Cover design for Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart
In my review of Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart by Caitlin R Kiernan, I expressed the opinion, “For once in a discussion of a Subterranean Press book, I have to say I find the jacket artwork from Lee Moyer rather cheesy.” In a blog posting, Caitlin R Kiernan greeted my one-line comment with the equally dismissive assertion that I’m “dead fucking wrong”. I think my original comment had marginally more class than the consequent riposte.
The word “cheesy” is a word of fairly precise meaning but it has connotational layers of pejorative meaning. At a denotational level, it means the food tastes of cheese. However, the scope of the word has slipped to imply that, despite the taste, the food does not actually contain cheese. It merely sports the flavour. As now applied to any situation, it implies that, no matter what the superficial impression, the product is of poor value or fake in some material way. As applied to human behaviour, it implies insincerity.
How to approach critiquing a jacket design and its artwork
I need to start by saying how undervalued the work of the jacket artist is. Many people discount the jacket as part of the overall design without thinking through the contribution the artist and book designer make to the decision to buy. Although there will always be a hard core of buyers who routinely acquire the latest titles by their favoured authors without regard to the physical package, the design of the book more generally encourages us to pick it up and enhances our appreciation of its potential value. In effect, we’ve been trained to become consumers of the pictures used, the choice of font, the placement of title, author and blurb quotes, and so on. All these elements are signifiers in the process of communicating meaning to us.
So, for example, the signified central image might take the form of an old woman holding a broom but, in order to decode its meaning, we need to look at the style and, more importantly, at the context. On a book whose design signals a historical saga set in a Victorian village, the signified might be intended as a farmer’s wife or a maid at the country house of the lord of the manor. On a book presented as fantasy, we would provisionally attribute the characteristics of a witch to the old woman and look for other visual evidence to confirm or deny the hypothesis, e.g. the presence of a cat or other familiar. So there’s a denotational level of interpretation where we take a conventional and literal meaning from what we see. That’s followed by our assessment of the connotational meanings depending on a multiplicity of other signs and signals constituting the book’s physical design as a set of meanings for us to decode.
This makes all meanings relative and, to some extent, dependent on multiple factors not under the control of the artist or the publisher. For example, as an elderly British man, the sum of my cultural experiences accumulated over the years may predispose me to interpret an image in a way completely different to a young American woman. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our own preconceptions and adjusted according to our personal tastes. In this I separate aesthetics as a set of abstract norms of what I take to represent “beauty”, “cruelty” and other intangibles, and my subjective attitudes. We can hold up yardsticks and make a subjective assessment of whether we like that colour choice or the way the light is used to create a particular effect without it changing our overall assessment that the picture shows, say, a megalomanic in full flow and so delivers the right message in the right context.
When it comes to commercial art, nothing should happen by accident. Whereas fine art may allow for the possibility of serendipity and accident to play a part in the final composition, people paid to supply art to market a product have to understand how the majority of people will understand the picture. So, for these purposes, we examine the artwork as presented to us.
An analysis of the jacket design
Let’s start with the title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart. The human heart only has four chambers so the source of the heart cannot be a human body, i.e. as depicted, the purple demon cannot have removed it from the woman in front of her. Now as to the context, the content of the book may legitimately be classified as erotic dark fantasy. So the brief given to the artist might be to signal eroticism as the dominant theme. Yet that could pose commercial dangers. If artwork is too explicit, it probably deters the more casual buyers who prefer their dark fantasy without anything tending to what they deem pornography. So what do we have? The purple demon is obviously female so this is a same sex couple albeit interspecies. The demon’s right hand rests on the woman’s shoulder in a position suggesting dominance and control, yet her eyes are looking directly at us as viewers. One possible interpretation might be that we are voyeurs invited to draw satisfaction from what’s about to happen. Notice the demon’s smile. It’s conspiratorial. We and the demon are assumed to know what will happen, hence the clear way in which the heart is being held up for us to examine. Except, of course, we’re not in the conspiracy. No-one has told us what the heart is for.
