“The Horrors of Travel”

Some of the scariest works I’ve read or seen didn’t come from a work of horror fiction, but from books about and accounts of historical disasters. The description of the sea suddenly overtaking an already flooded Galveston Island during the hurricane of 1900, as written in Isaac’s Storm, is as chilling as it is succinct. There are parts of Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire that are at least as terrifying as anything in the most affecting horror novels I’ve ever read.

While the above artwork from an issue of Harper’s Weekly, printed in September of 1865, isn’t supremely frightening, it is undoubtedly macabre. “[G]raphic, but by no means extravagant,” is how Harper’s described its illustration. The nonfiction book The Angola Horror–a recounting of the 1867 train wreck that occurred in Angola, New York–introduced me to “The Horrors of Travel.” The short article that accompanies the picture mentions the 1865 explosion of the steamship Sultana, and the drawing appears to reference it in the lower right hand corner.

In the upper left corner is a burning ship that might not to be a reference to anything specific, but the article is focused on accidents that occurred in 1865, even if it only mentions one by name. There were two other major maritime accidents that occurred in 1865: the Brother Jonathan sank off the coast of California, killing 225 people (92% of its passengers and crew) in July , and in August the SS Pewabic collided with her sister ship and took at least 100 people down with it in Lake Huron. The Sultana disaster was the deadliest maritime accident1 in world history to that point, and would remain so for at least half a century (depending on how one classifies the Halifax explosion).  It remains the deadliest maritime accident in United States History. The Brother Jonathan sinking was the tenth worst in U.S. history, and the Pewabic disaster was the fourth worst to occur in the Great Lakes. From April to August, a country that was barely exiting the Civil War witnessed three major marine shipwrecks occur along the West Coast, the Great Lakes, and in the Mississippi River, near Tennessee. So while there was no major incident involving a burning boat in 1865, it’s understandable that Harper’s would want to include one more dramatic image of a foundering vessel in this illustration, driving home the point that these incidents were taking place all over the country in a relatively compact time frame.

The train wreck references are a little harder to explain, given the article’s focus on 1865. The year saw no major, deadly railway accidents, although the head-on collision from the Shohola incident from a year prior might account for the crash depicted in top center of this illustration. The associated article makes no mention of a specific train disaster. Even without a more recent, major wreck to serve as inspiration, however, the specter of railway disasters–a relatively new and seemingly grislier spectacle at the time–still loomed so large that this illustration makes it a centerpiece steered by Death itself.

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Creative Cover Art: The Catalyst Killing

It’s very easy to overdo an homage. If you hew too close to the source of inspiration it can feel redundant and ironically uninspired. The iconic “watchful eyes” effect from the The Amityville Horror, for example, looks watered down and wholly unimaginative when mimicked on the poster for the remake of The Haunting. While I’ve never believed that subtlety is inherently better or more artful than bombast or conspicuousness, in the case of an homage, less is often preferable to more.

The cover of The Catalyst Killing, the third book in Hans Olav Lahlum’s series of murder-mysteries, appears to be a product of evolutionary homage that gets it right after two admirable-but-flawed efforts. Let’s start with the cover to the first book in the series, The Human Flies.

Human-Flies-Hans-Olav-Lahlum

If the inspiration for this cover doesn’t immediately leap at you, perhaps it’s because it comes from a source that’s about as far removed from the mystery thriller genre as can be.

Saul-Bass-West-Side-Story

Saul Bass’s poster for West Side Story is an interesting–if unexpected–slice of art for a book cover homage to be based around, particularly a book with the tagline “They Were Being Killed Off One by One”. Comparing the book to the poster, however, the homage becomes fairly obvious. This puts the cover in an odd place, being an homage that’s too blatant, yet difficult to recognize. Besides that, however, the biggest issue with the cover to The Human Flies–which isn’t bad, by the way–is that it feels somewhat lifeless. It feels almost like something is missing, but not in an intriguing or mysterious way. It demands no questions, demands no attention. Again, not a bad cover, but it’s lacking.

The cover to the next book in the series, Satellite People, triples down on the homage, drawing from multiple Saul Bass works.

Satellite People

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vertigo-movie-poster-saul-bass

The puppeteer’s hands are lifted from The Man with the Golden Arm, the segmented doll-bodies are slightly reworked versions of the body from Anatomy of a Murder, and we get a white, spiraling background shape that references the Vertigo poster.

As a hodgepodge homage to Bass, it’s an admirable effort, but it strikes me as a little haphazard. The borrowed components don’t work that well together. The Vertigo spiral in particular is pointless. In Bass’s poster it conveys the disorientation suggested by the title. In the Satellite People cover it’s just background dressing. The twisted arm in the poster for The Man With the Golden Arm makes for a great visual complement to the ironic title of a movie about a man with a heroin addiction. The hands in the Satellite People cover aren’t good for much beyond looking familiar. The segmented body in Anatomy of a Murder‘s poster suggest a clinical, calculated approach to looking at a corpse, which again fits well with the title of the film and works within the theme of movie centered on a murder trial. Further segmenting the bodies for the cover of Satellite People helps emphasize the puppetry of the cover, which works well enough, but would have worked just as well if done in an art style that didn’t mirror Bass’s work. I know I’m repeating myself by saying the following, but this isn’t a bad cover. In fact, side-by-side with the cover to The Human Flies, my vision would be drawn to the cover of Satellite People. But given how many Saul Bass-inspired posters exist, created by professionals and amateurs, a grab-bag approach to appropriating his work comes off as unmotivated.

