Detail from Assassination in the Night (c. 1600?) by Monsù Desiderio.
Yesterday’s post looked at some of the past cover designs for M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books. This post makes a few suggestions for how they might be presented in the future. Since these are mostly covers that I’d like to see they’re not necessarily ideal for the audience a publisher might be aiming at, cover design is usually a three-way process involving designer, author and publisher. In the end I’ve resisted the temptation to draft a range of original cover proposals—writing these posts has taken long enough—so almost everything here uses pre-existing art. If I was designing covers for all four Viriconium books, however, and the brief was to orient them towards a fantasy readership, the first thing I’d try would be a series of four imaginary Tarot designs. A peculiar pack of Tarot cards is a recurrent feature of the books so I’d create four emblematic cards that featured significant elements and characters from each. The characters wouldn’t be too well defined, they’d be stylised, maybe even silhouettes. Each card would feature a dominant presence: offhand these would be one of the geteit chemosit for The Pastel City, a locust for A Storm of Wings, the Barley Brothers for In Viriconium and a Mari Lwyd horse skull for Viriconium Nights. These presences together with the human characters would loom over a silhouette city at the foot of each card whose outlines would change appearance from book to book, evolving gradually from a fantastic outline of domes and towers to something that resembles a contemporary city. The colours and treatments would show a similar evolution from the bright and bold styles of the Pamela Colman Smith Tarot deck to something more photographic, collaged from elements closer to our world. Maybe.
That’s an idea for the four individual books. All the examples here use the convenience of the omnibus edition so a single image (or pair of images) has to somehow represent the entire series. To save time and effort I’ve taken the liberty of hijacking a couple of Penguin Books layouts. I hope Penguin doesn’t mind, and I should also apologise to Harrison’s UK publishers, Gollancz, for making one of their authors jump ship. The Viriconium omnibus is certainly good enough to be considered a modern classic. Penguin’s recent template for its Modern Classics series happens to be very easy to apply to a wide range of artwork.
The Anti-Pope (1942) by Max Ernst.
Penguin has a long tradition of using pre-existing art on its covers, especially on those in its Penguin Classics series. You can almost make this into a parlour game: match your favourite novel with the best choice of painting. The tradition was extended to its science fiction titles in the early 1960s when the art of Max Ernst was featured several times along with the work of other Surrealists. Max Ernst is a favourite artist of mine so this is one I can’t resist. Many of Ernst’s decalcomania paintings of the 1940s would suit Viriconium but The Anti-Pope with its horse heads seems especially suitable.
Also on the Penguin sf covers was a picture by the mysterious “Monsù Desiderio” one of whose works can be seen at the top of this post. Desiderio was a 17th-century painter with a vague enough presence—works have been attributed to both François de Nomé and Didier Barra—and a line in gloomy architectural fantasias to make him an ideal Viriconium artist.