What makes this scene surprising is the passivity of the woman. Neither by physical resistance nor facial expression does she register objection. She appears indifferent even though she’s in the presence of a demon. If this scenario is intended to show actual or anticipated sexual activity between the two individuals depicted, the eye contact would be between the partners and their expressions would reflect their respective points of view. We would expect more animation from the woman, but her expression and body language does not signal the anticipation of sexual satisfaction from the use of the heart. Indeed, the pose does not even fit the paradigm of an S&M session staged for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The whole point of S&M is for the submissive partner to signal her fearful agony at the prospect of what’s about to happen. She should be looking at the heart with horrified anticipation. This would give the more sadistic among us the chance to vicariously enjoy toying with her fear and then subjecting her to whatever adverse effect the heart has. As it is, the woman’s expression looks more like, “I’ve paid a lot of money to have this heart poultice applied to my hair and I wish this demon would just get on with it.”
In other words, my decoding of the signifiers suggests they do not add value to the marketing of the book. They do not show unambiguously lesbian activity to highlight the book as erotic. There are many legitimate reasons for two woman to hold this pose including a session at a beauty parlour or hairdressing salon. The fact the demon is looking at the viewers is also equivocal. She may be demonstrating the health spa techniques to trainees or there may be potential customers watching this demonstration treatment in the expectation they will be signing up for treatment next Tuesday. From her smile, the demon has obviously just told a slightly risqué joke. Similarly, it’s not an S&M session because the expression of the woman in the submissive position is all wrong.
So taken as a whole, the artwork as a part of the book’s design is not signalling the presence of conventional horror, more traditional fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, a science fiction element, nor overtly sexual content. I don’t think the artist could decide exactly what message he wanted to send to those who view the finished product. Worse, as a title, Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart is unhelpful. Is this the true life confessions of the heart itself? You know the kind of thing: the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. . . Or is it intended to signal confessions from the demon or the human woman on the uses she’s made of the heart? Thus, to my mind, the picture does not match the title and, by not characterising or defining the nature of the book’s content, does not add value to the marketing of the book. In my vocabulary, that makes the jacket design cheesy because no matter what my appreciation of the aesthetics of the picture, I have no clear idea of what meaning the publisher intends me to draw from the totality of the signifiers. In reaching this conclusion, I do not necessarily attach any blame to the artist. Indeed, he may very well be the victim of an equivocal brief from the publisher or have been given specific directions on what to paint. Ultimately, the publisher carries the responsibility for what I take to be cheesiness because nothing appears on the jacket without the publisher’s express approval.
Having seen a draft of this explanation, Lee Moyer responded:
Thanks for elucidating your brief comment about my cover.
My cover was drawn from the story “Dancing With the Eight of Swords”. I had supposed that readers would find that my illustration the tall violet demon with glassine horns unmistakable and that after reading the tale, they might find cover recontextualized. Maybe in surprising ways. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil the superb story, but suffice it to say that even the misty background of the cover is specific.
I’m sorry the cover didn’t work for you, but I’m glad to hear your thoughts thereon.
As a final thought from me:
Functionally, the design of the cover should communicate appropriate meaning before the book is read. In the case of a collection where disparate themes may be present, I concede this is a challenge but, to my mind, it’s a challenge the artist should accept. Whether a person who has read the book later recognises the scene from one of the stories is not entirely relevant. For the publisher, the proper consideration is how many potential readers might not be induced to buy and read the book. In this case, both the artist and publisher knew the picture took one scene out of context, but nevertheless incorporated the image plus the other signifiers into the cover design to communicate a more universal meaning. Frankly, I did not and do not find the image in any way representative of the contents of the book. Accordingly, I confirm my opinion that both the artist and the publisher produced a cover design that is, not to put to fine a point on it, cheesy.