The Horror/Thriller Books I Read in 2021

My New Year’s Resolution for 2022 was the same one I had for 2021 – Read more books! You see, despite having a small library in my apartment, I’d been neglecting them in favor of zoning out in front of the TV. On the rare occasions I cracked one open, I’d find myself dozing after just a few pages. Clearly, my frenetic job coupled with social media had zapped my attention span and it was high time I did something about it. So, this time last year, I signed on on Goodreads and challenged myself to read twenty-five books in 2021. Spoiler alert: I didn’t succeed. The official number of books I completed was eighteen garnering me 72% on Goodreads. But hey, that’s still passing, right? Not surprisingly, most of them were horror or thriller stories and the ones I’ll be focusing on today.

Paperbacks from Hell (Grady Hendrix, 2017) – I wanted to read some vintage horror paperbacks but thought I’d start with the 2017 book that made them popular again. I read and discussed this book before but wanted to enjoy it cover-to-cover rather than skipping around. It’s a fast read due to the numerous illustrations and Hendrix’s hilarious prose. As a teen in the ‘80s, I’d read many of these books and have amassed a collection of over three hundred titles in the last three years; a few of which are featured on this list.  

Genre: Horror (with lots of comedy)

Subgenre: Reference

Number of pages: 256

The Message: Damn, the ’80s were fun!

Shelf it or Scrap it? It stays firmly on my shelf!

Christmas Babies (Christopher Keane & William Black 1991) – The book’s title is misleading as it has nothing to do with the holidays. In fact, it takes place in sunny Florida a.k.a. one of the least Christmassy spots on Earth. Rather, its moniker references the appearance of genetically engineered babies born with green eyes and tufts of red hair. Women around the country are giving birth to these strange-looking kids before both die on the delivery table. Pat Heller, a dedicated medical reporter, investigates this strange phenomenon at the risk of her own safety. Many vintage horror novels espoused the evils of reproductive science and although this is far from the most outrageous example, it was still a good read. 

Genre: Paperbacks from hell (Yes, I consider it a genre)

Subgenre: Genetic engineering gone awry

Number of pages: 288

The Message: If you decide to do fertility treatments, don’t be surprised when Christmas comes early this year.

Keep or donate? Keep as a collectible

CRIB (Harold Lee Friedman 1982) – I’m not sure why my year started out with “baby horror” but CRIB was the next book I read after “Christmas Babies.” This one’s more notable for its double cover art (created by Lisa Falkenstern) than its contents. Despite its scary packaging, CRIB ends up being much more a thriller than a horror story. A woman unable to accept the loss of her child decides to probe further. This inevitably leads her to a much bigger conspiracy involving the disappearance of Jewish babies. I enjoyed this book overall and appreciated its satisfying (if not expected) conclusion. 

Genre: Paperbacks from Hell

Subgenre: Thriller

Number of pages: 293

The Message: Ladies, beware of having an orgasm while being raped by your husband lest you lose a child!

Shelf it or Scrap it? Keep as a collectible

Child’s Play (Andrew Neiderman 1985) – Don’t get all excited, this “Child’s Play” predates Chucky three years and, despite its cover, has nothing to do with a killer doll. That being said, Andrew Neiderman (whom many are unaware also writes as V.C. Andrews since her passing back in 1986) is one of my favorite horror paperback authors. His stories are well-paced and his characters are the kind you genuinely care for. In some ways, the latter worked against him in this novel. There’s a character in this story that really deserved some justice. Unfortunately, Neiderman isn’t really known for his happy endings. Seriously, his book,” Imp” nearly broke my heart when I finished it the year before. The story deals with a seemingly perfect couple looking to adopt a child. In reality, the father is a Class A narcissist harboring dark secrets from his pst. He’s far more interested in turning unwanted kids into minions rather than having a happy family. Despite the conclusion letting me down, I did enjoy the book overall.

Genre: Paperbacks from Hell

Subgenre: Supernatural (Kinda)

Number of pages: 302

The Message: Adoption is great…so long as your husband isn’t a sociopath with demonic tendencies. 

Shelf it or Scrap it? Keep as a collectible. I love this cover even though it has little to do with the story.

