By Michael Berry

With his death last month in the tragic Tilt-A-Whirl derailment at the Rockingham County (NH) Fair, interest in the life and work of best-selling horror novelist Rex Stephens has reached a veritable fever pitch.

The man once regarded as a "hack," "schlockmeister" and "shameless panderer to the public's most perverted tastes" has earned a distinguished posthumous reputation. His novels and short stories are now being compared to the best writings of Poe, Hawthorne and A.A. Milne.

The first and perhaps best critical study of Stephens' work is "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Rex Stephens and the Post-Modern Neo-Gothic Tradition," by Lothar Arundel, professor of pulp literature and semiotics at the University of Brisbane. Published by Nadir House, the volume has become an instant best seller. It is filled with insightful commentary and moving personal reminiscences of "The Dark Bard of New Hampshire."

For those readers who have spent the last 10 years in underground bunkers, Professor Arundel has compiled the following bibliography of Stephens' major novels, detailing their genesis and impact.

"Blood of the Night Beast": Rex Stephens burst onto the literary scene at the tender age of 23 with this intensely autobiographical novel. Set in a New England beach community besieged by mutant lobsters, "Blood of the Night Beast" is admittedly clumsy in both plotting and prose, but its raw energy is undeniable.

Stephens drew many of the books set pieces from this childhood home in South Hampton, NH. His third-grade teacher, Emily McCready, appears as Dora McCafferty, the lonely spinster who is boiled alive and stuffed into a giant hotdog roll. His father's seafood restaurant becomes the setting for the novel's chilling climax, Cap'n Horace's Haunted Clam Hut.

"Night of the Blood Beast": Though universally ignored by the critics and selling fewer than 500 copies, his first novel was sufficiently successful to spur Stephens into producing a second within six months. "Night of the Blood Beast," a relentless tale of lycanthropy among interior decorators, fared much better than its predecessor, edging onto the New York Times Best Seller list during a week in which Danielle Steele took time out to have another child.

"The Sucking": Stephens firmly established himself as the undisputed Monarch of Mayhem with this book, in which five unsuspecting liposuction patients discover that their own fat has returned to exact a terrible vengeance. This gruesome graphic tour de force became a multimillion-copy best seller and won the coveted Lawrence Talbot Award for Best Horror Novel With A Body Count Over 50.

"The Snorting": In this incisive social commentary, feral pigs run amok in a Hollywood cocaine rehabilitation clinic. The novel was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, an alternate selection of the Literary Guild and a Pick of the Week at Remainders 'R' Us. Brian De Palma brought "The Snorting" to the screen as a big-budget production starring Nancy Allen, Ron Howard and Babe.

"The Wankelstein Books": In the early '70s, a mysterious "Sid Wankelstein" wrote four paperback originals that sank. By 1986, however, rumors were circulating that Sid Wankelstein was, in fact, Rex Stephens.

Stephens denied the charge hotly until a publisher offered to re-issue the books in a deluxe omnibus edition and pay Stephens a $2 million advance. Stephens then admitted he has used the pseudonym to experiment with genres other than horror.

The works collected in "The Wankelstein" include "Nazi Nurses in Bondage," "Last Gasp at Grizzly Gulch," "The Big Nap" and "Tile Your Patio in Six Hours." "THE": Weighing in at 5,000 pages and 30 pounds, "THE" is considered to be Stephens' magnum opus. An instant New York Times Best Seller and the weapon of choice in a major case of aggravated assault, this hefty tome brings together many of the thematic threads found in earlier works by Stephens.

Psychic twins, rabid schnauzers, possessed vacuum cleaners, giant centipedes from beyond Uranus, adorable children who can destroy the world by twitching their eyebrows -- they're all there in one big, gaudy, gory package. More than 10 million copies of "THE" were sold, and at least 500 people read the novel from cover to cover.

Sadly, "THE" was the last book Stephens completed. At the time of his death, his novels had been translated into 45 languages, including Serbo-Croatian and ancient Phoenician, and he had become the top-selling author of all time.

But his publisher has not be idle. Due out next month, with an initial press run of 3.6 million, is "The Selected Postcards of Rex Stephens."

(c) 1987 by Michael Berry