Friday, February 25, 2011

Dell/Abyss Books: The Paperback Covers

It was 20 years ago this month that the Dell/Abyss line of contemporary horror fiction began publication. Yes, 20 years! Ah, I remember it well. This imprint from Dell Publishing was spearheaded by Bantam Doubleday editor Jeanne Cavelos in an attempt to give the paperback horror genre a boost of originality and conviction - and, of course, a boost in sales - as it had long been plagued by tired cliches and half-hearted imitations of better books and writers. The appropriately-named Abyss was intent on publishing works that plumbed dark depths of psychology and the supernatural not for cheap, exploitative, escapists thrills but for more disturbing and revelatory chills. This kind of horror was interiorized, found not in a Gothic mansion or small town overrun by vampires but in the blasted landscape of the human mind.

The Abyss paperback originals used striking cover design - haunting, creepy, anguished faces and tormented bodies, albeit perhaps sometimes a tad clumsy - to separate themselves from the anonymous bloody skulls, graveyards, and evil babies then on horror covers. The icon on the spine of its books was a mark of distinction; indeed, Abyss even had a mission statement:

Launched in February 1991 with Kathe Koja's stunningly bleak and unsettling The Cipher, Abyss published one title a month, ending up with more than 40 titles overall. Most of the authors were first-time novelists, or at least writers with only a few books under their belts, but in the case of MetaHorror (July 1992), an anthology edited by ever-present '80s author Dennis Etchison, the line also featured well-known horror masters. Women writers were plentiful - the most successful was easily Poppy Z. Brite, but also Tanith Lee, Nancy Holder, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Melanie Tem - and guys like Brian Hodge and Rick R. Reed really got started here. What they all had in common was a desire to do something new with horror fiction. But, for various industry reasons, Abyss folded later in the '90s and my love of current horror pretty much went with it.

Obsessed, Rick Reed (July 1991)

Deathgrip, Brian Hodge (June 1992)

I'm not exactly sure how I first heard of the Abyss books; it may have been a Linda Marotta review in Fangoria, or maybe a review from the Overlook Connection catalog. Reading Koja, Brite, Hodge, and others back then was a revelation, one of the most exciting times I've had as a horror fiction reader. I doubt all the novels and two short story collections were as "cutting edge" as promised, but I always loved the ambition and the effort. Some writers launched new careers, others weren't heard from again. I've read a handful over the years but nothing could compare to Koja's first two novels, or Hodge's Nightlife (March 1991). Still, the Dell/Abyss line was a great moment in paperback horror, and deserves to be remembered today. Most titles are readily available used, cheap (ah, except The Cipher, which has now gone to collectors' prices!) on Amazon, eBay, ABE, and the like. The following are a random sample.

Whipping Boy, John Byrne (March 1992)

Facade, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (February 1993)

Lost Futures, Lisa Tuttle (May 1992)

Post Mortem, ed. by Paul Olson and David Silva (January 1992)

X, Y, Michael Blumlein (November 1993)

Anthony Shriek, Jessica Amanda Salmonson (September 1992)

Shadow Twin, Dale Hoover (December 1991)

The Wilding, Melanie Tem (November 1992)

Tunnelvision, R. Patrick Gates (November 1991)

Making Love, Melanie Tem & Nancy Holder (August 1993)

Dusk, Ron Dee (April 1991)

Dead in the Water, Nancy Holder (June 1994)

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja (April 1992)

Shadowman, Dennis Etchison (January 1993)

You can read here a long, detailed, scholarly look at the nuts-and-bolts of the Dell/Abyss line, "The Decline of the Literary Horror Market in the 1990s and Dell's Abyss Series": What makes the Abyss line a cultural phenomenon worthwhile of study is its self-conscious positioning within the declining horror market. Its marketing strategies, text selection, and construction of a commodity identity speak volumes on the horror market and its transformation at the time.

This image thanks to Trashotron


lazlo azavaar said...

These are great! (Love that Post Mortem one). I noticed that you mark and date your books, I do that too (even the hardcovers)! I know it destroys their resell value, but I couldn't bear to be parted with them anyway.

Zwolf said...

Very good post on a worthy subject. I was an Abyss freak back in the day, and made sure I bought every Abyss book that came out. It was the only time (until Hard Case Crime) that I bought books due to their brand. Abyss was like SubPop was with music - if you saw that brand, you knew it was at least going to be worth a look. Their quality started to wane later and they couldn't keep their mission up... but, the early ones are all worth a look, and it was a helluva concept.

Anonymous said...

Great post, brother! I remember seeing a few of these on the cheap in a used bookstore a while back. Now I'm wishing I had picked them up.


Anonymous said...

