Anatomy of a High Pulp Cover
I had a startling thought while looking at a lot of random mid-century pulp-fiction covers in preparation for writing this essay: Pulp crime-fiction covers may well be the unlocked backdoor leading to the inner workings of the American male’s psyche—a rather strange place from which to enter! Wouldn’t it be astonishing if it were true? What would a cover like this Dr. No cover say, or Confession’s of a Psychiatrist? Or the wonderful The Lustful Ape?
These covers are a wonderful albeit disturbing look at the simple drivers of American male psychology. Violence! Fear of Sex! The All-Pervasive Pull of Sex! (Okay to acknowledge in 1960 as long as it was heterosexual.) And a Recoiling from Sex! too. Us mens seem to like women to be ready, willing, and I suppose, able—this captured so well in Ed McBain’s Blood Relatives cover— probably a newer cover. And women in Pulp Land are seen as Those Dangerous Creatures. And look, too, how money is displayed almost in the same ambivalent way as sex in the great Smell of Money cover. Pulp fiction, back in the day, seems to have been a sweaty testosterone-filled swamp of lust, violence and power-hungriness, that’s for sure—but at least honest. It’s interesting too that the idea of psychiatry itself— a window into the workings of the human mind—turns out to be just another full-on view of men’s inner desires hidden just under the cover of a doctor’s white-coat authority! I love the doctor’s fingers on that cover, so Bela Lugosi!
A quick Google search of Patricia Highsmith covers and one sees there is no analogous homoerotic images for her enduring Ripley series. Male homosexual lust was, and perhaps is, taboo in popular culture, although that’s starting to change, thank God. Just watch Spartacus on STARZ—Gladiators French kissing! A far cry from the Spartacus I grew up with. Lesbian-leaning pulp covers you ask? I found lots of those on Google. I wonder why, humm … Seems they’re politically correct … Men don’t mind ‘em. Lesbians having sex: a sexual twofer I guess! And the sexual Holy Grail of all us red-blooded men, according to almost issue of Penthouse!
Mickey Spillane’s classic pulp Mike Hammer novels may be fun to read, but they do not deal with anything too weighty—at least not intentionally. Take for example Spillane’s The Erection Set published in 1972, and no doubt a highly entertaining read, judging from its great cover. I always thought of Spillane’s novels as being the perfect anti-60s drug, taken so you wouldn’t catch that awful pinko-hippie disease. (I caught it and stopped playing football after I was hounded off the team; there are only so many fistfights you’ll have over hair!) It was the same disease that Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry—in film—was so good at curing you of, punk!) The Dirty Harry character represents the ultimate repressed high school gym teacher. Dirty Harry’s message, of course is Don’t Question Authority. Something the counter-culture did everyday and why we now eat whole grains instead of Wonderbread, and see rough tough gladiators smooching, too. You can thank us hippies Clint!
The Erection Set cover has to be one of the best pulp covers of all time—bar none. The idea of covering the woman’s breasts with a black band saying “First Time in Paperback” is Madison-Avenue-style genius. Notice that the copy says: “His newest, biggest, and best!” I wish they would have gone on and said what we’re all thinking: Best Literary Erection.
Mickey Spillane is one of the all-time best-selling American authors. by the way, or has James Patterson now trumped him? I don’t know…probably. But Patterson’s covers are as boring as an Enita Bryant rally. Everything in America must now be hidden behind a sanitized curtain so we don’t see the ugly workings of anything. God forbid.
My newest biggest and best, The Rat Machine, although it does examines a host of serious issues, comes at you with the same high-speed, hang-’em-high, hard-livin’ attitude that we associate with action thrillers of the past—including Mr. Spillane’s. It’s a style I used in my novel Dia De Los Muertos too and enjoy writing; it’s just fun. I’ve dubbed it High Pulp. And like Jazz music, I think it’s truly American.
A good example of High Pulp is the mid-century film High Noon. High Noon was a thinly veiled look at the effects of Red baiting and fear produced by the thuggish HUAC committee during the extreme Right Wing’s reign of terror in the good old 1950s.
The cover for The Rat Machine was born of its themes—heroin dealing, CIA skullduggery, foreign locals, gone-to-hell CIA officers—and presented real design problems. How do you communicate all that and stick to your High Pulp guns? After all I couldn’t just do this:
In fact, designing the cover was as difficult as writing the book—a crime epic weighing in at over five-hundred pages. But I must say I loved the process—especially the cover design—despite how crazed I was at the end of it! Odd how we always look back fondly on those difficult times in our lives when we managed to accomplish something that we’re proud of.
I’ve always thought that a successful book cover should reflect the quintessential aspects of the novel’s story and its themes; good cover art should conflate these and somehow capture the would-be reader’s imagination, making her, or him, pick up the book and feel excited about taking it home and reading it. In short, if I wasn’t excited by the cover, why should anyone else be? (I’m sure lot’s of guys were excited to take home The Erection Set. Whether they actually read the book is anyone’s guess.)
