For fans of ’70s and ’80s horror novels, the book cover provided a look into the story itself. The bold and creepy artwork that plagued the front of horror books reflected the twisted stories inside. As the publishing industry left fully-painted book covers behind in favor of graphic art styles, these paperbacks from hell have gotten a makeover, and in some ways, not for the better.
Art is subjective, and all forms and styles deserve to be appreciated based on their own merits. With that important point being said, there is a level of creativity behind book covers that seems to have been lost recently, especially within the horror genre. Let’s take a look at the history of horror book covers and how they’ve changed over time.
Book covers during the ’70s and ’80s left little doubt as to the horror of the stories inside. They reflected the eerie, grotesque, and oftentimes perverse themes they incorporated. Additionally, the font used for the titles of books were varied and fit with the overall aesthetic to create a cohesive image. Previously, book covers were largely illustrations. This era of paperbacks from hell ushered in graphic images and bold, prominent text. These covers were proudly and unquestionably horror, and just as unnerving to look at as the stories were to read.
Book covers from this time were so impactful that they became representative of a certain period in American culture. These pulp fiction covers displayed exactly what the books were about, even if the stories were campy and ridiculous. Consequently it drew in a large readership. Additionally, there was a level of creativity that went into designing these horror book covers in order to make them distinct and stand out among other horror books.
As a kid, reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, Tales From the Crypt, and Creepshow were what got me into horror. The gory, campy covers were always what determined which book I would pick up next. Often they were so grotesque that it felt wrong just to hold the book in my hands, let alone actually read it.
The cover would always tell you what you needed to know about the story. Cover art for horror novels in the ’90s, for the most part, still retained the eerie, artistic horror style and bold font of the ’80s. However, as the 2000s rolled around, book covers started to take on a less horror and more aesthetically pleasing manner.
As with World War Z above, published in 2006, these paperbacks from hell began to adopt a more simplistic style. While the covers weren’t devoid of horror entirely, they clearly began to deviate from their ’70s and ’80s era counterparts. Additionally, the 2000’s saw an increase in film tie-in covers. These are book covers that have been rebranded to tie-in their film adaptations, often including a change in cover art to a poster of the film. Despite this being responsible for an increase in book sales (as films have a much greater social reach than books), film tie-in book covers are typically unpopular.
The style of horror book covers in recent years appear to prioritize aesthetic over functionality. To look at current horror book covers, such as the ones above, there’s little to actually indicate they’re horror novels. For a reader just picking up the book without knowing anything about it, the covers give little information about the stories themselves. If you asked them to guess what genre these books fall in to, a mere few would guess correctly and some, if not most, would not.
What’s more, these book covers haven’t just lost elements of horror, they look like every other book on the shelf. In the ’70s and ’80s, the goal of the book cover was to make the novel look as distinct as possible. Often it was the cover that drew people in and made them want to read the book. Now it seems the publishing industry prioritizes covers that sell, covers that have worked well for other novels, over originality and functionality. This means putting covers on the books that don’t necessarily relate to their stories.
Above are three examples of book covers of novels that aren’t horror. If we compare it to the one about that, you can notice the extreme similarities. The trend of horror covers leads me to ask: Has the obsession with minimalist and realist art styles killed all creativity in designing a book cover? Has the publishing industry’s obsession with making money smothered the art and functionality of book covers? While these are only three examples, it seems modern book covers all seem to fit into only a handful of the same, derivative style.
I’ll note here that I don’t begrudge anybody who prefers the more modern style of book covers over the older. Truthfully I think they are nice to look at. However, I will argue that in horror, “beauty” isn’t always effective.
Redesigned book covers
Stephen King’s novels are an excellent example of books that have been redesigned over the years. Above on the left is the original 1983 cover for Pet Sematary. On the right is the current cover for the novel. While the current cover, at the very least, looks like a horror novel and gives the reader some semblance of what the story is about, compared to the original, it looks tacky and cheaply made. In comparison, the color gradient and placement of the title in the original version create a stunning and cohesive image.
Another example of King’s work being rebranded is It. On the left, the original 1986 cover fits into the traditional style of ’80s horror book covers. The creepy yellow eyes staring out of a storm drain with a red balloon reveal a lot about the story while already doing the work of terrifying the reader. Unlike the original, the current, minimalist cover of the novel looks, frankly, lazy.
While the original cover is an actual scene from the story, (the moment the reader is introduced to Pennywise the Clown), the current cover only tells the reader that the story is about a clown, probably. Both covers are so different, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that it’s from the same story.
The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here. Whether you’re a fan of modern horror book covers or not, it’s undeniable that they don’t always represent the stories well. Most of these stories with less-than-stellar cover designs are phenomenal reads. Many of them are bestsellers, and for a reason. What they do is demonstrate the evolution (or, for some, devolution) of book cover designs.
Personal style preferences will vary, as art is, as previously stated, subjective. Many will find modern book covers to be appealing to look at, while others will prefer the impact of older designs. Now that we’ve taken a trip through horror book history, which do you prefer? Do you agree that older horror book covers are better? Or do you prefer the more modern looks? For more on horror books, read our article here!