Client: Chris Philbrook
Genre: Horror / Lovecraftian
My name is Jeremy Flagg, and I am the Cover Villain. I’m here to talk about the concepts behind the cover. Today, we’re going to be talking about the The Awakening by Chris Philbrook. This new series fall under horror but with a bit of Lovecraftian influence and it’s a departure from flagship series, Adrian’s Undead Diary.
When we first started, Chris provided a synopsis of the yet-to-be-written book. It’s about a man who returns to a town in New Hampshire and because of him, eldritch horror starts to appear. I’ve known Chris for years and he has a hand-off approach. Other than a short synopsis, he told me to go wild. He opened the door for something new and unusual for the book cover.
Typically in horror we have a visual of the horror unfolding. This can come with gore, a killer, or psychological symbolism. Typically it’s dark and in a book store the horror section tends to be a wash of black with pops of red. But Chris wanted it to stand out on a shelf filled with horror. Instantly, I knew I wanted white. Unlike other genres, horror doesn’t have as many reader expectations or visual rules. This allowed us to take a chance on the unexpected and get a bit crazy with our concept. But working with white can be tricky for a cover artist. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide the photo bashing in the shadows. White meant the stock photography would have to be pristine.
First order of business was to create a series banner. Chris loves his swag and I wanted a banner that could work for the book cover but also book marks or challenge coins if he wanted to give his readers swag. Because of the Lovecraftian undertones, I knew we needed a visual that helped narrow down the sub-genre. I decided on tentacles because the reader understands the connection between Cthulu and Lovecraft. This symbolism will get repeated to help reinforce the concept. But because of the stark white of the cover, using a solid black created a design challenge. Solid black on white is harsh to the eye and created too much of a focal point. After some tests, I decided the black for the entire design would max out at 90% saturation.
The initial sketch for this book cover was done using Sketchbook Pro which has some excellent watercolor paper textures. Typically I’d repeat this in Photoshop for the final product, but nothing compared. It meant working in two softwares for the start of the design, which is not my usual process. But I couldn’t resist the bleed of the black on the white paper. While drawing, I realized I wanted to play with the concept of darkness pushing its way through the pure white of the cover. After all, this is a common trope in horror.
Chris’s character, Diggory Finch is full of wit and sarcasm, a trademark of his books. We needed somebody to represent this unsuspecting character. After hours of searching for models, I found one that had that “every man” look, but also had an expression that might be described as aloof. Ultimately, he represents the viewer and I wanted the reader to feel the urge to scream, “Behind you.”
The watercolor texture wasn’t enough to anchor Diggory to the cover. Originally the smoke in the background was meant to mimic the tentacles. However, a happy accident came about as Philbrook’s wife mentioned they reminded her of a heart. That required going back into the design and working with the arteries to help really solidify the visual. Horror is full of subtle references. It still remains abstract, but it adds another layer of intrigue for the viewer. The additional wisps of smoke are there to help hide the heart while pushing Diggory forward in the design.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important element are the tentacles. I could have had them wrapped around him, dragging him into the shadows. But it didn’t work for the story. At the start of the series, Diggory isn’t aware of what’s unfolding around him. This was an important element. The poor guy is going to have a rude awakening, but for now, he is unaware of the horror. Quality stock imagery of tentacles is hard to come by and I had to resort to calamari photographs and 3D models. The bulk of the work for the design focused on incorporating these into the shadows. This required overpainting and recoloring so that the shading made sense from a lighting perspective.
A hidden feature to this cover is that it works both with and without Diggory. Because there is the potential of special edition hardbacks, I wanted a little something extra to help entice existing readers. This means that the tentacles behind Diggory also had to be blended into the shadows, but it creates a great alternative cover should Chris ever need it.
And that is the concept behind the The Awakening. This goes to show that a willingness to rely on the designer can create a cover that meets reader expectations while still popping off the shelf.