Judging A Book By Its Cover

Writing last week’s column, reminiscing about the spinner-rack comics and paperbacks of my youth, I was hunting around a lot of sites that have scans of those things, to use as illustrations. And it reminded me yet again how much I really miss old-school paperback art. Especially since hardly anyone does it any more. The editorial staff at Hard Case Crime, bless them, are desperately trying to keep the tradition alive, but their imprint is one of the very few.

While I was working on that piece it struck me that I almost never bought a book just on the cover art, though. When I’d find something browsing I almost always already had some kind of a line on it. Usually I’d previously read or heard about a series somewhere– like with Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, both authors I’d come to through comics.

Once I’d finished all the comics-related stuff I’d go looking for their other books.

Sometimes it was something I’d stumbled across that turned into a shopping list. For example, I picked up my first Travis McGee and my first Philip Marlowe because I’d enjoyed Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life so much that I was determined to find and read for myself all the stories of everyone in the Wold Newton Family.

And so on. But almost never was it just on the strength of the cover art and the blurb on the back. There usually was some additional draw.

It did happen though. Once in a great while. So this week, I thought it would be fun to show a few of the books that seduced me solely on the packaging.

Here is one I found on our travels a couple of years ago. Morning Star by Kerry Newcomb.

And this is the jacket copy:

Set against the vastness of Montana’s Big Sky country in the years after the Civil War, and against the epic tragedy of the Cheyenne (the People of the Morning Star), here is the story of Joel Ryan and the two courageous, beautiful and very different women he loved. Desperate to put the ravages of the Civil War behind him, Joel Ryan travels west. But he soon finds that the solitude he so desperately craves is not to be his. Early in his journey he rescues a beautiful Cheyenne princess, Mourning Dove, from Henri Larocque, a renegade Canadian who had intended to sell her to an enemy tribe. Even as Joel frees her, she frees his heart from the sorrow that has darkened it- with a love so strong it will cause them to defy her people. Banished from the Cheyenne tribe, they make their home on the vast plains and have a son. but their happiness is shattered when Larocque comes again to take his revenge on Joel, killing Mourning Dove. Joel’s tragic loss nearly destroys him and fills him with a need for vengeance so great it will shape his life forever. He sends his son back to the Cheyenne until he can find his wife’s murderer and, years later, returns defeated. He reclaims his son, now a young brave, but feeling unequal to the task of raising him alone, sends east for a mail-order bride. What he gets is Sarah Joy McClinton and her two children, running from the man whose greed killed her husband. Each hopes that the match will result in at least mutual respect and friendship. But Sarah does not know that Joel Ryan will conquer her heart so completely that she would give her life to him…. or willingly lose it for him.

It was two dollars in hardcover at Goodwill, which helped the decision, but really it was that wraparound painting that got me. I just loved that, especially the almost-photorealistic-but-not look of the faces. And the jacket copy sealed the deal. I am not normally a romance reader but this was more like a genre mashup of a romance and a revenge Western. It sounded like fun.

And it was. I loved it. The narrative is really compelling, the action is terrific, and I am man enough to admit that the love story got me a little puddled up here and there. I went looking for more and found this one, Sacred Is the Wind, (also with a strong cover) which I enjoyed well enough, but not as much as Morning Star. So I quit there, though I can see from his Amazon author page that Mr. Newcomb has slowly transitioned from romance to historical adventure, and I might indulge in one of his more recent efforts one of these days.

Speaking of Westerns, here is the one that got me hooked on the genre. (Amazingly, despite being a child of the sixties, it wasn’t TV that did it.) The Cheyenne Kid by Dan Roberts.

The cover art’s admittedly a little pedestrian. This time it was a combination of factors. I was twelve years old and my grandmother had taken me along on a two-week vacation to visit relatives in Simms, Montana. I’m not sure why I was chosen for this; though I suspect Grandma Jennings thought it would be a treat for me to get away from our dysfunctional household for a little while.

She was right about that, but the truth was I had even less in common with my cousins than I did with the kids at home. My default setting was isolated introvert, and the Montana cousins were even more outdoorsy and less bookish than my playground tormentors back home. (I should add that they were not nearly as mean, but I could tell they had been ordered to make an effort to include me and “be nice.”) So things were still awkward and after the first couple of days I was more interested in finding something to read and hiding out.

The trouble was, in one of her periodic attempts to force normalcy on her weird bookworm son, Mom had forbidden me from bringing any books, let alone the comics she despised. And there was no library anywhere close. Mostly Simms looked like this. (Still does, I gather.)

However, Uncle Jack was a patron of the bookmobile that visited once a month and he liked him some westerns. The Cheyenne Kid was lying on a side table in the front room and the jacket copy had me pretty much at hello.

