When I re-published my novel Dead Secret on Kindle I had to say goodbye to a cover design that I loved – and one with an interesting story attached.
The original illustration was by Mervyn Peake, author of Gormenghast and Titus Groan. As well as being a talented writer with a highly original imagination, Peake was also an award-winning illustrator of books. In 1943, at the top of his game, he was commissioned by Chatto and Windus to illustrate an edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The drawings he produced for this book are some of the finest ever printed and are among his best known works. All except one, that is. For among the various characters in Coleridge’s famous poem – along with the Mariner, the cursed ship’s crew and even Death himself, Peake found a character named Life-in-Death. This figure literally ‘dices with death’ – that is, she plays a game a chance with Death the stakes for which is the life of the Ancient Mariner himself. (hence the origin of the phrase).
Peake imagined Life-in-Death as the skeletal female shown here. When he showed it to Chatto and Windows, they rejected it at once as being too horrifying to publish. It thus remained unpublished for more than 50 years. The moment I saw the drawing I wanted it for my cover illustration but never dreamed that I might secure it. In fact I was able to get permission to use it from the Mervyn Peake Society in Switzerland.
Opinion was always divided over this cover when my novel was published and I must confess that the majority of my friends and family hated it. Personally I loved it and still do. Sadly though, when reduced to the small postage stamp size demanded of Kindle books, every bit of fine detail is lost and only a fuzzy blur remains. So internet technology has finished off what the directors of Chatto and Windus started. However, I remain proud that I was the first person to publish this remarkable image in book form, even if it was only for a few years.