Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cover Me.

It's amazing how much the cover of a book will influence your reading experience.

I first read HUNTERS OF THE RED MOON by Marion Zimmer Bradley and her brother Paul Edwin Zimmer (who went erroneously uncredited on some editions of the book) about 25 years ago. Mike and I had branched out from reading comics to novels but our tastes had started to diverge. I'd been curious about the cover to CUJO for months and finally took the plunge, becoming an instant horror (and Stephen King) junkie. With Mom's help, I located and devoured King's entire output to that time. I quickly moved on to the likes of Joe Lansdale, John Skipp & Craig Spector, Michael Slade and Robert McCammon. Mike, on the other hand, was drawn to the Science Fiction/Fantasy novels put out by DAW Books. He read everything he could find by Michael Moorcock (especially the Elric of Melnibone books), John Jakes, C. J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee and dozens of others. He had an entire wall of novels he'd bought at a local used book store (Givens Books). And they weren't just for show. He read and adored every one of them, eventually branching out from DAW to blaze through everything he could find by J. R. R. Tolkien.

I couldn't really blame him. The covers of the books he was reading were enticing and often incredibly beautiful. They made me want to read the books even though the subject matter really didn't appeal to me. I'd managed to turn Mike on to the horror novels I was reading, especially King and McCammon, but I just couldn't get into his SF stuff. I tried several times to read the Elric books because of the brilliant covers but was too intimidated. My science fiction reading had been limited to quite a few Star Trek novels (ahhh, THE ENTROPY EFFECT). Finally, I guess Mike got tired of watching me blindly picking at his collection, trying to find something I liked and picked out something for me.

He handed me the book you see above and it was the beginning of a decades-long love affair. I saw the anthropomorphic crocodile and tiger on the cover and was hooked instantly. In fact, everything about the cover grabbed me. The fascinating characters, the ominous moon looming in the sky, the brilliant colors. (For years after this, I was drawn to books with purple on the cover only to find out that research has shown that books with purple on the cover sell better — go figure.) The red tunics looked like the uniforms of a superhero team, appealing to the comic book fan in me. And the cat-man looked like a werewolf, appealing to the horror nut I was becoming. It was such a successful cover that it wasn't until recently that I realized how wrong it was.

That first time, I tore through the book in no time. Couldn't put it down. The story was fairly simple. A man sailing on the ocean is abducted by slave-trading alien cat-people called Mekhars and is thrown in with a menagerie of diverse creatures including Aratak (the lizard-man), Rianna (the woman) and Dallith, a frail empath (not pictured.) They make a futile escape attempt and are sold, along with Cliff-Climber (one of the Mekhars injured in the escape) to the Hunters. The Hunters are a mysterious society that live only to stalk and kill the most formidable creatures in the galaxy. This time, it's our heroes. If it sounds like goofy, geeky fun, it is. But emotional and intellectual depth save it from being pure candy.

I've read the book over and over, pulling it off the shelf every few years when I want something comfortable. In fact, I'm reading it now for probably the sixth or seventh time, more than any other book I've read. And for the first time, I've noticed that the characters on the cover don't look anything like how they're described in the book. Each and every time I've read the book, in my mind's eye, Aratak was a rich green and looked much like you see him. Cliff-Climber looked like an overgrown brown tabby. Rianna had reddish-brown hair. And Dane, the main protagonist, wielded a scimitar-like sword. Reading it now, I've just realized that Aratak is described as squat and a dull gray. The Mekhars (including Cliff-Climber) are supposed to look like lions, mane and all. And Rianna is described as having blazing fire-red locks. Dane's sword, by the way, turns out to be a samurai's katana.

How did I miss this...six times? It may seem unimportant (and it is) but this is arguably my favorite book and I can't believe the cover influenced my mind's image of the characters so much that I had it wrong for 25 years. After all, when I pictured what Johnny Smith looked like in THE DEAD ZONE (another favorite), it wasn't anything like the guy on the cover.