Best Friends (Ruby Jean Jensen 1985) – In the world of Paperbacks from Hell, Zebra Press is the premier publisher with William W. Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jensen their unofficial King and Queen. I have a nice collection of Ruby Jean Jensen books but never read any of them on account of their being in such great condition and my not wanting to crease them. This all changed when I came across a second, “reader” copy of “Best Friends” at my local Half Price Books. I wasn’t sure what to expect but really enjoyed this tale – and not just because the evil cat on the cover has the same name as my own kitty, Juno. The story is about a little boy (Barry) a victim of a satanic daycare molestation ring – obviously inspired by the ‘80s Satanic Panic. Although the center was shut down by law enforcement, the rituals still linger and Barry’s not only left with psychological scars but two (mostly) invisible “friends” – a purple, demonic cat and a humanoid entity. These two follow him around everywhere and brutalize anyone that upsets him. I thought this book was a great read and if it’s indicative of Jensen’s other works, I can only hope to come across more reader copies in the future.

Genre: Paperbacks from Hell

Subgenre: Supernatural

Number of pages: 320

The Message: If your child reveals he has an imaginary friend, try not to piss him off!

Shelf it or Scrap it? Definitely keep! Not only are Ruby Jean Jensen books highly collectible, but this cover is one of my favorites. I did end up selling my worn copy after I finished reading it but retained a crisper one in my collection.

Baby Grand (William W. Johnstone & Joseph E. Keane) – I’ve read a few William W. Johnstone books (including one further down this list) and most of them are just plain nuts. This one, featuring a ghostly piano that plays music from a creepy old house is fairly tame by his usual standards. Although the writing is all over the place; featuring unnecessary characters, flashbacks, and subplots – it was entertaining. The lead character, Bill, was a composite of just about every hyper-macho action hero the ’80s had to offer and the dialogue was unintentionally hilarious. My biggest complaint was that despite the length being about 150 pages too long, the climax still seemed rushed and unsatisfying. Still, the only bad book is a boring one, and “Baby Grand” is anything but that.

Genre: Paperbacks from Hell

Subgenre: Supernatural

Number of pages: 427

The Message: If you hear mysterious music playing from an abandoned mansion across the street, do NOT go to investigate!

Shelf it or Scrap it? Just like “Best Friends,” I sold the one I read and kept a better copy in my collection.

Runaway (Stephen Gresham 1988) – In contrast to “Baby Grand,” I felt every one of the 447 pages of “Runaway.” Here, I’d been doing great finishing books in less than a week until this one came along and took me nearly a month. It’s about a kid who runs away from home because his wealthy parents can give him anything but their time. He goes hitch-hiking and winds up a virtual prisoner at some hyper-religious labor camp for orphans – one that may or may not be harboring a demon. It’s less horror than it is “Lord of the Flies” meets “The Shawshank Redemption.” The horror/supernatural elements seem like an afterthought; lightly peppered throughout but never playing a significant role. It’s WAY too long and made for an arduous read. I love the cover art and, as a fan of vintage horror paperbacks, really wanted to enjoy this book. Unfortunately, I found myself identifying with the lead character and desperately wanting to escape! 

Genre: Paperbacks from Hell

Subgenre: Supernatural…and that’s reaching a bit

The Message: There’s nothing like a fascist, religious orphanage to help you appreciate your wealthy, disconnected parents.

Number of pages: Four hundred and twenty-seven long pages.

Shelf it or Scrap it? Despite the story, the cover is a winner and stays in the collection. Incidentally, “Runaway” was the book that finally taught me it’s okay to label some books as, what seasoned Goodreaders refer to, DNF’s (Did Not Finish). It turns out that many people, myself included, have a stigma about not finishing a book once they’ve started them. Unlike a movie or TV show that we’d have no problem clicking away from, we inexplicably struggle through books we don’t enjoy just to get to that last page. After completing this book, I vowed never to do that to myself again and have had a couple of books I’ve tossed in my DNF pile since.

Greely’s Cove (John Gideon 1991) – This paperback was also over 400 pages but kept me engaged throughout. It’s a supernatural tale that takes place in a small town where an ancient evil force has taken root. People are disappearing and it’s up to a small group of locals (including a powerful witch and a Medium) to put an end to things once and for all. I really enjoyed this book. It has excellent pacing and the protagonists are flawed, making them much more interesting. 

Genre: Horror

Subgenre: Supernatural

Number of pages: 422

The Message: Evil places attract evil people

Shelf it or Scrap it? This one’s a keeper!

