31 Days of Horror: Tower of Evil

Day Three takes us to a craggy island (but not Craggy Island) off the coast of England, the site of a derelict lighthouse and horrible murders. The film is Tower of Evil (1972) and it contains a ton of stuff that’s right in my wheelhouse.

“It’s just a model.”

The story begins with the discovery of a triple murder on the island, the so-called Snape Island, which is going to elicit chuckles from Harry Potter fans. The three dead are touring Americans, and the sole survivor has been driven mad by what she witnessed. She kills one of her rescuers in her insane state, which gets her committed to a mental hospital while the police decide what to do with the case.

Curiously, one of the murdered Americans was slain with a ceremonial spear made of solid gold, a type of spear found only at Phoenician burial sites (although closed captioning kept render this as “Venetian,” so I was wondering why he wasn’t strangled by a set of blinds). This piques the interest of a British museum—maybe the British Museum, but it’s unclear—who puts together a team of professional archeologists to explore the island and find evidence of Phoenician visitors to England in the dim past. It goes without saying that these professional archeologists are all in their mid-to-late-twenties, are engaged in adulterous affairs with one another, and don’t seem particularly good at what they do. You know: movie archeologists. Coming along for the ride is an American private investigator hired by the insane girl’s family to clear her of the three murders. The team picks up some additional future body count—I mean help—in the guise of a local fisherman and his nephew, who looks like he’s at least Mick Jagger’s second cousin.

Once on the island, it’s clear that just about everyone has something to hide and soon everyone is up to something shady. Some vanish for a time, while others are just trying to get another team member into the sack. Strange flute playing and ghastly laughter suggest that the group may not be alone on Snape Island, a fact that’s confirmed when the first murder happens. There’s somebody out there in the dark, and that somebody has sharp implements.

Tower of Evil crept onto my Amazon watchlist and I frankly have no idea how it got there. I’m nevertheless grateful it did as I found it surprisingly entertaining. The movie ticked off a number of my “Yes, please” boxes, including but not limited to: maritime themes, ancient cults, Baal worship, C-grade British film studios, Chekov’s paraffin tank, and many, many dubbed actors for a movie filmed in English. All that was missing was some good ol’ Sawney Bean cannibalism and the film would have hit all the sweet spots. It does though feature the goofiest demonic idol I’ve ever seen. I’m truly not sure if it’s just being friendly or flipping me off.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

For a movie I had no memory of choosing and no reason to expect anything good of, Tower of Evil was a pleasant surprise and is the best film I’ve seen so far this month (he says on Day Three). It even begins with a credit sequence filmed over an old school miniature model as a practical effect, and I love me a good movie model. The movie appears to have gained an underground following and the plot would make for a good role-playing game scenario if you’re into investigative horror. Likely, your players will be unfamiliar with is so you can use it “as is” just as easily as inspiration for another story. All this means I’m giving Tower of Evil a solid four out of five skulls. Deduct ½ a skull if you’re not into model lighthouses.

31 Days of Horror: The Legend of Blood Castle

The second night into this year’s watch-feast takes us to Spain, most famous for its blind dead. No zombies for us tonight, though. Instead it’s a retelling of the Elizabeth Bathory legend in the form of The Legend of Blood Castle (1973).

The film opens with a vampire hunt underway in a small village. Peasants scour the cemetery with horse and virgin, seeking the vampire’s grave. This is observed by the noble occupants of the local castle, Countess Erzebeth Bathory and her husband, Karl. The Countess, however, is more concerned with her fading beauty, while Karl spends most of his time thinking about his hunting hawks. When the vampire hunt turns up the relatively fresh body of Dr. Plojovitz in his coffin, it’s time for a good old fashioned vampire trial! The first third of the movie becomes a courtroom drama—except the accused is dead, has a stake through his heart, and is lying in a casket. Let’s see Law & Order do that!

As the trial proceeds, the Countess discovers that blood from one of her virginal servants beautifies her skin. Encouraged by her oldest and most trusted servant, who reminds the Countess of her ancestor who once bathed in virgin’s blood, it’s not long before accidents are being staged to collect children’s precious life-giving fluids for her beauty regimen.