The young man had been stretched out on the trail from Briar City, bleeding badly and stripped of his horse and all his belongings, when the old prospector had rescued him and taken him to his cabin to recover. Eventually he regained consciousness but not his memory. So at the suggestion of his deliverer, he took the name of a dead man and pretended to be his grandson, pending the successful outcome of his search for identity.

Eventually his trail crossed that of several men who seemed to have more than a passing familiarity with him as an individual. The trouble was that familiarity bred worse than contempt– an active hostility backed up with guns. In addition, though the amnesia victim instinctively sided with the law, all the signs pointed to his being a noted outlaw by the name of the Cheyenne Kid.

As it turned out, the book was great fun for twelve-year-old me and it just about salvaged the vacation all by itself. The other bookmobile western Uncle Jack had in the house was Lonely Star by Donald Rowland and I liked that one even better. I reread both of them a number of times over that two weeks, and upon our return home I went looking in our local library and found Lonely Star there. I would check it out fairly often over the years that followed. I didn’t find The Cheyenne Kid again until about ten years ago, when I was on a Western kick and remembered those books, especially how much I’d enjoyed them back then, and went looking online. I found that both were part of a western imprint from Arcadia House, a publisher that specialized in cheap hardcovers designed to appeal to the paperback crowd (they also did a lot of romances, especially nurse novels.) Arcadia westerns are still on the bookscouting short list; we have maybe half a dozen of them here now, including the sequel to Lonely Star I never knew existed. The Arcadia westerns are somewhat collectible now, moving in a range between $40 and $200. It’s hard to find them cheap unless they’re library discards, but those are fine with me, I just like reading them.

I think the first time I got something stone cold, just on the cover and the blurb, was even earlier, a Scholastic paperback from school. The Blue Man by Kin Platt.

This was because even though Mom had agreed that nine-year-old me could order a book out of the SBS flyer, it could absolutely NOT be The Secret of Terror Castle, because she knew damn well I’d read it a hundred times at the library. It would have to be a book that was new to me. Why Mom picked that as the hill she would die on, I don’t know. But it seemed like The Blue Man ticked most of the boxes for me, and the cover art– even at an inch high in the SBS listing– looked pretty cool. When it arrived I devoured it at a sitting; it’s a very suspenseful chase story and teenage Steve Forrester was a likeable hero. I have occasionally thought about replacing it, but I guess a lot of other people liked it too, because it’s hideously expensive, even online. No idea why they let something that popular go out of print, but there you are. Turns out this was the first in a series; four in all, they all are going for gouger’s prices today. Another one for the bookscouting short list.

By the time I was in high school it was harder to catch me completely cold. There was no internet, but there was Starlog and MediaScene and stuff like that, and though I was not plugged into the fanzine community, I knew the stuff was out there. (I remember how impressed I was coming across a copy of Omniverse at the first OryCon, a one-day affair at Portland State in 1979 or thereabouts.)

Nevertheless, it still happened once in a while. This one caught me because I was all about Dr. Strange and Solomon Kane in those days and this sounded like it was in that ballpark. Just an impulse buy off the spinner rack in 1977. Excalibur by Sanders Anne Laubernthal.

This one I regretted at first because it was almost a Gothic, a very slow starter, but in the end it paid off. Writing this I got nostalgic enough to go look for it and ended up falling for a used Book Club hardcover. Risked four bucks to see if it holds up to my memory of it. We’ll see.

Around that same time Laser Books were suddenly a presence on the spinner racks.

The cover art on those was my first exposure to Kelly Freas, and I liked what he was doing within the rigid format. I’d occasionally toy with picking one up but the numbering was making my fannish OCD kick into high gear. It meant nothing; there were no continuing characters, each book was a one-off. But I wanted to start at the beginning. Eventually, though, a dozen or so showed up at the Book Cellar in downtown Oswego and I risked a fiver on the first four of the series, based on this cover. Renegades of Time by Raymond Jones.

It was an entertaining and undemanding read, sort of starter SF. Old-school Campbellesque. The next three were equally entertaining and so I kept going until I hit number fifteen, The Star Web, which stank on ice; so dull I didn’t even finish it, something that almost never happens with a book I’ve spent money on. Put me off Laser Books for YEARS. But on one of our Portland jaunts a few years back Cameron’s had almost the full run at a buck each, so I scooped up a few I remembered fondly and a few more that seemed like a good bet. (I’m not nearly as invested in the numbering, must-have-a-complete-set mentality these days.) But even then my puchases were just based on the art and cover copy.

Here’s one that was offered to me in high school as a trade and I took a chance on it just on the cover.
Daybreak 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton.

I still have a copy– well, not THIS copy, it’s long gone. Mine’s under the original title, Star Man’s Son. But I like it a lot and it got me into Andre Norton. Finding a nice copy of the original fifties hardcover remains a bookscouting quest.

