Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Horror Paperback Covers of Zebra Books: What Happened?

Zebra Books used some ludicrous and cheesy art for most of their paperback originals they published in the 1980s and beyond, but the horror titles they put out in the 1970s had much more vintage-styled covers. Definitely some quality work for their reprints of pulp kings like Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert Bloch. Gaze upon the mighty art of Jeff Jones above, in the 1976 edition of Pigeons from Hell. Okay, sure, that's not even close to what goes on in Howard's seminal 1938 horror story, but how can you not be charmed at the evocative mystery of old-style dinosaurs cavorting in the surf?

Night Fear (1979) from Long boasts some kind of Elephant Man that I think is supposed to evoke the Cthulhu sculpture from Lovecraft. Art by Clyde Caldwell.

Also in '79, Zebra reprinted some of Bram Stoker's other works, The Lair of the White Worm (1911), Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), and Dracula's Guest (1914). I'm digging 'em all!

But then as the decade turned, Zebra suddenly switched to the endless procession of dancing skeletons and wide-eyed innocents to sell their books, and a brand-new horror cliche was born. Most just look like Halloween decorations today, and have about as much atmosphere. Consider Wild Violets by Ruth Baker Field: the first cover is from 1980; the second, from '86.

See what they did there? Another example is Leslie Whitten's The Alchemist, published by Avon in 1974 with a pretty cool, well-painted cover that's part of a set with his Progeny of the Adder; 12 years later... ooh, a skeleton and a pumpkin! And Leslie is changed to "Les," because, of course, men won't read books by women... even though Leslie Whitten is a man.

I wonder though what the impetus was for this change: were readers actually getting less demanding? More likely, the horror paperback boom was happening so fast the publishers had to use cheaper, and thus crappier, art, as well as those foil-stamped titles, to stand out from other books on the drugstore racks. So basically, from the otherworldly eeriness of Jeff Jones's art to the utterly tacky, silly, and lamentable covers like the ones below...

14 comments:

Nathaniel Katz said...

Man, those final two are hideous. I also enjoyed how DRACULA was the biggest part of all the Stoker covers.

Mac Campbell said...

These covers were a part of my childhood and I'm able to hate them about as much as I hate Bigfoot And Wildboy, or old Disney cartoons. I miss the foil!
Of course, it was a wake-up call when Books of Blood came out, with Barker's own drawings on the cover. Then I had to admit there was better out there.
The second-hand store in Halifax where I bought that stuff is still there. With the same selection. Why? They still have the books from twenty years back that no one bought!

Luis said...

I'm with you on the fact that 70's covers had much more drama as well as art. The art of Jeff Jones and Frazetta is still being admired but I don't see anyone posting the cover art of "Piper" or "Only Child" and saying it's anything but generic.
The cover to Lair of the White Worm is truly remarkable, If I ever read this book I want it to be the edition with this cover.

Anonymous said...

The big shift for the Zebra line was that the later books were marketed to young female readers, the same readers who would later buy millions of RL Stine Fear Street books. The seventies titles were definitely aimed more to a male comic book reader audience. The evil children & children in supernatural peril wave of books were essentially driven by teen and tween girls, books for-and sometimes about babysitters.

Will Errickson said...

Anon, that's sort of what I was thinking. Well-put.

Zwolf said...

Toward the end Zebra improved a bit, with some really creepy pictures of glowing-eyed zombie kids rising out of moonlit ponds and such. But mostly they were awwwwwful! The contrast between those Wild Violets covers is striking. I've got the 1980 one, which is pretty good. The bowing skeleton, though... Jesus, what were they thinking? I need to re-read that book, anyway... I remember liking it quite a bit when I was 13 or 14. It's pretty twisted...

Anonymous said...

books for- and sometimes about babysitters!!!
caray!!! as we say in Spain and Portugal...

In Spain we hadn't that kind of covers illustrations (the publishers here like modern design for any kind of books) and almost no modern horror, apart from King translated to spanish, so when I link your blog and posted some of these covers in a forum a spanish guy (in a kind of attack of euphoria) said that these books with children and skeletons in the cover are a style of life!!!??? and that the Ramones should had read those books

Francisco

author Scott Nicholson said...

nice trip through memory lane!

Scott

Anonymous said...

It's clear from the above that the good covers were tailored to the individual works or series, and the crap-tastic formula covers were pretty much uniform across the various volumes. So not only a serious drop in artisitc quality, but perhaps a serious drop in giving-a-damn behind the scenes about what the hell crap they were shoveling out.

Rabid Fox said...

I'm with Nathaniel. Those final two, Only Child and Piper, are effing awful.

Great post, though.

Elias Siqueiros said...

Great article as always, Will. I wish genre title covers did go back to the sixties and seventies for inspiration.

highwayknees said...

I'm with you Will. I LOVE the covers of my childhood -the 60's and 70's. The artworks were things of beauty! I would actually buy used books and read them based on the artwork alone-if it was calling to me . I'm a painter myself . And my style has been influenced by those very covers... And BTW- I don't think I've ever read one of those tacky child/skeleton covers. I stayed the heck away because I just knew nothing inside could be anything but trashy and dumb. They are just repellant. And not in the GOOD way! lol

David Lee Ingersoll said...

The elephant thing is Chaugnar Faugn, one of Long's contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos.

Will Errickson said...

David, thanks - that is news I can use!