Meanwhile, the trial has concluded and it’s revealed that the good undead Doctor (no, not Dr. Acula) had an acquired a medallion before he died, and it’s this cursed piece of jewelry that’s blamed for his vampirism. Karl, who already displayed some psychotic tendencies, claims the medallion for himself and pretty soon he’s dropped dead—allegedly.

Despite presenting several supernatural elements, the movie plays coy as to whether there’s anything supernatural actually going on. Karl rises from his coffin and starts hunting virgins to bring back to the castle, but is he a vampire or was he only buried alive? The Countess starts spiraling further into madness and sees apparitions, but are they ghosts or are they delusions of a guilt-ridden psyche? It’s an interesting choice by the film, but it works more in concept than execution.

I watched this on Amazon Prime and the version they have on streaming is dreadful. The print is muddy, random alphabetical characters show up on screen for periods of time, and its 4:3 aspect ratio. But I’d already paid my money so I might as well watch the thing.

Ultimately, I found the movie uninteresting despite its efforts. The vampire trial was the highlight, but more for its farcical nature than any drama. I did learn that Dr. Plojovitz was based on the very real Petar Blagojević, however, so I got something out of the movie. Combine this with the terrible streaming quality, and The Legend of Blood Castle gets a mere 1.5 skulls out of 5.

31 Days of Horror: The Mephisto Waltz

Four years ago, I started the tradition of watching a horror movie every day in October. Besides being the season for the scary, doing this also helps clear my backlog of “watchlist movies” on various streaming platforms. The only rules are that I have to watch 31 films by Halloween, they must be scary (or at least have scary or suspenseful themes), and they can’t be movies I’ve already seen.  This year I’m adding a fourth criteria to go along with the overall theme of this blog: the film must have been made in the 1960s or 1970s. I’m partial to horror movies from this period anyway, so why not indulge myself?

With the rules out of the way, let’s dive in with probably the only horror movie Alan Alda ever made: The Mephisto Waltz (1971).

Alda plays Myles Clarkson, a unexceptional music journalist who is somehow married to Jacqueline Bisset. When Myles interviews renowned pianist Duncan Ely, Ely becomes fixated on Myles’ wonderful hands, perfect for playing the piano. Ely quickly brings Myles and his wife Paula (Bisset) into his inner circle, which includes his daughter, Roxanne – who is probably more than just his daughter if you get my creepy drift.

Ely is dying from leukemia and has a strange collection of occult paraphernalia lying about in his chicken-wire protected cabinet up in his studio, along with some life masks made from various unnamed people by Roxanne. Before you can say “Freaky Friday,” it’s pretty clear that Ely plans on swapping bodies with Myles and continuing his music career in a sensitive Alan Alda form. Can Paula figure out what’s going on before she too becomes the victim of Satanic Black Magic in 1970s Los Angeles? And who the hell names their demonic hell hound “Robin”? Only one way to find out!

The Mephisto Waltz was clearly produced in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby to capitalize on the satanic cult film’s popularity. Alan Alda is at his full Alda-ness in this movie, so it’s somewhat disconcerting to see him parading his way through a horror film. And someone really needs to make a catalog of evil pianists in film. I’m thinking that’s a long list waiting to be drawn up.

Overall, it’s a mediocre film but, hoo boy, is it a ‘70s movie, complete with a fur rug in front of a beach house’s fireplace. All this gives is a solid two out of five skulls rating. Watch it for the dog in a William Shatner mask if for no other reason.

Devolution

While not a “hexploitation” or a 1970s weirdness book, Devolution by Max Brooks (probably best known for World War Z) does caress the pleasure nerve I have for Bigfoot-related things not involving Go Pro cameras and dudes beating on trees with sticks. I’m firmly in the “I don’t believe they exist, but would love to be proven wrong” camp when it comes to Sasquatches. My heart has broken too many times and the innocence of my youth is long vanished, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the occasional visit to metaphorical (and sometimes even literal) Bigfoot Country.

