Thursday, September 23, 2010

William W. Johnstone: The Paperback Covers

Another author I really couldn't care less about, but whose books are perfect examples of the hilarious depths to which 1980s mass-market paperback horror novels could descend to, is William W. Johnstone. A handful of his titles were published in the early 1980s, and resemble the more "artistic" imagery of 1970s bestsellers, but as the decade of excess rolled on, publishers had to come up with more eye-catching tactics, so we get silvery reflective foil-stamped titles, capering skeletons (in slippers!), and even holograms.

Wolfsbane (1982) The cover art at the top is nicely reminiscent of then-current An American Werewolf in London, of course, and still looks like a '70s paperback. The 1987 reprint - by the one and only William Teason - that at least acknowledges wolfsbane is a plant - but bet you didn't know it's given to you by a tri-headed skeleton!

The Nursery (1983) This one is all classic medical thriller, a genre in which I've read precisely nothing. But damn if they weren't once the rage. There's a missing question mark, however, that's driving me crazy.

Sandman (1988) I freaking told you about the skeleton in slippers! You didn't believe me, did you?! Isn't he supposed to be sprinkling dust on the baby? You know, to make it sleep?

Devil's Cat (1987) I remember this one the best from my used bookstore stint, with its freaky hologram Anton LaVey cackling at me. So the devil has a cat. Is that a surprise? What the hell else would he have? Everybody knows a three-headed dog got nothing on a pissed-off cat.

Rockinghorse (1987) This one isn't so outrageous, but someone should've reminded the artist that it's little girls who have skeletons, not little pretend horses.

Jack-in-the-Box (1986) More effin' skulls with bulging eyeballs! Truly a Zebra Books stock-in-trade.

The Uninvited (1982) Two covers for your delectation: the cliched eyeball widened in fright and revulsion, or the cliched skeletal hand showing off its mani in the '87 reprint. Which one would embarrass you more to be caught reading?

Toy Cemetery (1987) Yeah, yeah, we all know which horror novel this is referring to, but at least that one makes sense. I also like that the "evil comes to life" in a toy cemetery. Where else, right?

Cat's Eye (1989) Good God! As they say on the internets, kill it with fire! Or, don't, and let it grow up to attend furry conventions, it'll be a real hit.

Baby Grand (1987) Couldn't be worse than William Joel. Have you listened to any of his non-Greatest Hits records lately? I have. Ain't pretty.

And let's finish up with two so-so covers from the early '80s that are not egregiously trying to rape your eyeballs from the drugstore racks; a cleansing of the palate, if that's not mixing my metaphors too much.

Zebra Books really went all out, didn't they? And these tactics worked - my old bookstore's horror section was filled with this kind of crap, every copy creased and crinkled, obviously read and reread like readers were searching for the secrets of fucking life. Now I realize people just read this stuff as rotten brain candy and passed it on or traded it in, but damn if it didn't irritate my self-righteous 19-year-old ass. I mean, Clive Barker's stuff was right there. Come on people.

Of course I doubt Johnstone had anything to do with choosing any of these covers, but if anyone's read any of his books, can you let me know if he's as bad a writer as I imagine? I'd like to be proven wrong... and add yet more to my to-be-read list.

26 comments:

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Unsurprisingly perhaps I've never heard of William W. Johnstone, but I'm truly liking the covers you're putting up Will. I rather liked the 'Jack in the Box' cover. I recently picked up a Pan 1st edition of Peter Benchley's 'The Island' and a NEL 1st of F. Paul Wilson's 'The Tomb' - which im sure isnt as good as 'The Keep', but I'll give it a go.

lazlo azavaar said...

I've never heard of this guy or his books, but damn, some of those covers are laugh-out-loud FUNNY! (Especially Cat's Eye and Baby Grand).

Will Errickson said...

Well, Johnstone's simply name doesn't come up when readers are talking about good writers and books in the field. Just doesn't. I recall starting to read The Keep a few years ago but didn't get very far; I forget why. Have no idea what happened to my copy, and of course now I want to finish it.

Anonymous said...

Eh, I like that cover of "The Uninvited"--not so much the imagery as the execution, though, the mix of soft colors with sharply defined detail, and the way the top and bottom sections gently merge rather than just being lumped on top of each other. Altogether it has the feel of a classic poster for some really strange movie I'd like to see.