I wanted The Rat Machine cover to have a pulp feel but to break with the current fashion in Big Publishing which is to avoid any strong image, especially one that might be deemed “inappropriate.” Damn the torpedoes, I told myself, I was going to take a risk with the design. My novel was coming out in a limited edition, and I was in control, so why not go for it. I was determined to not be boring.
The central element of The Rat Machine cover is a striking photo of a woman with her back to us—it’s a classic pose, one we’ve all seen in Greek and Roman sculpture, which is why I was attracted to it. The English photographer, Tony McConnell, who took it, told me when I queried him about his photo that he’d “chosen the girl for her curves and it was done for some kind of “clinic.” How mysterious, I thought. And it’s a wonderful anecdote. What kind of clinic I wondered; someplace they manufacture beautiful women?”
The woman on our cover is surrounded by bullet holes that have been punched through glass. Notice too that the background is split in two equal parts: to the girl’s left is a white stain-glass-like panel, to her right, darkness. These two opposites add tension—the feeling she’s held prisoner between Good and Evil. I think this tension sets the overall dramatic mood. And, in fact, the characters in the book are struggling with Good and Evil of all kinds. We somehow get a sense of this woman’s perceived innocence from her expression, too. Her innocence is juxtaposed with the frightening bullet holes. You want to help her. And of course, the bullet holes stand as symbols of the violence that surrounds the novel’s characters. The Rat Machine, after all, is a crime novel, and I needed to signal that to would-be readers—only fair.
The idea of tattoo—giving us the title of the book—came to me while running one morning. I wanted the title to be integrated into the composition in a cool way, and I think the “tramp stamp” accomplished that. The font used for the tattoo is called “Angel’s Tears”. We decided to go with the Rockwell font for my name as a nod to the 1970s when the font was very popular. The book is set in 1980, and it just seemed right to have something from that era on the cover.
All these elements put together create a jarring image which places this cover—I hope— roughly, but squarely into our hyper-modern world. I think that’s why people have responded to it. The cover produces the strong reaction from readers and would-be readers that I intended it to. You either like it, or you don’t. And, yes, of course men love it for obvious reasons—no Spillaning needed. But I’m proud to say I’ve had just as many compliments about the cover from women.
The flags, British, American, and Russian came in response to someone’s question: “But what is the damn book about?”
I thought it a fair question, and I added the flags, which were ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s as icons to signal to the would-be reader that the book was a “political thriller” and most often about the Cold War, or WWII.
This funny, albeit disturbing, photo of a Chihuahua we found online. It sent us looking for syringes to put on the cover, but that too led to a dead-end. The pile of coke you see in one of the cover’s versions came and went, as did the syringe, which was too old-school pulp fiction in feel, I thought. I was hunting different game that summer. I was hunting the elusive High Pulp cover. Heard about, but rarely seen.
The more I looked at the flags that summer, before we went to press, the more old-fashioned they seemed to me. So, at one point, I pulled them out. (It was a little like throwing away my crutches after a serious sports injury I once had. I was afraid to walk without them.)
Today’s modern thriller has morphed in spirit and style, and the flags were just no longer valid icons for the modern political thriller. And, too, I wondered how many younger readers would even recognize the star and cycle used on the old Soviet Union? The world has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. Our world of today has become a hyper-linked-flagless-unified-by-keystrokes kind of place, where we spend bitcoins and talk via Skype and unfortunately face Orwellian language designed to confuse us. It is indeed a Brave New World. I remember watching a TV show recently and seeing that American college students couldn’t identify the UN flag! They just had no clue what the flag represented. They were not stupid kids, in fact far from it; they just hadn’t seen the UN flag the way I had growing up and seeing it several times a week in newspapers and magazines. (Interesting what that says about the American news media’s interest in the UN and its goals of a more peaceful world.)
So off went the flags!
My close friend, and well known French translator of American fiction, Nordine Haddad, said when I emailed him our now flagless cover in Paris:
The cover is great. It makes think to this. But I am not sure it says “crime novel”… it rather says: erotic novel. Probably because it not “fiendish” enough, if you know what I mean. The model seems to pose for art students, in a way…
So we were missing a “fiendish” element. It was then, after hearing from Nordine, that the bullet holes sprang to mind. I just saw them surrounding my girl and knew I had the element Nordine was looking for—and which, as we’ve seen above, is very much in keeping with the crime genre. Once we added the bullet holes, the cover was finished. Think of the bullet holes as analogs to the doctor’s creepy fingers on The Confessions of a Psychiatrist cover!
I was fortunate to be surrounded by good and trusted friends when working on this cover. And one—Stephen Finerty—needs to be mentioned, as he was the one who placed the bullet holes and did all the actual graphic heavy-lifting. (He did the old-school proof sheet above too!) I have to say Steve—who I first met in a wonderful-artist filled building in San Francisco years ago when we were very young—put up with my countless changes and Virgo pickiness, as my wife calls it. I thought he’d finally slam the phone down after cursing me and the book after my thirtieth change to the cover—but he never did! God bless him. I’ll always be grateful for his patience and his advice.
I’ll leave you with a good joke. I called another friend, and well known TV writer, and asked: Well Tom, what do you think of the cover? His answer I’ll never forget:
“How do I get her to turn around?”
And we’re back to where we started!