Fortunately, the cover for the third book in the series dials back the appropriation considerably, and is considerably better than its predecessors.

THE CATALYST KILLING

Every single damn thing about this cover is an improvement over the two that came prior. The homage is more subdued. None of Bass’s signature style is present in the primary image of the falling man. The lettering for the author’s name and tagline still mimic Bass’s text, but that’s all. When I first saw this poster it actually made me think of the Vertigo poster above, even though it bares no resemblance to it. I can only guess that the familiar font combined with the semi-spiral effect suggested by the echoing body pushed that thought to the front of my mind. The next thing I thought of was the classic 70’s paranoid thriller The Parallax View, but that poster only has a general idea in common with this cover.

parallax-view

The still image of a man who’s been just struck (by an assassin’s bullet, it’s easy to presume) isn’t exactly uncommon, and the picture in The Catalyst Killing is more dramatic. Still, the 60’s- early-80’s conspiracy thriller vibe I was picking up from this cover was strong enough to make me look up posters for The Manchurian Candidate, The Conversation, Blowout and dozens more in that vein to see if there was a clear homage at work here. Maybe my research wasn’t duly diligent, but I couldn’t find one. This cover captures a fairly specific style without resorting to mimicry, so far as I’m aware. It’s brilliant, in that regard.

Beyond that, I feel this cover is more dynamic, and captures hints of a story better than the preceding efforts. The staggered presentation of the title sells importance and urgency that’s worthy of the words. The tagline is perfect: it’s not as flat as “They Were Being Killed Off One by One,” but not as faux-dangerous sounding as “Were They Getting Too Close to a Killer,” which sounds more appropriate for a “gritty” new Scooby-Doo reboot. Sure, “The First Murder Was Only the Spark” might be viewed as somewhat redundant paired with the title, but I think it serves as a proper continuation of the title, and invites questions (specifically “Who gets murdered?” and “The spark for what?”) that add to my desire to read the book.

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Creative Cover Art: Stephen King’s Joyland

We know the adage that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. But you can judge cover art by whether it complements the book, or stands alone as excellent art in its own right. Some covers are arresting, creative, provocative, or otherwise appealing, while others exist only because you can’t have a book without a cover, and still others are simply awful.

There’s never been a shortage of bland, middling book covers, and given the volume of self-published / fledgling-press books available today we’re not lacking for amateurish covers either. I’m not looking to pick on blatantly bad book covers, though. There are sites, blogs, tumblrs and more already devoted to that, for starters, and the worst covers really need no words to describe what’s wrong with them. I’d rather take a look at covers that I think work–or that I at least find interesting–and offer an explanation of why I think they work, while contrasting them with other covers that strike me as lacking, lesser or lifeless.

One of my favorites from the past few years is the first edition cover art to Stephen King’s novel Joyland. Created by the late Glen Orbik, it evokes the best of the artwork from pulp novels and magazines of decades past. In addition to the visual flair, what makes this cover effective is how it captures a micro-story of its own that sells a potential reader on how much more the novel contains.

joyland-cover-first-edition

 

The story shown on this cover is straightforward, but nonetheless intriguing. Here we see a young woman investigating an amusement park who appears to be frightened, looking up at someone with bad intentions. How do I know she’s investigating? Well, frankly, I don’t. Not for sure. For all I know the camera in her hand was just for sightseeing, not for sleuthing. But her facial expression, physical posture and position show us more than surprise and fear. She has the look of someone who’s been caught in the act. There’s no reason for her to back herself up against the fortune teller’s tent, unless she was already near it, using it as an obstacle to remain unseen.

For more “on-the-nose” evidence of what she’s up to, the type of camera she has is one of those old-school “I’m with the press” cameras. A different type of camera could have been painted, or the camera could have been left out, if there was no intent to depict her as a snoop.

Presenting her as an investigator in trouble gives the story of the cover details that would be absent if she was just your everyday distressed damsel in a thriller. The titular Joyland isn’t just a dangerous place, it’s a place that has something to hide, and whoever she’s looking at is one of the parties interested in helping Joyland keep its secrets, by whatever means necessary. Instead of being content to show a character in peril, this cover adds elements that suggest backstory and tickles your curiosity. Who is this woman? What did she see or notice before that prompted her to investigate the park? Who is menacing her, and what secret are they protecting? The cover teases a story that can compel interest in what the novel actually contains.

