Saturday, April 26, 2014

With Just a Touch of Her Burning Hand: The Cover Art of Rowena Morrill

With her very first paperback cover illustration - for Isobel (below, Jove Books, 1977) - artist Rowena Morrill showed an innate talent for depicting the lurid, the fantastical, the unimaginable, with bold eye-catching color and strikingly detailed monsters, heroines, wizards, and other genre-specific characters. Morrill rose to prominence throughout the late 1970s and onward, one of the few female artists to contribute greatly to the SF&F/horror paperback boom. Her cover art is unmistakably of its time, original and painstaking work readers don't often see today - which makes it so wondrously special and worth celebrating.

At top is Burning (Jove, May 1978), and it is easily one of my top 10 paperback horror covers: I love the blood-red title, the terrified women screaming, the house ablaze, all within a half-cube. And add that tagline - "A love that defied the grave"! Man I can't resist. Maybe one day I'll read it!

These two collections of Lovecraft, both Jove 1978, were some of her earliest work, and I must say that besides the famous Michael Whelan covers for Ballantine/Del Rey a few years later, they're simply the best HPL paperback covers. The orange and blue text, sure, but the bizarre creatures could only be painted by an artist who actually read the stories. Same goes for that Frank Belknap Long collection, as it depicts the title tale in all its muck and madness.

It wasn't till just the other day that I came across this Charles L. Grant title, Night Songs (Pocket, June 1984), and it got me started really looking for Morrill covers I hadn't seen before. Haven't read it but I'm gonna assume there's a mermaid involved....

Most of Morrill's covers were for the science fiction and fantasy genres, but we know how that line can blur. Below are just a few examples of her Timescape covers, a 1980s imprint of Pocket Books. Have you read George R.R. Martin's 1979 novella "Sandkings"? Holy shit, it truly is one of the great horror/SF tales of the '80s! The cover is perfect. And of course we all love our Clark Ashton Smith paperbacks, even though personally I have no time for reading about wizards or muscular shirtless heroes.

Perhaps Morrill's most iconic horror paintings were done for Pocket's Robert R. McCammon line. I can't imagine '80s horror without this imagery and vanishing point perspective. Swan Song (June 1987) is a staple of the era, and They Thirst (Oct 1988) is a particular fave cover of mine, Hollywood vampires oh yeah!
Another stunner is this motley crew of bloodthirsty night creatures, folks whose faces we all recognize. Wish I'd seen this when I was a kid, it's from '78 also and I would've killed for it. I was crazy for monsters in castles back then, just crazy.

And then there's The Haunt (Popular Library, April 1990), another book I'd never heard of till researching Morrill's covers. She loves her bats!

So much thanks to you, Ms. Morrill, for some of my favorite horror paperback covers ever.

The artist herself, c. 1970s one presumes


  1. Ashton Smith really isn't about "wizards or muscular shirtless heroes". Okay, there are wizards :-) but not in your typical fantasy vein. When he was good, he was very good.

    Did you ever read "They Thirst"? Great novel.

  2. Oh, I've read plenty of CAS! I meant more in general, those kinds of covers & books don't do anything for me.

    I haven't read THEY THIRST; I'm cool on McCammon since I've never really enjoyed what I have read of him. I reviewed his short story collection BLUE WORLD a couple years ago....

  3. Great covers! I know I had the Night Songs book at one point, no doubt purchased because of the cover. And I think everyone had Swan Song and They Thirst. I didn't know a thing about the artist though. Thanks for posting.

  4. I only discovered her paperback covers last year. I have that edition of HOUNDS OF TINDALOS. Love it!

    Rowena is alive and well and making lots of art and selling it, too. Though it seems like she's given up bats for dragons.

  5. Yeah, I remember hearing that when Baghdad fell in '03, they found some original paintings in one of Saddam's safe houses.

  6. Lovely assortment of Morrill covers. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the Wilbur Whateley skeleton yo-yo cover was the first HPL collection I purchased, when the paperback was brand new in the stores. Some of the others I've seen or have, some were new to me.

  7. Hey Will,
    I have the original preliminary sketch of They Thirst. I had e-mailed you a while ago, so I could sent it to to you. It is yours for the asking, if you want it for your collection. Thanks for a great bolg.