Yet another digression before we even get to our technical main topic! This time it’s the “Hornblower Saga” mass market paperback 1970s reprint run of all the classic Horatio Hornblower adventures by C. S. Forester, each with a gorgeous new cover by an uncredited artist.
The Hornblower books have of course been reprinted many, many times, in many formats, in every language in the world. I myself have owned probably half a dozen complete sets over the decades, and I’ve read and re-read many a mass market paperback until it collapsed into pulpy dust in my hands. But these old Pinnacle paperbacks have always been my favorite design.
For two reasons, mainly (in addition to simple good timing, that is – they came to me at a time in my life that was perfect for enjoying the slightly stodgy grandeur that’s at the heart of Forester’s writing), and, fittingly enough for our Art of the Mass Market feature, both revolve around the covers.
First, we don’t see Horatio Hornblower himself. Virtually all of the other edition covers I’ve seen show us our heroic Napoleonic-era seaman shouting or waving a sword or battling the elements. We see his different uniforms at all the stages of his career – stages often reflected in the titles of the books: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, Commodore Hornblower, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, Lord Hornblower. And he’s always depicted predictably: athletic, square-jawed, blandly good-looking. In a way, this approach to book covers for the series is totally understandable – after all, the series entirely pivots on the exploits of this one man. But I’ve never been a big fan of book covers telling me what fictional characters look like, and I’ve always disliked having Forester’s meticulously atmospheric novels reduced to discreet moments of action. These books are at least as much about the British Navy as they are about its most famous fictional officer, and these great Pinnacle covers give us ships instead of men – ships at war, ships in storms, ships bathed in tropical sunset or locked in Russian ice. It’s somehow always struck me as more fitting.
And second, we get the world of Hornblower without any carnival-barking. The design for the series on each cover reads “The Greatest Naval Adventures of All Time!” – but there’s nothing else. No blurbs from any of Hornblower’s flotilla of literary admirers over the years, no canned plot summaries, and most amazingly of all, no back-cover copy whatsoever. In an incredibly rare decision for paperback book marketing, the editors of this series decided to let those beautiful wraparound cover illustrations speak entirely for themselves.
I’ve always found the result spellbinding. The orange sunlight of Hornblower and the Hotspur just continues on the back cover, where we see other ships in the squadron. The cold silver light of Commodore Hornblower‘s frozen Russian harbor wraps around to more ice and snow on the back. And in my favorite cover in the series, Ship of the Line‘s storm at sea is rendered all the more ominous under a low black cloud on the back cover, with one lonely ship in the distance.
Covers like these don’t natter at you. They present you with dramatic images and then let you spin your own stories around them. I think that’s why they’re the only Hornblower covers that haven’t grown stale for me over the years. Of course, stale or fresh makes little difference when we’re talking about paperbacks from fifty years ago – much as I love these old mass markets, they’re hardly usable anymore as books. Just recently I re-read this set’s copy of Beat to Quarters and it very nearly disintegrated in my hands. Probably it’s time to retire the whole line from active duty, as it were – in which case this appreciation of their covers can serve as a final salute.
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