Devolution shares similarities with Brooks’ World War Z in that it uses the narrative frame of a tale told via surviving evidence and interviews with people after the event it chronicles ended. In this case, the event was “The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre,” which initially leaves open the question of who was doing the massacring of whom here. Any uncertainties are quickly resolved when we learn that the unnamed researcher compiling the book is using the journal of Katie Holland, a resident of the tiny eco-friendly, yet technologically-cutting edge community of Greenloop, as its primary source. The journal was discovered in the ruins of the community in the wake of a natural disaster, a disaster which seemingly forced a population of Sasquatches into contact with the residents of Greenloop with fatal results.

Katie’s journal entries make up the majority of the novel, with each chapter further fleshed out by transcripts from interviews the researcher conducted with those connected to either the occupants of Greenloop or who participated in the recovery and rescue operations post-disaster. Quotes from various real world sources begin each chapter, all of which pertain to some event about to befall the Greenloop residents in the hours and days to come.

I found Devolution to be a quick and enjoyable read, the perfect summertime book to kick back with in the evenings before bed. Brooks crafts a believable narrative, especially the behavior and ecology of the Sasquatches (which he clearly researched and assembled from existing theories of Bigfoot behavior), and has the unintended benefit of being prescient of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the events that strand the Greenloopers are geological rather than biological, the breakdown of systems and the unrest that occurs in its wake isn’t too far off from what we experienced in the early days of the pandemic and might see again in our lifetimes.

As someone who grew up seeing the grainy footage of the Patterson-Gimlin film in a dozen Bigfoot documentaries, Devolution was a nostalgic trip back to my childhood—albeit with a higher body count. The novel spurred me to stream a few vintage Sasquatch movies over the past week and to enjoy even the worst of them (well, maybe not Curse of Bigfoot which was godawful). Much like childhood, itself, it’s easy overlook their flaws and remember fondly a time when it seemed like science would find conclusive evidence of an indigenous North American primate at any moment. Alas, nearly fifty years later, Bigfoot remains the undefeated Hide-and-Go-Seek champion of the Pacific Northwest.  

Anatomy of Witchcraft

Anatomy of Witchcraft by Peter Haining (Universal-Tandem Publishing Co. Ltd., 1974) is a prime example of the titillating hexploitation paperbacks being cranked out in the 1970s to capitalize on the increased publicity and fascination with witchcraft and black magic in both the UK and the USA. Subtitled “Satanism, White Magic, Voodoo the ancient rituals are alive today,” Anatomy of Witchcraft presents an overview of the most headline-grabbing religions and magical practices of the 1960s and 1970s. Not only does it delve into the rites and beliefs of black magic, Voodoo, and witchcraft, it presents actual magical workings to demonstrate what the followers of these traditions do—far from the prying eyes of more respectable folks, of course.

The book is dived into nine chapters, but no helpful table of contents is provided. The chapters include and introduction, “Witchcraft in Britain,” “The Growth of Black Magic,” “The Witches of America,” “Evil on the Coast” (a chapter focusing on magic and cults in California), “The Ancient Craft in Europe,” Witchcraft Behind the Iron Curtain,” and “Voodoo—Black Witchcraft,” a title which I’m assuming is a play on words referring the Haining’s emphasis on the possibly harmful manifestations of voodoo as well as the ethnicity of the majority of its practitioners. A final chapter covers “The Rest of the World.” Appendixes follow some of the chapters and contain instructions for a witch’s initiation, a Satanic ritual, and “The Voodoo Blood Sacrifice.”

While a product of its time, I’ll give Anatomy a little credit: it appears better researched than many other hexploitation paperbacks churned out during this period—certainly more than Witness to Witchcraft. Haining does do his scholarly legwork and the book contains a bibliography, which is more than many of them do. Unfortunately, Haining doesn’t directly cite his sources in the text itself and given that he’s gotten into trouble in later years with scholars trying to verify his sources and being unable to do so, we must take everything with a tablespoon of salt.