The rest, though, standard paperback horror line disposable dreck. At least that particular "house style" has remained remarkably consistent over the years, I guess. Except now instead of skeletons tickling the ivories we have a predominance of evil faces chuckling gleefully or baring fangs poutingly. Same unimaginative crap, different century.

Will Errickson said...

Oh, yes, I *do* like the covers for the early '80s editions, like Uninvited. I can't even go into bookstore horror sections anymore and see all those vampires in high heels. Everything looks so Photoshopped. Barf.

Luis said...

The cover for Jack-in-the-Box catches my eye, if for nothing else than to wonder just what the hell is the book about? A cursed Jack-in-the-Box? You turn the lever and it kills you?
The cover to Sandman is the strangest. Not only is the skeleton wearing slippers but PINK slippers at that! Also the title on the cover is also pink. Strange choice.

hopehavoc said...

I actually own that exact print of Cat's Eye and I can say that his writing is worth the cover art. This particular book is the tail end of a 2 part series (if you'll pardon the pun) and while I haven't read the first book, Cat's Cradle (with equally lol-worthy cover art of a cat-head baby in a stroller) I did thoroughly enjoy Cat's Eye enough to reread it at least twice. It's one of those God versus the Devil in the heartland kind of stories where the forces of good and evil duke it out old school. Very good read.

Anonymous said...

I read 'Jack in the Box' years ago. It goes something like this: Dad buys the toy for his young daughter but as luck would have it, said toy just happens to be possessed by an evil spirit/demon/the devil himself. Said demon possesses little girl and then sets about destroying the family and setting up dad to take the blame. I can't say the book is good or bad and I can't for the life of me remember how it ends but some of the imagery has stuck with me for the last 15 years.

Anonymous said...

A friend and I stumbled on his book "Sweet Dreams" on a road trip and we were intrigued by the ridiculous teddy bear cover. We started reading it to each other to pass the time and were soon in hysterics. This tale of a sex-crazed manitou possessing the teens of a small town is one of the funniest books I have ever listened to.

bluerosekiller said...

Will,
Johnstone's stuff had a sort of cool, over the top, pulpy appeal to me back in my late teens & early twenties which is when I read the vast majority of his stuff.
Much of his stuff had reoccuring themes with legions of vampires, werewolves & various other nasties taking over small towns with a small band of good guys battling to stay alive & keep their souls intact from the devil's minions. With a whole series THE DEVIL'S KISS, THE DEVIL'S HEART, THE DEVIL'S TOUCH & so on & so forth, featuring the same characters.
All of them full of heavy doses of sex & violence of course...

Early on, I enjoyed all his novels as he churned them out in a very prolific manner ( often, almost rediculously so ) & each one offered entertainment for a day or two.
But, by about the mid-'80s his stuff just all began to blend together & lost whatever luster it'd once had.
I think the author just churned his last few genre novels for the paychecks as the bottom began to fall out of the horror market. After which he turned to western & survivalist novels to pay the bills.
None of which I read & neither is my thing, but the last I knew his post-apocalyptic series of FROM THE ASHES novels were still seeing print.

So, would I suggest trying some of his work out?
Sure, as long as you approach it with the right frame of mind.
I'd say give THE DEVIL'S KISS from 1980 a shot. As long as you're in the mood for the sort of literary junk food that'll have you shaking your head in an "I don't believe I actually just ingested THAT!" way.

Peace.
Jim

Anonymous said...

I read the book Wolfsbane. I love it and have been searching for another copy ever since my decided to go *poof*. I believe it was very well written an the cover with a skeleton holding some wolfsbane was awesome to boot.

Beading Boy said...

Who has not heard of William W Johnstone? OMG, i own ALL of them and wish he was still alive to write more. He actually is one of my favorite horror authors. Rockinghorse was one of my favorites, but the "Devils" series were the grossest and most fun to re-read over and over again. His books now are so EXPENSIVE to buy even used! So if you can find good copies of any of them, but them. I have many many multiple copies. His wife is a great and grand lady.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Just stumbled on this William W Johnstone thread. I'm a fan. Really over-the-top horror and neat little snatches of perversion. I have most of his horror books. I like the CAT'S EYE cover and JACK-IN-THE-BOX. God Bless Zebra!

