouquet of daylillies sprouting from his buttcrack, and Godzilla wearing a bib and propellor beanie, tooting a kazoo.

The sideways cap doesn't do a damn thing for it, either. "Hey, guys, it's the ghost of little Skippy from down the street!" dadalangdangdangjangjang!

Then the name of the book is Dew Claws. On a poetic scale, that evokes kind of an image: wet early morning grass and claws, we could maybe work with that. But when you look into it, all a "dew claw" is that little claw where a dog's thumb would be. Dogs didn't evolve as far as we did, so they still have a rudimentary nail where a thumb would be, had they gone further up the scale. (By the way, this is thing #67,854 that disproves "intelligent design"). In any case, it's not a scary thing. "Dog thumbs are coming to get you!"

Anyway, I don't think I can top skeleton-with-a-banjo, so I shall now leave you... to your nightmares! BWA-HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!



  1. ... "Her hand? It's a skeleton's hand! That does it, Zebra Books has sealed the deal, I'm shitting my pants."
    You are a sick genius, but don't be lazy... the skeletal-kid-covers post MUST happen!

  2. These. Are. Glorious. I recall a couple from my bookstore clerk days in the early '90s, think I even ready Squelch or Slime, love the creepy kids/skeleton covers, and just the all-around wrong-headedness of 'em all. Thanks for posting!