Please Meet Mr. Strange, Ms. Sane & Dr. Sanitized (Novel Update #2)

I’ll introduce you to these three in a moment (no, they are not the names of characters in my novel)….

First, let me go back to August 2020: Artist Jordan Henderson sent me an email offering to paint the cover of my forthcoming novel, Much Ado About Corona. I instantly said, “You bet!” I was already immensely moved by his Sanity, Her Son painting, which depicts human dignity prevailing over new normal degradation :

So we got busy brainstorming ideas for the cover. This proved to be about as easy as planning to repaint the Vatican. While we came up with long lists and many sketches for a cover, Jordan gave me permission to use a section of the Sanity, Her Son painting as a placeholder, as you can see here:

I call that the “Mr. Strange” cover. It focused solely on masked members of the full painting. I feel it makes the novel appear merely a dystopian story (rather than a dystopian love story). But I didn’t want to include Sanity and her son, because they weren’t characters in the story.

Or, at least, so I thought. My muse ended up working them into one chapter, then another, and another. I changed Sanity’s name to Sandy. Her son’s called Joshua. Now that the two of them were co-stars in the story, we considered using this arrangement for the cover:

I’m very happy with this version (even though it features characters who don’t play a central role). I call it the “Ms. Sane” cover. Knowing we had already a great cover to fall back on, we decided to be more daring with our ideas. Here are just some of our rejected sketches (the amatuer pencil drawings are mine, the rest Jordan rendered in charcoal):

None of those felt right. So we started considering a still life. We eventually came up with a highly allegorical cover. Both Jordan and I loved the sketch, and the symbolism. Our “focus group,” however, all thought we were crazy. Some even thought the new composition downright scary:

Trust me, it makes perfect sense, once you read the book…

Next, Jordan came up with an idea that would certainly get attention. I wasn’t too sure it would suit the novel; but he wanted to give it a shot, letting me know I didn’t have to use it. So he ordered some props, set up an easel and started squirting paint onto his palette. Here’s a mock-up using the finished painting — I call it the “Dr. Sanitized” cover:

Nothing more sanitary than bleaching to the bone. We can safely say a skull does not have COVID. Safe at last!

First off, it’s brilliantly rendered. The style works so well for a novel cover. The elements weld together frighteningly. The mask does not cover Dr. Sanitized’s lower face, it literally gags him. Just look at the way it loops bone, instead of an ear. Chilling. The cuffed wrists and hands are on the thin side, suggesting an emaciated, half-starved prisoner. Even the red used in the mask, reflected below, has a blood-letting feel to it. While the contrast between the foreground and the blue brush strokes in the background, softens the overall image just enough.

But, I’m afraid, it’s just too horrific for this novel. That was my instant reaction, and it’s not going away. The cover almost screams “horror novel” which, of course, is not what Much Ado About Corona is. At worst it’s a soft dystopian — a real mixed genre, crossing a “love story” with an “institutional escape” story with a sci-fi edge and the hero’s journey. And, oddly, a fair bit of humour and a little bit of ice skating (yes, it’s set in Canada). Plus, some German opera (Schubert, anyone?) and some arrogant Canadian folk music (did I mention it’s set in Canada?).

Some might even say the story falls into the thriller category, but that’s not my aim, and I’d argue it only borders on a Dan Brown style novel. But it’s certainly not Stephen King or Thomas Harris.

I showed the scary cover to my son, Jonah, and here was his reaction…

…okay, yes, I know, Jonah’s blind (though, I often forget). He’s also a professional stage actor (or, at least, was, before COVID-19). So he may be outright acting (per the direction of his father). Actually, truth be told, he thought a masked skull sounded pretty cool (like most thirteen-year-old boys would).

Instead, I sent all three covers — Dr. Strange, Ms. Sane and Dr. Sanitized — to fifteen (sighted) people — giving them an A, B, and C choice:

Fourteen out of fifteen voted C. Only Pete, a homeschooling dad, voted for the skull cover:

Although it is dark, I personally like A a lot and think it will generate interest on Amazon. I dig the Hamlet reference, the red-masked skull, the cuffed hands — which jives very well with the Shakespeare reference of the title. I also think it successfully represents the spiritual-existential nature of the crisis we find ourselves in. It is a unique and apropo take on an archetypal image….

Pete might be right; but such horror lovers will be sorely disappointed with the witty first chapter. The Hamlet fans might, however, be satisfied. Fortunately, Jordan took it quite well, sending an email saying:

No worries whatsoever. Part of the reason I was so intent on the piece I just created is because I loved the idea and decided I would create it no matter what, as you say it is a stand alone piece so if not used as the cover, it’s not like I am out anything at all.

So we decided to go back to the (literal) drawing board and brainstorm new ideas. We almost gave up, but finally came up with an concept that we both feel is what we’ve been struggling for (art is a slave driver, let me tell you) . Jordan, in his Washington State studio, has begun painting the new cover. It feels and looks much like the style of Sanity, Her Son, but more specific to the characters and plot of the novel. I’ll share more about this artistic journey in a future novel update (when the painting is ready).

As for the skull painting, which Jordan has named Safe and Sanitized, he’ll be releasing it tomorrow. Tomorrow, in case you’ve forgotten, is COVID-19’s first birthday. The WHO made the term official on February 11, 2020 — making COVID-19 the horrific new acronym for the cold and flu season. How appropriate, therefore, to release a horrific new painting for its one year anniversary.

Tomorrow, to herald its release, I’ll be publishing an interview with Jordan Henderson, explaining the symbolism in this, his latest (and most shocking) coronavirus painting — subscribe to be notified.

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