Rob Hamilton said...

I've read a couple Johnstone books. The Devil's Cat and one other "Devil's" title that was connected with the same main characters, and The Carnival (think that was the title), which was essentially the same with different characters. Plot was essentially the same in all three: Satan has come to this town, everyone chooses sides, BATTLE ROYAL!!! Don't know if I'd call them "good", but if you're an overly hormonal teen guy like I was when I read them, they were entertaining, as he loved cramming in as many graphic sexual scenes (usually perverse or rape-oriented, as sex apparently is a tool of the devil) as possible.

highwayknees said...

HARHAAAR! The DEVIL'S CAT cover is priceless! I dig!

highwayknees said...

Hey Will have you read any Bentley Little yet? I'd be curious to get your take on his "THE" series of books...My recs are: The IGNORED-his masterpiece, IMHO! The STORE-evil Wallmart type Big-Box corrupts a town! FUN! The ASSOCIATION- evil home-owners asso. corrupts a planned-suburb.

Cheers!

Will Errickson said...

I've not read any Little whatsoever. I remain skeptical....

Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

"Goddamnmutherfukingcockeatingpussylappingshitfacedassholesuckingbastards!"

-William W. Johnstone

Will Errickson said...

Wow, maybe I do need to read Johnstone after all!

Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

Yup - read that when I was about 12, and instantly committed it to permanent memory. Rolls right off the tongue even now!

I just wish I could remember which book it's from. I *think* it's from one in the "Devil's" series. Chick was possessed or some such.

-Jeff

jesselcairns said...

Sadly, I have read "The Devil's Cat" from cover to cover. As a writer, it was a seminal moment in my education: here was a book that was so God-awful, I knew that I could do better. I commonly refer to this novel as a "flaming sack of literary cat shit." Christ, those covers make me want a drink.

Kalea Miller said...

Who cares about the covers when it's known that 1980's EVERYTHING was gaudy, excessive and over-the-top? Power shoulders and big hair for example? However, the author focuses on what hardcore horror fans want: hardcore horror. Black masses complete with virgin sacrifice, vampire orgies, soul selling, wonderfully detailed and graphic gory deaths and a writing style that is simplified into an almost poetically basic "good and evil" without us having to worry about today's whiny "emotional" villains. I mean, killing murderous, violent devil worshippers: simple. Sometimes we need simple. Not everything is supposed to be esoteric and snotty, ergo Pulitzer worthy. I personally love a book where our hero kicks ass kills some bad guys and fights the ultimate baddy. I'm just happy that these books weren't written today; they would just be literary emo bullshit on how Satan is misunderstood and demons just need therapy...but at least the covers to that tripe would probably be awesome.

Jezzer said...

I read "The Nursery" years ago, and it's not a medical thriller. It's an extremely poorly-written supernatural horror novel about a group of people facing off against a demonic cult taking over the small town in which they live. The titular nursery plays only a very small role in the proceedings, and the bulk of the book is preoccupied with graphic sex (an actual plot point in the book centers around a preacher's wife whose desire for anal sex leads her to fall victim to a vampire; I wish I were making that up).

Even as a teenager, I could recognize trash when I read it, and this was pure trash from cover to cover.

juliew625 said...

I have been looking for Rockinghorse for years. I picked it up off of a free rack at some old used book store and really liked as a teen. It did not seem that badly written to me back then,but it has been awhile. I remember it was very gory and actually had me pretty creeped out. It wasnt the shining scary but still scary to me then. Really gory graphic horror scenes arent all trash anyone who has read any Jack Ketchum would agree i think!

Will Errickson said...

I agree: Ketchum can write extreme horror without it seeming like trash. Thanks Julie!

Peter LoCasto said...

I asked for Toy Cemetery as a gift last Christmas because I liked the title. I haven't finished it yet, I'm only up to page 97, but truth be told I like what I've read so far.

I enjoy how Johnstone is using the town with a secret plot but he's not beating around the bush so far. The main character and his daughter are told right away there is something evil going on and already they're making contacts with people who are trying to stop it instead of playing stupid.