Of oil-paints and Bela Lugosi

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 2 August 2007

Penguin are running a design-your-own-cover project for seven of their classic titles (Amy, this sounds like your sort of thing), and have asked some folks in the music business to try their hand at it. (Only a few, though, which is a shame. Now I'll never know what McFly would have done with Anna Karenina.) Ryan Adams chose Dracula, and you can see his cover here.

Yes. It's very... oil-painted, isn't it? And quite, um, orange. Maybe Castle Dracula was built on sandstone. (Not, I should point out, that I want to criticise the supremely talented Mr. Adams, who I've loved since back when he was the singer in Whiskeytown. I love McFly, too, but for completely different reasons. They're just so sweet.) But it's interesting that neither Ryan Adams nor anybody else depicted a scene from the novel itself. The best-known Dracula cover is, I'm guessing, this one, illustrating one of the most famous images in the story (and managing to solve the problem of how it's possible to crawl down a castle wall without one's cloak falling over one's head, too: convenient up-draft). Most of the modern editions go for visual representations of characters or scenery.

I had half a theory that the earlier editions concentrated on vampires or Transylvania while the more recent ones emphasised something about Victorian England instead (compare, for example, this 1902 cover ('Joseph of Arimathea meets White Fang') with the more recent Broadview edition), but I don't think that's the case, either. And even Ryan Adams, who told the Guardian that the novel's all about "how suffocating the Victorian times were", picked the Transylvanian castle for his cover. (Actually, in his own words: "Dracula's headquarters, his hang." Ryan, I still love you, but we need to talk.)

Books we associate with a particularly strong visual image seem to come packaged with that image on the front a great deal of the time. I doubt it's a coincidence that the Dracula editions tend to go for Dracula greeting Jonathan (who isn't usually in the picture), Dracula climbing down the wall, or the shape of the castle itself. A lot of that, I'm guessing, has to do with the most striking scenes of the various Dracula films - even if you don't have Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee on your cover, everyone knows that's what Dracula looked like when he met Jonathan for the first time - but there's more to it than that, I think. And while I don't know nearly enough about the history of the publishing industry to take any guesses at why cover illustrations of particular books tend to be more abstract (or at least, less likely to illustrate an image described in the story itself) than they used to be, I do think it's interesting that the front covers which show a grinning Dracula or a many-turreted castle seem less literary than the ones which show blurry figures or swirly oil-painted outlines of buildings.

(That said, there's no guarantee that our most vivid visual impressions of a novel will turn out to be something represented within it. Take the recent Jane Eyre illustrated by 'Dame Darcy'; the cover shows, according to the artist, "the scene where Jane Eyre is freaking out while the giant mansion is burning behind." (See Bronteana for more of that interview.) Er, yeah. It reminds me of that conversation from Blackadder:
"After all, did not Our Lord sent a lowly earthworm to comfort Moses in his torment?"
"Well, it's the sort of thing he might have done.")