The Final Girl’s Support Group (Grady Hendrix, 2021) – Not willing to rest on the laurels of his “Paperbacks from Hell” – which not only changed my life but created a pop culture movement, Hendrix has continued churning out fun novels of his own. Last year, was the highly entertaining “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires” and this summer he’s releasing “How to Sell a Haunted House” which I’ve already pre-ordered. In 2021 he wrote The Final Girl’s Support Group” a.k.a. a love letter to us fans of ’80s slashers. Without naming names in the novel, you can easily recognize the plot points and characters from Halloween, Friday the 13th, Silent Night Deadly Night, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. In fact, the final girl from Friday the 13th (1980), Adrienne King, even narrates the audiobook. I’m not sure how this story reads for the younger crowd but for those of us who grew up in the Golden age of slashers, it’s a slam dunk. It won the 2021 Goodreads Choice Award for “horror” though this reads more like an action story with a good portion taking place on the road. And what a wild ride it is! Hendrix’s humourous way of turning a phrase makes him one of the best comedy writers in the horror genre. It’s no surprise that once I start reading one of his novels I have a hard time putting it down. 

Genre: Action/Horror 

Subgenre: Slashers

Number of pages: 352

The Message: You’re only a victim when you allow what happened to you to dictate the rest of your life. 

Shelf it or Scrap it? Placed on my ever-growing Grady Hendrix shelf. 

The Exorcist 40th Anniversary Edition (William Peter Blatty, 1971/2011 – I talked about this during one of my recent  “Book vs Movie” posts. This newer version changes up some of the dialogue and adds an additional (unnecessary) character. If you are a fan of the film and want to read its source material, I think the original would be just fine. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the story so I won’t insult you with a synopsis. I’ll just say that it follows pretty closely with the movie. 

Genre: Horror

Subgenre: Supernatural

Number of pages: 400 pages

The Message: This is subjective and still debated today. Having been raised Catholic, I do see the story as less psychological and more a tale of good versus evil. The brilliance of William Blatty’s story and William Friedkin’s film is that a lot of what you’ll walk away with is what you bring with you. 

Keep or donate? I’m glad to say I’ve read this but it’s unlikely I’ll ever do so again. Of course, if I come across an old, 1st printing I’ll happily add it to my collection. As for this copy, I’m content to stick with the film and donate it to my local used bookstore. 

Toy Cemetery (William W. Johnstone 1987) – This one is so insane, “Paperbacks from Hell” devotes an entire spotlight on it. Incidentally, Hendrix’s description is hilarious and you should definitely check it out. Basically, Johnstone throws everything he has at this story (vampires, pedophilia, killer toys, witches, incest, satanic kiddie porn, and tall monsters with heads the size of apples). It’s crazy but, dare I say, entertaining. Despite the convoluted plot and awful writing/dialogue, I had a hard time putting it down. And while there are some books you read and forget, this one will stay with me for a long time.   

Genre: Paperbacks from Hell

Subgenre: Supernatural

Number of pages: 412

The Message: Look how low you’ve sunk in the name of entertainment! 

Keep or donate? Keep. Because like so many other Paperbacks from Hell, it’s more fun to own them than it is to actually read them.

And that’s the horror/thriller books I read last year. For 2022, I’ve decided to take a break from the vintage stuff and read more modern books. Of course, I’ll still throw a few Paperbacks from Hell in there for good measure but not like 2021. Another thing, this blog was a pain in the butt to put together so from here on out, I’ll be dropping my reviews as I read them. Since most of the books are modern and more accessible, I think it will give you a better chance to check them out yourself and share your opinions. And, of course, if anybody has any book recommendations of their own, please send me a message or leave a comment. 




2 thoughts on “The Horror/Thriller Books I Read in 2021

  1. I read (and loved) Paperbacks From Hell a couple of years ago. Have you read The Nest? That’s been my favourite paperback from hell so far. It’s absolutely ridiculous and over the top, but that’s exactly what makes it so brilliant 😂 I actually bought a copy of The Exorcist from an Oxfam bookshop the other day. Been meaning to read it for years. Happy reading for 2022!

    • Thanks, Jazz! I do have the more recent Valancourt release of “The Nest” but have yet to read it. I’ll definitely make a point to do so this year. I would love to find the original release someday too.

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