The Hexploitation Shelf

As a child, I was fascinated by the uncanny, the mysterious, and the monstrous. I devoured books on the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, felt like a UFO sighting could happen at any moment, was convinced that science would prove the existence of ESP and telekinesis imminently.

It was only much later that I realized that this wasn’t the normal state of the world. While we as a civilization have never completely lost our fascination with the supernatural, the 1970s were a boom time for the occult, cryptozoology, and parapsychology, all born from the fertile soil of the counterculture and the space race.

With these new, widespread interests pervading popular culture, the publishing houses saw a potential market, and, like any business, exploited it without hesitation. Countless cheap paperbacks proclaimed to give the true facts about black magic, witchcraft, the Bermuda Triangle, and more, churned out the way the pulps and bodice ripper romances were. And just like those books, they found an audience. For those fascinated by the topics, these were the books that examined their deepest mysteries. To those fearful of such things, other books (published by the same printing houses) proclaimed themselves to be exposés into their most sinister schemes and goals. Books about the power of witchcraft lined the shelves next to those warning of the rise of Satanism and Black Magic.

The United Kingdom was ground zero for this focus on the dangers and wonders of magic, being the birthplace of what we now call the neopagan religions, but was then just “witchcraft.” Gerald Gardner, Dion Fortune, Raymond Buckland, and Alex Sanders emerged from the occult worlds of Britain during this time and the counterculture embraced their teachings along with Eastern religions and yoga. The church saw these new religions as just the latest mask donned by Satan to lure souls into his clutches—and not entirely without evidence. Black masses and Satanism had their own presence in the UK and in America at this time, powered by curiosity, boredom, and a desire to shock as much as a belief in a supreme force of evil and what it could provide to those willing to bend the knee to the Devil. This was the beginning of the “Satanic Panic” which would eventually spread across the Atlantic and grow to prominence here in the United States in the 1980s.

I never completely lost my fascination for this stuff and, as I quickly approach the half-century mark, I find myself with a bit of disposable income to build a collection of these aging, yellowing paperbacks. Despite their cheap production, the fact that so many of them were churned out means you can still acquire copies of the lurid tomes if you’re patient enough or cast a wide enough net.

The books are wonderful artifacts of a time now past, both in content and in graphic design. Many have lurid covers adorned with half (or fully naked) nubile women or sinister figures portending evil, or funky psychedelic-inspired imagery designed to evoke the aspects of an acid trip. Even if what was written on the pages within was junk, the covers alone make these relics worthy of preservation. Or at least coveting.

The covers and content of these books have earned them a most delightful nomenclature. Amongst aficionados, these books are said to be of the “hexploitation genre,” and I can’t think of a better name for them. Like the grindhouse movies that preceded them, these books are all about sex, violence, and horror; works of art to make old women clutch their pearls and preachers denounce them from the pulpit. For those of us with a slightly less uptight outlook on life, they’re delicious treats, adorned with sensational covers and reeking of the fine scent that only cheap paperbacks can produce.

I’ll be documenting my hexploitation reading from time to time here, providing brief book reports on them and acting as a catalog of the titles available out there for other fans of the genre. Even if you never read one of these yourself, I hope you find these future posts entertaining. May they be a crystal ball gazing into the strange supernatural 1970s for your enjoyment.

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