I used to prowl bookstores on the evening of payday in the early 1990s after my first marriage exploded. (Bookstores have always been my retreat from emotional trauma.) That’s how I found the Psi-Man series. This was on the dollar table at Pegasus Books and it looked like a throwback to the old spinner-rack pulp days, so I thought why not?

Back in 1992 I had no idea that “David Peters” was really Peter David, but I figured it out relatively quickly. There were six in all and they recently came back into print. I liked this one enough back then to go get the other five, so mine are the old 1990s “David Peters” editions.

Those are almost all the ones I can remember. Today I am somewhat less risk-averse but I’m also incredibly plugged in to the SF, fantasy, and crime genre scene so it’s very rare that there’s something I haven’t heard of before ever seeing it on the racks. (For example, I have ZERO interest in Piers Anthony and Xanth but I know about it.)

But there is still a pleasant surprise once in a while. I found this one at a Goodwill not too long ago and risked three dollars on the hardcover. Sleeping Dog by Dick Lochte.

This is a terrific book and apparently won all sorts of awards. Having Leo and Serendipity narrate alternating chapters is a wonderful (and hilarious) device. That’s damn hard to pull off, let alone also bring the funny while doing so, but Lochte makes it look effortless. He’s followed this up with a couple more, and I found the second one as wonderful as the first. Haven’t gotten around to the next one yet.

So there you have it. Feel free to share your own stories of unexpected discovery below in the comments, and I’ll be back next week with something cool.

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  1. Jeff Nettleton

    The Ken Kelly John Carter covers had me wanting to read the books, though I was familiar with Barsoom from the John Carter back-ups, in DC’s Tarzan and had read a couple of the Marvel issues (including Dave Cockrum’s take on the intro of Dejah Thoris). However, Kelly’s work got me to read them. he also got me to read Robert Adams’ Horseclans series (though the copy helped).

    Frazetta got me to read Michael Moorcock’s The Silver Warriors (aka The Phoenix in Obsidian), with his rendition of Urlik Skarsol and his polar bear sled.

    James Bama did more to get me to read Doc Savage than DC or Marvel ever did (or Ron Ely and George Pal, for that matter).

    Christopher Moeller’s rendition of Nomads of the Time Stream got me to read Moorcock’s omnibus of Oswald Bastable stories, from White Wolf.

    Sometimes, the cover art could turn you away from good books. the American covers to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld did nothing for me and it took a co-worker (and a strip return of several of his paperbacks) to get me to read them and instantly fall in love with his writing, to the point of his becoming my favorite author (and I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of Thump!, before his alzheimer’s prevented him from signing books).

    1. You know, I was THISCLOSE to including Bama on Doc Savage (and George Gross on The Avenger) not just on the strength of their front covers, but also the back covers, which made the books sound just epic. But though they piqued my interest, it was the Marvel black-and-white Doc Savage magazine that finally got me to part with a dollar. That led to the books and then the Farmer biography and the Wold Newton shopping list.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Man, I love old paperback covers (by ‘old’ I mostly mean anything published prior to the 1990s). Good call on Hard Case Crime; some other really lovely old-style painted covers can be found on the paperback editions of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, all by John Harris.

    As I mentioned in the comments to that previous post, one of the cover of this Daw first edition of Imaro immediately caught my eye on the paperback spinner rack in a Fred Meyer store in Salem, OR back in 1981. I find it striking and just had to know who this guy was – and Charles Saunders became one of my favorite authors.

    Another cover that got me to buy the book sometime in my sophomore year of high school was this one for Tanith Lee’s Dragon Hoard. At that point, I only had a vague notion of who Lee was, and was just in the mood for a good fantasy story – the image reminded me of Smaug. I didn’t even realize that it was satire until I read the back cover blurb – but I loved it instantly, and I’ve read that book at least a half-dozen times since. It’s a really fun and light-hearted spoof of the fantasy/quest genre.

    The thing is, I sometimes still pick up books almost solely based on cover art, albeit always cheap used books in thriftstores or at flea markets, etc. This frequently happens when I browse the boxes of the used booksellers who table at annual SF convention in Zagreb. An example is this edition of Edmund Cooper’s Overman Culture.
    More recently this happened when last summer, when I was visiting Salem, OR. I mentioned in the post about a great store I discovered at the time that I picked up a copy of Andrew Offutt’s My Lord Barbarian pretty much on the basis of the racy cover by Boris Vallejo (I just read it last week, and found it surprisingly good).
    Also on that same trip, among the small stack of books I picked up at Escape Fiction, I also grabbed this edition of Pandora’s Planet exclusively on the basis of the cover art and the back cover blurb. There’s something about Freas’ cover art, isn’t there? And you could pretty much write a whole separate post on the covers to Daw paperbacks. Back in the day, those yellow spines on any bookstore’s SF/fantasy shelves were like a beacon to me – I’d always at least pull them down to take a look.

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