Haining is an entertaining writer, even if he might be making some of this stuff up to hit his word count, and there are far worse nonfiction hexploitation works out there. While most of the usual suspects are name-checked in the book (Alex Chambers, Crowley, Anton LaVey, Charles Manson, etc.), Haining pulls a few into the mix that I wasn’t familiar with, Americans to boot. Louise Huebner was completely off my radar, as was “Princess Leda Amun Ra”, a figure I look forward to working into something of my own as soon as I possibly can!

Anatomy is particularly well-titled: as with much of the hexploitation paperbacks, there’s plenty of bare flesh on display, starting with the cover and continuing on to the black and white photographic plates inside. An equal opportunity approach to nudity is taken in the photo plates: there’s a few exposed male bottoms dancing around along with bared breasts.

Overall, the book presents a more even tone regarding witchcraft, saving its dire warnings for Satanism running amok in California. Even voodoo is treated with a fairer hand than many other tawdry books on the occult and black magic do, but it’s hardly lacking in racism or free from exoticizing a primarily Black religious faith.

If you’re looking for an easy, only somewhat sensationalized look at occult beliefs during this time, I have no reservations recommending Anatomy of Witchcraft. Just don’t rely on it for any serious scholarship.

Witness to Witchcraft

Many paperbacks churned out to capitalize on the “Satanic Panic” of the 1960s and 1970s (as opposed to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s) share similar formats. Some proclaim themselves to be hidden looks into the occult counterculture. Many of these works play up the sex, drugs, and violence that lurks just out of sight of respectable people. Others are collections of anecdotal information and shoddy research, reprinting material—often with additional sensationalism added—designed to titillate, horrify, and entertain the reader in exchange for the 75 cents they spent on the book.

Witness to Witchcraft by Charles Lefebure (Ace Publishing Corporation, 1970) is one of the latter types. It is essentially a collection of essays and anecdotes pertaining to black magic, witchcraft, and Voodoo, many of which are attributed to insiders into the occult world (but like many of the hexploitation paperbacks, offer no way to verify the information these knowledgeable insiders possess—or even if they actually exist). Each essay or anecdotes runs around six to 12 pages, with a few longer pieces thrown in whenever Lefebure can find or create enough material to pad out a subject.

The book’s table of contents informs us we can expect to find information on such matters as “The Evil Powers that Surround Us,” a brief and broad overview on black magic and Satanism in the UK; “The Witches of the Basques,” which is exactly what is says on the tin and is one of the better essays in the book; “Their Faith is the Old Religion,” which is about modern witchcraft in Britain featuring interviews with practicing witches; “Australia’s Satanic Temple,” an article on Dorothy Warden, Australia’s premiere Satanist (whom I can find no mention of anywhere on the internet); plus the usual run of essays examining Voodoo, African religion, and Mexican witches steeped in the usual blend of the era’s racism under titles like “The Crocodile Man,” “The  Bruja’s Dead Doll,” and “Witches Go To War”—all of which emphasize the “otherness” of religious practices in non-European cultures. One of the remaining essays, “The Witch of Kilkenny” reads more like an abandoned short story than anything possessing journalistic integrity.

Much like the witnesses Lefebure gains his information from, I can’t find any information on the writer online aside from the titles he penned, all of which are in the same hexploitation genre and include The Blood Cults and Daughters of the Devil in addition to Witness to Witchcraft, and seem to be the same “essays and anecdotes” format. Lefebure might exist or might be an Ace book pen name, but, given the quality of the Witness to Witchcraft (even the cover is bland for a hexploitation paperback), it’s frankly not worth the effort of tracking down the truth. Why put any more effort into this book than Lefebure did, after all?

Despite the cover blurb with proclaims “Incredible true stories of Witchcraft, sex rituals, and macabre Black Magic murders—and people who have a pact with the Devil”, Witness to Witchcraft is pretty humdrum. As noted above, the essay on Basque witches is the most informative one, largely because it provides some folklore about black magic and Satanism I’ve not seen elsewhere. For example, among the Basques, it’s believed that is someone makes a pact with the Devil, Lucifer gives that person a mark which appears as the spot in the shape of a toad in the individual’s eye. However, one good chapter does not a book make and all the information and entertainment to be found within Witness to Witchcraft’s pages can be found in other, better hexploitation paperbacks. Seek those out instead.

