Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

BooksApril 5, 2024

Original Paul Jennings book covers, ranked by their levels of body horror

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Alex Casey returns to some childhood classics and finds some of the most challenging and confronting imagery ever printed. 

This is probably oversharing for a humble Spinoff ranking, but a few years ago I experienced a big old mental health breakdown that left me only able to consume content that I enjoyed before the age of 12 for an extended period of time. Week after week I watched 90s family films from Mrs Doubtfire to Matilda, devoured every single Disney classic and pored over every sticky old copy of Goosebumps that I could get my hands on. 

But nothing made an impact quite like returning to Paul Jennings, the Australian author whose bizarre short stories were school library staples and lunchtime hot property in the late 80s and 90s in Aotearoa. Whether it was a skeleton on the dunny, a cursed shrunken mouth or a tiny face on tonsils, Jennings’ penchant for body horror, shocking twists and generally freaking kids out was unparalleled.

While the stories themselves are just as rich in Final Destination vibes as you remember (in ‘A Dozen Bloomin’ Roses’ a kid gets killed by a train?! In ‘Inside Out’ a kid nearly gets his body turned inside out?! In ‘No is Yes’ a young girl leaves her father to die in a flaming building?!), the brilliant cover art also helped a lot to establish Jennings’ uncanny universe, and sear haunting images into the minds of an entire generation of readers. 

Here lies every original Paul Jennings cover from the 80s and 90s, ranked by their levels of unease and body horror. 

9. Unmentionable! More Amazing Stories (1991)

This cover, depicting the infamous Ice Maiden story in which a kid becomes stuck to his frozen crush, is less uneasy and more high fashion. You could make a movie version of this cover starring Barry Keoghan and Emma Stone and it would win a million Oscars. Actually, is this what The Shape of Water is all about? Never seen it but all signs point to: probably.  

8. Unseen! (1998)

Yes, the eyeball in the shell does have a touch of eek-age to it, but broadly I find this kind of beautiful. Is this cover the reason I secretly think every cliff face is trying to smooch every outcrop of rocks now? Yes. Does that make road trips around the motu distracting? Yes!!!!

7. Quirky Tails! More Oddball Stories (1987)

Don’t love the tongue, don’t love the post-tanning-bed John Campbell peeping through the window, but do love the anthropomorphised amphibians. Go the mighty Vodafone toads.

6. Uncanny! Even More Surprising Stories (1988)

This cover didn’t spook me out that much as a kid, probably because the only other book in high rotation at the time was The Guinness Book of World Records, aka heavily tattooed heaven. I’ve reread the story, about a boy who reels in a tattooed finger and finds the owner of said finger out at sea before the tattoos come to LIFE and stick to the boy’s SKIN, and still have some outstanding questions. 1) Why is this Justin Bieber? 2) Why is his brain so bulbous? 3) Why are those Ed Sheeran’s exact tattoos? 4) Is THIS what the Shape of Water is about? 

5. Unbelievable! More Surprising Stories (1986)

You know how when you are a kid you just assume random things are true and don’t bother fact checking because you are nine years old and Google has only just been invented? Well, for the longest time, I truly believed this punky monkey on the cover was David Bowie. PS: I don’t like the inside-out watermelon one bit. 

4. Unreal! (1985)

This isn’t actually the original first edition cover of Jennings’ debut collection but the more common 90s edition cover, and it is extremely Brooke Howard-Smith in the finale of The Traitors NZ. It’s also memorable due to its interactive nature. If the first cover, depicting a boy being swarmed with flies, including one in the mouthpiece of his scuba mask threatening to send him to an early grave, wasn’t intense enough for you, turning the page reveals ANOTHER COVER that showed him quite possibly drowning in a dense layer of flies right up to his eyeballs. Fear Factor could never. 

3. Unbearable! More Bizarre Stories (1990)

Crazy to think that this head-in-a-cage horror show debuted a full 15 years before Jigsaw would adopt the same methodology in Saw II. This one gets worse and worse the more you look at it – note the anguish on the faces, and the sinister fellow in sunnies entering stage left. No thanks!

2. Uncovered! Weird, Weird Stories (1995)

This is some proper Ed-Gein-crafting-a-lamp-out-of-human-skin type shit. Look at the fear in the kid’s eyes, look at his hair standing on end in fright, look at his terrifying MAFS groom earrings. Is the ear growing out of the wall? Has the ear been cut off the unseen side of his head? Is the wall made of skin? All I know for sure is this: move over Van Gogh. 

1. Undone! More Mad Endings (1993)

There was only ever going to be one winner and of course it has to be this, the biggest jumpscare in human history. One minute you think you’re simply looking at Marshall from Shortland Street examining a bug, next minute you’re confronted with your own mortality and the harsh truth about what really lies beneath a human nose. Sweet dreams, everyone. 

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