Anyway, my intention this week was to redraw the cover with the characters depicted as the authors described them. But, as usual, work had other plans. I haven't been quite as busy this week but the bean counters are keeping a close eye on us so every minute has to be accounted for. Not that I goof off at work but it's best to be seen as indispensable. And next week promises to be, well, horrible. So all I've got to show is this character study of Aratak. I did a few sketches that didn't go anywhere and then hit on the idea that, as described, Aratak would probably have more in common with a komodo dragon than a crocodile. So that's how I drew him. I was pretty pleased with the result until a friend of mine saw it on my desk and said, "Hey cool! Is that a Gorn?"

Maybe some day, I'll get to do the cover recreation like I wanted.



Suzanne said...

I loved M.Z. Bradley too--I read The Mists of Avalon about 4 times in my mddle/high school years, which is a big deal considering it is such a big book (amazon puts it at 912p; the print is tiny too.)

I liked Tanith Lee and Anne McCaffery too. I did not know boys read that stuff! Mike and I would have had a lot to talk about.

Warren said...

Lovely post. It made me think about the stuff I read when I was a kid. I was big into H.P. Lovecraft for a while. I also read all the R.E. Howard Conan stories. (I skipped over the Lin Carter and L. Sprague DeCamp tales, because they just didn't seem legit -- you could tell Howard didn't write them.) I would go to the book store and look in the front of anthology books and if most of the stories therein had originally been published in Weird Tales, I'd buy the book.

When I hit my mid-teens, I discovered Harlan Ellison. Totally blew my mind. My mom thought he was just another science fiction writer; that I was just reading about spacemen and aliens. When she noticed I was starting to amass a bunch of his books, she asked who he was, and I told her he was one of the writers of Star Trek. A white lie. If she had known some of the subject matter of his stories, it would have hit the fan.

I read Michael Moorcock also. I didn't understand all of what I read, but I always felt like I was looking into a parallel world when I read his books.

And there was Tolkein, Bradbury, Asimov, Poe, Norton... Wow. I don't read nearly as much cool stuff now as I did then. Lazy, I guess?

I got into Stephen King shortly after H.S. when the Shining came out. Peter Straub was another fave around that time. Today, I appreciate King's literary non-horror shorts moreso than his horror. Hearts in Atlantis surpassed the Shining as my favorite King book. And the stories in Different Seasons really show how great a writer he is.

I love it when you post stuff that makes me think about stuff. :)

Matt Wieringo said...

Suzanne, Mike had some of the PERN novels too but when I asked about them he said he couldn't recommend them. I think he read some of Zimmer Bradley's other stuff but, though I think he liked it, he didn't think I would.

Warren, looks like I touched a nerve! I'm into Lovecraft now, having bought a comprehensive collection of his work. I have to read it in small chunks because it's pretty chewy stuff. But good! Been meaning to check out Howard's CONAN stuff and some of his short stories. Never got into Ellison (yet) but who doesn't dig Poe!?? I frequent Michael Slade's website and some of his fans (including Suze and me) went to Baltimore to see him at a convention. We all rode out (about ten of us) to Poe's gravesite after dark where Slade read "Telltale Heart" to us. Unfortunately, police helicopters kept circling overhead, so it was hard to hear but it sure was cool.

Brian said...

When we were younger, my brother was heavy into the Star Trek novels while I was plowing through Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Avenger with Conan being the one area where we crossed over.

I've read my share of science fiction - Robert Heinlein was a favortie - and Stephen King, but since my college days it has been mystery and detective fiction that has held the place of honor on my night stand.

Parker said...

Yeah, you totally made him a Gorn! The one time I took my sketchbook to GATORLAND (a must do when in the greater Orlando area) the thing I came away with for alligators and crocodiles is that they have bulky necks. I'd incorporate that.

And of course, then scratch together some sulfur, coal, and saltpeter to diamond-shotgun him while Spock keeps saying "yes...YES" keeping the rest of the Bridge in the dark.