Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
The covers of Gothic romance pulp fiction novels tip us off to the nature of the genre's fiction. Often monochromatic, perhaps to set the mood, which can be described as “brooding,” the paintings that grace the covers of such fare tend to feature a woman alone, either framed by the window of an isolated mansion, or fleeing from an unseen threat, often through rugged terrain, frequently with a manor house or castle in the background and a threatening sky above.
Whether indoors or out, the mood of menace is heightened by eerie statues, such as gargoyles or satyrs, strange obelisks, cemetery headstones, stunted or malformed trees, black cats and bats, and skies that look somehow as jagged as a predatory animal's teeth.
Occasionally, her flight takes her through an isolated cemetery. A full moon might hang in a cloudy sky.
As often as not, the damsel in distress is barefoot, suggesting she took to her heels in a hurry. Full, heavy dresses are likely to encumber her, forcing her to hike her skirts. Almost invariably, she looks over her shoulder, as if in search of a stalker. Fog or Spanish moss hanging from the boughs of a remote estate may lend an air of mystery and menace. One wonders what terror launched her sudden flight.
On the relatively rare occasions that the distressed damsel is shown indoors, she is usually confined by a window frame, a dimly lit staircase, or a shadowy hallway, which she negotiates carefully, perhaps with a flickering candle in hand, looking, all the while, for some lurking menace.
Her adversary is seldom shown, and, when the pursuer or pursuers are included in the painting, they are at a distance, indistinct: a lone figure, small in the distance, silhouetted in a the arched entrance to a castle above and behind the heroine or a small band of nameless, faceless pursuers.
Several covers mention “love” of a problematic or dangerous sort: “The lure of love led her through a jungle of horror to a house of blood” (Candace Arkham's Ancient Evil); “She came to Ravensnest to save a life—and found her own threatened as she sought love in a house shadowed by death” (Caroline Farr's Mansion of Evil); “At Whitehall Mansion, Susan's fairy tale romance became a honeymoon of horror” (Elisabeth Offutt Allen's The Hounds of the Moon).
Occasionally, a cover offers a bit of text to characterize the heroine, suggest her plight, and hint at the story's plot: “Innocent and alone, she found herself fighting the forces of Middle Age witchcraft,” reads a blurb on the front cover of Wilma Winthrop's Tryst with Terror. Paulette Warren's Some Beckoning Wraith asks, “Could love and common sense overcome the vengeful spirit that haunted Malvern Manor?” In Lady in Darkness, Evelyn Bond spins a tale in which her heroine's “memory gone, Ellen” cannot tell whether “Whit was her husband—or her jailer.”
Perhaps readers needed to know at least this much about the books they considered buying, but, for me (and perhaps for you), the artwork, which tends to be almost without exception more than simply sufficient and is often splendid, is far more mysterious and intriguing than the bald summaries such text sets forth and needs no explanation or elaboration. In any case, the covers invariably indicate and, indeed, highlight the conventional elements of the Gothic romance genre.