Modern Witchcraft

They just wrote on my face when I passed out at parties…

Modern Witchcraft by Frank Smyth (MacDonald Unit 75, 1970) has a textual colophon on its cover stating it to be a “Man, Myth, and Magic Original.” This leads me to conclude the book has some connection with the Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural series published by BPC Publishing, Ltd. In the 1970s. The author, Frank Smyth, appears to have written at least one entry for the encyclopedia, which add further evidence to this conclusion. I wish I was unaware of the existence of Man, Myth & Magic, because I foresee it becoming another money pit for me to pour my cash into as I seek out a complete run of the encyclopedia! But I digress.

Modern Witchcraft is a wonderful, sometimes insightful, look at witchcraft in the United Kingdom and the United States. It begins with pair of chapters covering modern witches and the renewed interest in magic and witchcraft that was spreading through the UK, America, and Europe during this time. It also conducts some detailed sociological research into who witches were in the United Kingdom at this time, concluding that they are generally of the lower or middle economic class, are somewhat conservative in the politics (which is surprising), and have a penchant for sherry. Of course, this might just reflect the propensities of the witches Smyth was talking to, but I’ve not seen a more thorough look at British witches that examined who they were when their clothes were on.

The power of graphic design compels you!

From there, the book delves into a chapter of Gerald Gardner (unavoidable if we’re talking modern witchcraft in the UK, along with Alex Sanders who gets his own chapter at book’s end), followed by some chapters that provide a cursory overview of the history in witchcraft going back to its presumed origins in Sumer and leading up to the modern era. The “Burning Years” gets its own chapter, as do Satanists and practitioners of black magic (the line separating the various occult traditions in the 1960s, at least in the popular view, don’t strike me as particularly well-defined, especially in the UK). American witches receive their own chapter, and the Manson Family makes their expected appearance, before the book takes a look at the positive role of witchcraft in healing around the western world. Then the book concludes with the chapter on Alex “The King of the Witches” Sanders, and a bibliography for further reading—always a sign you’ve got a better hexploitation paperback in your hands.

Like all your higher quality hexploitation paperbacks, Modern Witchcraft includes a topless young women in the midst of a witch’s ritual on the cover and a collection of black and white photographic plates in the center of the book. As can be expected, some of these feature men and women in the buff, alongside the bearded, wild-haired visage of Gerald Gardner, a grumpy-looking Aleister Crowley, woodcuts, Kenyan “witch doctors,” and a publicity still of Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby. The cover of the Ace paperback reprint lacks the nudity of the MacDonald Unit 75 printing, but makes up for it with some series 1970s hexploitation graphic design.

The Guardians: Dark Ways to Death

I first discovered the existence of The Guardians series via the book Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. That book is a delicious dive into the world of 1970s and 1980s horror fiction, and much of the blame and praise from my current fascination with the novels produced during that period can be laid at Mr. Hendrix’s feet.

Hendrix described The Guardians series as books about “square-jawed, tweed-and-blackbiar-pipe types investigating haunted houses, underwater vampires, voodoo cults, and Australians. Sort of like Scooby-Doo, only with more orgies.” If that’s not enough to sell you on the series, I can’t help you. The books were published between 1968 and 1970, and consist of six novels written by “Peter Saxon,” an in-house pen name at Mayflower Books (a publishing firm I’m certain will make future appearances here). “Peter Saxon” was, in truth, pulp fiction authors W. Howard Baker, Rex Dolphin, Wilfred McNeilly, and Thomas Martin.

This is actually pretty boring for a hexploitation cover.