Contrast this with two alternate Joyland covers that are artistically fit, but altogether uninteresting.

joyland-cover-Illustrated Edition

 

Let’s start with the illustrated edition cover art, which was also painted by Orbik in his characteristic pulp-noir style. We have a near-naked woman holding a rifle, leaning against a rail, looking over her shoulder at the park in the distance. It’s pulpy, well-painted, and yet, compared to the first edition cover, it elicits indifference. Whereas the first edition cover presents a story and raises questions that suggest a mystery, the illustrated edition cover simply offers a character in pose and raises questions that suggest what you’re looking at is a little absurd. Why is this woman outside (on a deck presumably) barely covering herself with a towel? Why does she have that rifle? Why is she looking at the park with no particular emotion? Why should I care about any of this?

joyland-cover-Limited-Robert-McGinnis

The same goes for the limited edition cover above, painted by another talented, prolific pulp artist, Robert McGinnis. Many of McGinnis’ paintings fit the description of “character(s) in a pose” as well, but he was also capable of capturing a small story or clear emotion when needed. For Joyland though, he basically gives us the same odd scene that’s found on the illustrated edition. Scantily clad woman holding a rifle near a body of water, amusement park in the distance. As art, it’s competent. As cover art, it’s uninteresting, especially in comparison to the original cover design.

Joyland is one of the relatively few Stephen King novels I haven’t read (though I have read the blurb), so I can’t say how relevant the near-nudity, rifle and house by the water are to the story, though I have to imagine the gun and the location–if, perhaps, not the cheesecake–have to play at least some part in what takes place. But even if those elements of the limited and illustrated editions are more relevant than anything shown in the first edition, the original cover is nonetheless more effective.

Beyond showing a more interesting story than the two other covers, the first edition feels more inspired. The red, orange and yellow lights behind our protagonist–but not too far behind her–make it look like the park is burning. The slight dutch angle of the painting adds to the sense of menace coming from the confrontation between the unseen threat and the discovered sleuth. The painting gives the viewer the perspective of the threat, and the tilt provides a sense of movement. There is action and urgency in this painting.

The motion and emotion of the first edition painting frees the tagline to be a fun imitation of a carnival barker’s taunting pitch. Conversely, the tagline of the limited edition–“Beyond the lights, there is only darkness”–is a sort of standard statement of foreboding that you can find on any number of horror or thriller novels. It’s not an ideal fit for a supernatural murder mystery set in an amusement park written by perhaps the most famous and successful horror author to ever live. McGinnis’s painting feels moody, chilly and lonely, but not especially dark, so the tagline doesn’t fit in that regard either.

Meanwhile the illustrated edition cover abandons a tagline in favor of promoting the book as a best-seller, with a pull-quote from the Washington Post, as if anyone needs a reminder that a Stephen King novel hit the New York Times bestseller list, or that it has been lauded by at least a few prominent reviewers.

In the end, the first edition cover is magnetic and alive. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a more static cover, and of course there will be people who prefer the limited edition or illustrated edition. To me, even as inoffensive as the alternate covers are, there’s no competition here. I wish more covers would seek the dynamism of the first edition to Joyland, not for the sake of making the books more appealing, but for the art of it.

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And Now a Perfectly Morbid ‘House on Haunted Hill’ Poster

House on Haunted Hill color poster Jonathan Burton

The original House on Haunted Hill is one of those horror classics that’s more famous than it is genuinely “good.” It has a 96% rating over on Rotten Tomatoes, but even many of the good reviews are quick to deploy adjectives such as, “cheesy,” and “campy.” Most people who’ve seen the movie probably come away with the same impression. It’s fun, even memorable, and has some good, spooky ideas and moments, but for the most part it’s also shamelessly silly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; not every horror flick should be an earnest affair. House on Haunted Hill was one of William Castle’s many gimmick-driven fright flicks, and it’s perfectly fine with being a morbid joke.

Fitting with that vibe is the above poster I came across that’s up for sale now on Mondotees.com. The suggestion of the woman hanged by a skeleton is certainly grim, but it’s actually an homage to the original poster, which was far more macabre, as you can see below.   House-on-Haunted-Hill-original-poster

The new poster–created by Jonathan Burton–is more coy about presenting the actual hanging, which makes it a bit grimmer by suggestion, though not as directly gruesome. The stiff woman in the original poster looks more like she’s just posing on her tip-toes. The partial view we get of the woman in the new poster has a sort of weightlessness to it that makes her look like she might be either a swinging body, or a floating spirit reliving its demise.

I prefer the look of the skeleton in the original, with its dingy bones. Its outsized scale also calls to mind the giant skeleton specter of a famous Japanese woodblock print. The skeleton in Burton’s new poster is just a little too “friendly,” clearly smiling right at us. But I think the knowing, calm expression of the seated Vincent Price is just about perfect. He looks like he’s expecting you to come in and take a seat so he can interview you for a job. “Oh, the living skeleton who appears to be killing someone to my left? Don’t mind him. That’s just Larry. He’s mostly harmless, I assure you.”

This new House on Haunted Hill poster also comes in black and white. I’m not really the type to decorate my home with movie posters, but I appreciate them, and were I the type, I think I’d go for the black and white version.

House-On-Haunted-Hill-print

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