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Joyce Carol Oates and the accursed tale of two dust jackets

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Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s hard not to judge a cover by its design.

This week, “The Accursed,” the giant new gothic novel by Joyce Carol Oates, provides a surprising study in national tastes and publishers’ methods.

In the United State, the dust jacket for “The Accursed” sports a sensual image of a young woman’s neck. On gorgeous pearlescent paper, we see a tightly cropped selection from “Profile of a Young Woman” (1899), by the Italian portrait painter Giovanni Boldini. The design suggests the story’s lush, romantic themes, with a subtle nod to its vampires.

Allison Saltzman, senior art director at Ecco in New York, aimed to set “The Accursed” apart from Oates’s contemporary fiction and evoke the 1905 era. “I also wanted to convey the book’s hothouse atmosphere of women succumbing to rumor and hysteria, temptation and eroticism,” she said via email. For Saltzman, Boldini’s painting evoked “the swooning vulnerability” of the characters. “I also liked its ambiguity: Is she swooning in agony or in ecstasy?”

Daniel Halpern, Oates’s editor at Ecco, a division of HarperCollins, said via email, “It’s quietly sexy, color-wise wan but rich, with a certain yearning in the woman’s posture. We wanted to avoid all the ways you could go wrong trying to be overly literal or graphic.”

Which brings us to the dust jacket in England. . . .  There the publisher has taken a decidedly more fanged approach with “The Accursed”: Blood drips from the bright red lips of a snow-pale face against a white background.

Reaction has not been kind in some circles. A bookseller in Chicago told me yesterday, it “looks like Twilight fanfic.”

Clare Reihill, Oates’s UK editor at Fourth Estate, also a division of HarperCollins, found the novel terrifying. “I was scared, genuinely quite scared by the evil personified in the book,” she said via email from London. “I wanted to communicate that evil and terror that lay within waiting for its reader.”

Working with Oates, she and her team tried several different approaches. “We had a wonderful image of a burnished bronze serpent slithering across a jet black background,” she said. But they were concerned that it looked “too reminiscent of a Harry Potter jacket and perhaps too YA genre horror.”

Surprisingly, the inspiration for the final U.K. cover came from the U.S. publisher. “It was Harper U.S. who originally thought of using the snatched bride with a vampirical-style trickle of blood on her pale face,” Reihill said. “I loved it and would have liked to have gone further, adding a strap line across the jacket that read: ‘The Best Vampire Novel Since Dracula.'”

Back in the U.S., Saltzman considered demons and haunted houses. “But that seemed to reduce the novel to a joke,” she said. An early draft of the U.K. cover with a serpent made her wonder if she should position the novel for vampire fans. “I found a photo of a woman with blood dripping from her mouth, and for maybe a week, that was our cover. But a large account advised us that vampire books were, in fact, no longer selling well, so we ended our dalliance and went back to our beautiful painting.”

For her part, Oates says that she likes both dust jackets, though she had concerns about the British version. “I think that, initially, I’d been worried that the U.K. cover would seem too lewd, or too ‘horror’-genre,” she wrote via email. “But I think it’s very striking and in its way quite beautiful. The U.S. jacket could be representative of a more traditional romance novel, though with a slight twist.”

“Dust jackets are always something of an enigma to me,” she says. “One can only imagine what the paperback cover might be….!”

Peter Mendelsund, the art director at Pantheon who had nothing to do with either cover, provided some quick independent analysis. He suggests that the contrast between these two dust jackets comes down to different marketing plans more than different national cultures. “We jacket designers are charged both with selling the book and representing it,” he said from his office in New York. “Sometimes, those mandates work at cross purposes.”

“Clearly, the Brits are trying to play up the gothic horror angle,” Mendelsund said. The U.K. jacket “could be for any one of the 1 billion vampire books currently available both here and abroad. The U.S. went the classier route . . . more straight-up literary historical. The Brits, I believe, get more of these jackets in general, so period-piece weariness might also play a role in the Brits’ choice of a more ‘mass market’ approach.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, “Downton Abby” is still heavily influencing everything. “We do a brisk business in frilly dresses and manor houses over here,” Mendelsund notes.

So there you have it: the story of a dust jacket, a tale almost as strange and serpentine as “The Accursed” itself.

On Twitter @RonCharles