Dark Ways to Death was, I believe, the first Guardians novel published, but I’ve seen information disputing this. It gets a little murky, as the series was released by different publishers in the UK and the USA. The US publishing house, Berkley Publishing Corporation, released the titles with numerical notations, while the UK publish houses listed two as unnumbered, but four numbered. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much as, in true pulp fashion, you don’t really need to know much backstory and the book eventually clues you in to anything you might have missed. My assumption it’s the first is based on the statement on the flyleaf of my copy of Through the Dark Curtain that “The first novel in this series featuring the Guardians and by the same author—Dark Ways to Death” But my copy of Dark Curtain was published by Zenith Publications and is undated.

Okay, enough background. So, what’s the novel about?

Voodoo, my friends, voodoo. Dark Ways to Death is centered on the Guardians’ most current threat from the Left-Hand Path, that assorted collection of black magic practitioners and other occult menaces, in its guise as a sect dedicated to the Feathered Serpent, Dambalawedo. The cult meets in the abandoned tunnels of the Underground, luring sacrifices from the West Indian community of London, all the while planting their seeds for further conquest and corruption of the world. The Guardians get drawn into the cult’s plot via a three-fold collection of leads involving a West Indian immigrant who is in danger, a British Colonel’s out-of-control daughter, and a kidnapped cat. All three avenues of investigation lead back to an obeah in Knotting Hill Gate and, before you know it, we’ve got astral combat, a group of decadent British nobles out for a good time, an investigative reporter, the living dead, and gunplay.

As you might imagine, a pulp novel written in 1968 that focuses on voodoo cults in Swinging London isn’t the most culturally sensitive piece of literature, and some readers will undoubtedly be turned off by the casual racism that permeates the book. This is a factor I’m sure will make its appearance in many of the books I’ll be exploring. Like Lovecraft, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but also view it through the prism of where we were culturally at the time it was written. It could be a lot worse, in truth, and many of the non-Caucasian characters are portrayed with just as much depth as the protagonists. Which is a backhanded compliment given we’re dealing with pulp novel protagonists to begin with.  

I’m not going to review Dark Ways to Death, nor will I likely be reviewing future novels. I’m collecting and reading these books because I dig their aesthetic, both as works of fiction and as physical artifacts. My sole baseline for “Is this a good book?” is entirely based on my enjoyment of reading it and if there’s anything I could steal for gaming purposes. In the case of Dark Ways to Death, the answer to both questions is “Yes.”

Strange Strategies

You might have noticed the subtitle of this blog is “Seventies Strangeness and Spookiness Meets Strategy.” The first part is pretty self-explanatory, but the “Strategy” might have you scratching your head. Allow me to explain.

In my day life, I work in the game industry, specifically the tabletop role-playing game corner of it. I write material and do game design primarily for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game published by Goodman Games. This all means I spend a lot of time thinking about and playing games, and they make up a large part of my recreational time. And not just tabletop RPGs, but all sorts of games. It goes with the territory when you work in the industry.

In addition to 1970s media, it’s my intention to cover games as well here, both those made in the ‘70s and those that evoke that era when it comes to form or function. For example, two treasured board games in my collection are the Bermuda Triangle game (produced by Milton Bradley in 1975) and the Alien board game (Kenner, 1979), both of which meet the first criteria.

Never have magnets been so scary.

Another game that I’ve recently gotten into is 7TV Inch-High Spy-Fi, a modern miniatures skirmish wargame that’s set in the world of 1960s and 1970s TV and movies. While of current vintage, the game allows players to play games set in or reminiscent of that time period’s popular culture, be it James Bond movies, TV cop shows, or even folk horror with their “Children of the Fields” expansion. It, too, would be perfectly at home here at Shivers & Shudders, and I’m sure I’ll have some words about it and similar games as well before too long.

“Commander Whiskers is displeased, Mr. Bond.”

Most of the games that I plan on covering will have some connection to the horrific, the paranormal, or the bizarre. Ultimately, if you find yourself enjoy the rest of the weirdness I’ll be writing about around these parts, you find the games I’ll be discussing right in your wheelhouse. Hopefully, much like the delve into the hexploitation paperbacks of 1970s, you find a few gems you never knew existed and might be motivated to seek them out and give them a whirl during Game Night.

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.