You may very well lose all respect for me after I admit to this Will, but I wasn't a big fan of the line.
Sorry. I just wasn't able to get into a whole lot of the authors, the styles or the story lines of the novels themselves. Probably a certain lack of imagination on my part actually.
I'm a complete sucker for a lot of the old tropes & even cliches when it comes to the horror that I like best. So, while the Abyss line pushed the envelope as far as the reach & the scope of what horror fiction was, I just couldn't get myself mentally or emotionally invested with many of the characters or situations that the plots of these books placed them in.
While I fully recognized the line's contributions in their attempt to keep the genre alive & healthy, I was likely one of the reasons that it failed in the end. Because, as a fan of more traditional horror fiction, I failed to embrace the new like I maybe should have, resulting in a lack of support sales-wise.
And for that, I belatedly apologize.

Will Errickson said...

lazlo - I date virtually all of my books, have for over 20 years now. Write in them as well; I don't really worry about resale value!

J Metro - These turn up frequently on my bookshop visits, just not the ones I'm actually looking for, alas.

bluerose - I hear you, but for me at the time I was hungry for something current and edgy. Over the years I've recommended Abyss titles not to horror fans but people who liked more challenging and experimental fiction. These days, yes, I love those old horror tropes as long as they're done well.

Anonymous said...

Will, actually, after reading your reply & a bit of further reflection, I think I may have done a bit better at supporting "the new wave" of the time than I thought.
Sure, I may have neglected to buy nearly as many of the Abyss titles as I did Tor's, Zebra's or (later) Leisure's. But, I did follow the early work of Skipp & Spektor, SLOB & it's first couple/three sequels etc.. And enjoyed much of it back in the day. So, I wasn't ( & am not ) a TOTAL traditionalist by any means.
I used to be far more adventurous with what I read in years past & I once had the patience & ability to stick with styles of writing, types of stories & characters that I wouldn'ta now. Maybe I should be ashamed to admit it, but I just don't want to have to WORK my way through books now.
Not that I don't ever want to be challenged by what I'm reading ever again, I just don't want to it to be a burden or a puzzle that I'll always feel like I missed a piece of.
Know what I mean?


Richard of DM said...

I read Shadow Twin years ago and I loved it. I picked up a copy recently but haven't had the courage to see if it lives up to my memories.

Kat said...

Abyss was always a great line when it came to weird ideas and weirder cover art; nary a skeleton with hair, evil doll, or a skeleton child clutching an evil doll to be found.

Anonymous said...


Just wanted to let you know that I chose this as one of my favorites posts from February, and included a link to it in the 5th "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!


Will Errickson said...

bluerose - I *do* know just what you mean!

Richard - Good to know so I can grab it if I see it.

Kat - Yeah, some of their covers were seriously Francis Bacon-esque. Pretty high-falutin' for a horror line!

J/Metro - Thanks so much! Appreciate the link.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Great piece, Will.

So many excellent titles.

I always loved THE WHIPPING BOY. Melaneie Tem's THE WILDING for terrific, too.

jeremy said...

"The Whipping Boy" was written by John Byrne of Marvel/DC comic fame.(He does a great Captain America!)

gef the talking mongoose said...

Hmmmm. I need to revisit my shelves to see just which novels I lack from having all of these. I'm missing, I think, only 3 or 4.

As it happens, Ron Wolfe, a former co-worker of mine (he's still there; I've been gone for 11 years now) at the newspaper in Little ROok co-wrote the Abyss book DEATH'S DOOR. Good novel.

-- Dan

beep said...

I loved picking up new Abyss books. It did not take long to realize that they were going out of their way to publish the new and unusual. Ok, so it didn't work at all times, but hell, even a %10 average would have been fine, yet most of these were hit out of the ballpark. To this day I think that Nancy Holder's opening in 'Dead in the Water' should be taught along side of "The Lottery". Uh, I would not make the same suggestion with Blumlein's short story "Tissue Ablation" which is the biggest fucking sucker punch I have ever read. Just after you have gotten used to the idea that, no, you really, really do NOT want to look up those medical terms any more.... then it stops. And gives you an appendix. The good doctor (and yep, he is a practicing one) might have had a morbid chuckle there.

Will Errickson said...

I reread and reviewed Blumlein's BRAINS OF RATS last month...

Unknown said...

Thank you for this excellent post and catalog list. I had entirely forgotten about this line and this post inspired me to go out and go hunting at my local second hand book stores. I managed to find about two dozen of the Abyss line. The quality did drop off after a time, but man, the originals? GREAT.

Awesome blog - keep up the good work!


toomuchhorrorfiction said...

Glad to help out, Mark! Those days of the Abyss line were terrific, a great time to be a horror fiction fan. Thanks for reading!

GeekWingChun said...

You hit the bullseye when you say this line was like Subpop's contribution to music: a bunch of authors looking to write from the heart, instead of what would earn them the most money. A solid line of books. (I'm sure there were some that were misses, but not the ones I read!)

Marina said...

The Cipher is defintely a favourite of mine.